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"Fresh Off the Boat": Smart or A Soy Sorry Joke?

02/02/2015 12:03 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2015

At the end of the day I often unwind by climbing in bed to watch a missed TV show on my iPad. Recently I was dozing off when I came across the trailer for a new ABC show set to debut on February 10, 2015. And it woke me up.

Fresh Off the Boat is a half-hour sitcom that continues the network's seemingly grand plan to redefine family life 2.0. Shows like Modern Family convinced us that a family takes many forms. More recently, Black-ish brings us an update on what some of today's African American family may look like.

America is long overdue for a series featuring Asian characters and this new show will only succeed if viewers recognize that Eddie Huang's true story of growing up already happened. Today, the cultural divide is real but the show's stereotypical jokes seem dated, or should be. In many parts of the United States, the racial divide remains the reality. And in that case, only those people are going to laughing.

The show is based on Eddie Huang's 2013 memoir of the same name and his own show on Vice.com that is now cancelled. The title worked when Huang (pronounced "Wong") narrated his own story about the trials and tribulations he experienced growing up Asian with immigrant Taiwanese parents in white America. But for decades, FOB (the acronym for "fresh off the boat") has been a derogatory term for Asians who arrive in the U.S. -uninitiated, unpopular, and ultimately, unwanted.

Generally the term, "fresh off the boat" refers to the immigrant experience from Asia: your parents speak broken English if at all, you don't have any non-Asian friends, and you embody the essence of nerdy ... studious, quiet ... and for FOB guys, minimal testosterone. The real Huang is anything but.

As a Chinese-American, I want this show to succeed but even if I weren't offended, I don't find it funny. And I wonder if the rest of America will.

In one scene, the main character, Eddie, shows up at the school cafeteria with a container of chow mein (for the uninitiated, that's pronounced "men" not "main") noodles and the white boys at the table scream, "Eew ... worms!" after which Eddie tells his parents, "I need white people lunch." It's ok to recognize the different foods of various cultures but does it have to do so by dissing a bowl of noodles? Can't the writers make food jokes that are not at the expense of a popular Asian staple? Why not a pig joke about a ham sandwich? Pork is a staple of Chinese cuisine too but is also ubiquitous in other cultures.

In another scene, Eddie's teacher can't pronounce his Chinese name so the affable main character replies, "Just call me Eddie." - but not before the so-called joke is made.

Huang is definitely irreverent and that's what creates the edge and makes his story so interesting. On using the derogatory term, "chink" in the show, Huang told TIME,
"I never, never once thought about not using the word, because that was the word that was said to me. And there's no other word that will get the reaction that that word got out of me."

The problem is that many people who aren't Asian don't even realize that "chink" is the equivalent of the "n-word." Maybe in 2015, Chinese-Americans and this show will flip it around and "chink" will become like the "n-word" -still hurtful to many but sometimes used by Black people themselves these days. Perhaps capitalizing on phrases and portrayals of prejudice is how we come to own them.

ABC's writers, at least in the show's trailers, continue to perpetuate Asian stereotypes even if these situations really did happen in Huang's past. The Huang's curl their hair to display "a look of success," i.e. the standard of acceptance is to be white. It's supposed to be funny but would it be funny if a Caucasian person wore an Afro hairstyle to indicate he's a good dancer? Isn't that why "black face" depictions are disturbing? Would you call a new show about Hispanic immigrants, "Wetback"?

Another scene strengthens the stereotype that Asians are consumed with money when the Huang's threaten to sue the school then immediately offers the principal a coupon to come to their restaurant. Again, this is funny?

Actor Randall Park who plays Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in the controversial film, "The Interview," plays a loving but somewhat ridiculous and father figure in Fresh Off the Boat. Eddie Huang's description of the character as "neutered" is dead on. In an interview Park says, "To my surprise, almost to my disbelief, the network and the studio are very conscious of not offending [Asian-Americans] and not going there, to those easy places that they often go to, especially for this project."

Eddie's mother played by American actress Constance Wu must fake a Chinese accent throughout the show. It hurt my ears even more when I heard Wu speaking in her normal, unbroken, smooth-as-silk English during a TV interview.

Norman Lear's Good Times, the 1970's comedy series about a black family living in a Chicago housing project was taped in front of a live audience and had its actors speak with stereotypical "double negatives" on occasion. Did African Americans laugh? The family in Fresh Off the Boat is a group of caricatures that ignores the majority of Asian-American families who defy those stereotypes and act as "American" as those of European descent.

When I was growing up, Asians on the big and little screens had two roles. Asian men were either villains or house servants. Asian women were either exotic innocents or house servants. I remember writing to producer Darren Star when he debuted, Melrose Place, a TV drama about the love lives of a young, beautiful group of friends in Los Angeles. I wanted to know why there were no Asian tenants at the popular apartment complex even though so many Asians live in L.A. I never received an answer.

In the new show, little Eddie played by Hudson Yang states, "My American dream is to fit in."

The real Eddie Huang grew up and succeeded by taking his own path. That's the point and that's where I hope Fresh Off the Boat will chart its course. Huang's evolution from a boy seeking his identity to a successful restaurateur and pop culture foodie celebrity who dresses like a rap artist comprises the tale of a new kind of American dream.

In an interview with Amazon, Huang described his book, "It's about the complexity of being an individual--about finding love in family, in friends, in food, in music and culture, and a million other surprising places, and figuring out how to bring all that together inside of you. It's about learning to be fearless, but it's also about the cost of those lessons and the literal and psychic violence you encounter when you try to break free."

According to IMDB, there are no Chinese people, American or otherwise, on the series' first episode's directing or writing team. It shows. In a recent interview in Vulture, Eddie Huang said he isn't completely happy with the show's direction but his observation nails it:

"This show isn't about me, nor is it about Asian America. The network won't take that gamble right now. You can't flash an ad during THE GAME with some chubby Chinese kid running across the screen talking shit about spaceships and Uncle Chans in 2014 because America has no reference. The only way they could even mention some of the stories in the book was by building a Trojan horse and feeding the pathogenic stereotypes that still define us to a lot of American cyclope. Randall was neutered, Constance was exoticized, and Young Eddie was urbanized so that the viewers got their mise-en-place. People watching these channels have never seen us, and the network's approach to pacifying them is to say we're all the same. Sell them pasteurized network television with East Asian faces until they wake up intolerant of their own lactose, and hit 'em with the soy. Baking soya, I got baking soya!"

Fresh Off the Boat could be funny if you can step back and laugh at the stereotypes, how ridiculous they are, and how the real Eddie Huang's childhood reflects the ignorance that is prejudice ... but I fear too many viewers will take the jokes at face value.

FOX's new show, Empire, chronicles a family feuding in the hip-hop world. Terrence Howard plays Lucious Lyon, the patriarch of the clan, and the music alone makes the show worth checking out. But the other day, an African American twenty something working at Costco was talking to his coworker and said, "Man, I watched that new show Empire, and as soon as I heard the main character (played by Tarjai P. Henson) was named 'Cookie' I knew I couldn't watch it."

The cultural divide between Huang's family and the new world he tries to negotiate
may have been real for the real Eddie Huang but in 2015, the timing is all wrong.
When I was a kid, Asians were either FOB (fresh off the boat) or ABC (American-born Chinese). Being ABC was cool. Today, we must also recognize the ordinary and extraordinary accomplishments of new immigrants.

NYPD Officer Wenjian Liu, born in China and killed Dec. 20 in a retaliatory response to police brutality in the U.S. is the kind of immigrant story that needs telling. Liu told a local Brooklyn merchant, as reported in the New York Times, "I know that being a cop is dangerous but I must do it ... If I don't do it and you don't do it, then who is going to do it?"

Some may argue that I'm being too serious and advise me to "lighten up" but in an age when there is a national dialogue about diversity and equality in America, shedding light through comedy must be smart, not superficial.

My husband who is Caucasian says the show is about bringing an Asian American family into America's living rooms in hopes that America will come to love this family. From his perspective, he disliked Honey Boo Boo because he thought the reality show portrayed and perpetuated how much of the rest of the world views Americans -negatively. He would like to see a sitcom about a Muslim family with roots in the Middle East.

The show's producers are betting enough viewers will laugh and keep tuning in to Fresh Off the Boat. In the end, mass media should celebrate our differences. Eddie Huang sums it up best:

"Network television never offered the epic tale highlighting Asian America's coming of age; they offered to put orange chicken on TV for 22 minutes a week instead of Salisbury steak ... and I'll eat it; I'll even thank them, because if you're high enough, orange chicken ain't so bad."