THE BLOG

Fresh Off the Boat: What Do We Want Out of an Asian American TV Show?

02/10/2015 05:45 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015
Michael Ansell via Getty Images

Fresh Off the Boat, the landmark show that has finally put Asian Americans on network television, arrived into the blogosphere with fanfare -- as if it were the coming of a Messiah. And just about everybody in Asian America has been texting and tweeting, commenting and rejoicing.

It is indeed a watershed event. Asian Americans -- especially Asian American males -- are conspicuously absent from popular culture, except as the butt of racist jokes. Not since Margaret Cho's much-ballyhooed, and much-boo-hooed, television show two decades ago (one lost to popular memory because it basically fizzled) has there arisen, like the phoenix, a vehicle that allows Asian American characters to shine -- shine not simply as freak sideshow acts but, also, as central figures in the Barnum & Bailey Circus that is the American mainstream.

I totally get the buzz. I recognize some of the incredible potential of the show. In my freshman year of college, I was routinely called "Long Duk Dong" by the white guys on my dorm floor. They thought it was funny, especially when they were liquored up. This got old fast.

Eddie Huang's show, which features a hip-hop-loving misfit who is nobody's patsy is a welcome backfire against the towering inferno which is mainstream America's racialism.

For the most part, Eddie Huang's show has been hailed by Asian American boosters as a smashing success. White guys who wear track suits stand behind it. Asian guys who aspire to a certain kind of edginess dig its groovy hip hop stylings and in-your-face-stick-it-to-the-man street vernacular.

But I actually found it a depressing show.

Why? Because the first two episodes of the show recalled so many aspects of my childhood -- things that I would rather forget, things that my parents did to me that I would rather leave buried in the past. Let me list some of the things that almost every Asian American probably saw when the show's mirror was held up to their face:

Yes, I had a crazy overbearing mother.

Yes, my mom expected me to get straight A's.

Yes, I did engage in acts of forgery on my report card to make sure she didn't beat me senseless when I didn't get straight A's.

Yes, I grew up in a wealthy neighborhood filled with white people with whom I never fit in.

Yes, I came from a merchant class family that lived high on the hog when the going was good, and worried ceaselessly when the money wasn't coming in.

Yes, I was embarrassed by my mom's packed lunches (so much so that one semester I tossed my lovingly packed lunches in the trash can and volunteered to work in the school cafeteria so I could get that holy grail -- a real school lunch with all the real fake stuff that real Americans enjoy).

I see all the ways the television show tries to mirror my experience, and I can certainly enjoy it. But call me an ingrate: I already know this stuff. I'd actually rather forget this stuff. I often tell these stories when I'm out with friends. It's light talk at a cocktail party and the telling of it -- the telling of it by me -- works to suggest exactly how far I've come.

But seeing it on television actually makes me depressed. And it makes me depressed in a special way. I wonder if this special way -- this special depression -- has something to do with the very medium of television, as opposed to books or blogs... because, you see, I've read Eddie Huang's blogs and his memoir and, even though they tread through the same material, those don't depress me at all. In fact, they're a riot-and-a-half and I can't wait until Eddie Huang puts out another book.

But it makes me wonder. It makes me wonder over two questions about the work of television -- the work that Fresh Off the Boat's producers must do if the show is going to work. The first one is simple: Are we putting out these stories to affirm ourselves, Asian Americans, who already know these stories all-too-well and who are, ourselves, masters at telling this story? Or are we telling these stories for other people?

The second question is actually more important: If television is an escapist form of entertainment, why are we telling stories that don't allow us to escape the reality that is always with us -- the reality that holds us in the box of its grip -- and hems us in? Why are we telling stories we already know all too well but would rather escape? These are the questions that we will have to answer if we want to continue producing shows for a popular market long after Fresh Off the Boat is off the air.