'Fresh Off The Boat' Makes Timely Statement On Asian-American Identity. Here's Why It Matters In 2016.

"We are like Patrick Swayze in 'Ghost' -- stuck between two worlds, part of both, belonging to neither."
10/17/2016 01:28 am ET Updated Oct 17, 2016

Over the duration of its two seasons, ABC’s family comedy, “Fresh Off The Boat” ― the first television show about an Asian-American family in over 20 years ― has continually asked complicated questions about the Asian-American experience in a country that prefers cultural assimilation over true integration and celebration. From Eddie Huang, the oldest son of the family, being called a “chink” by a classmate in the pilot episode, to Eddie’s mother, Jessica Huang openly wondering if their assimilation into American society has diluted her family’s Taiwanese heritage, the show acutely reflects contemporary anxieties that Asian-Americans grapple with today.

As television critic Dan Caffrey pointed out last week, “Fresh Off The Boat” asks viewers, “is [assimilation] something to be resisted or desired? Or is it a little bit of both? ... what does it mean to be Chinese? What does it mean to be American?”

Last Tuesday’s season premiere of “Fresh Off The Boat” seemed less concerned with questions and more interested in making statements about Asian-American identity ― statements that were amplified and made powerful given the context of Jesse Watters’ racist Chinatown segment that aired earlier this month on the “O’Reilly Factor.” In the premiere, the Huang family travels to their native Taiwan for a family wedding. Once they arrive, they’re shocked to discover that they, as Americans, feel just as out of place in Taiwan as they do in the United States.

Jessica Huang, who throughout the series expresses how much she misses Taiwan, confesses to her husband Louis at the end of their trip that she’s “homesick for Orlando.” She reflects, “Well, maybe we’ll never feel completely at home in either place.” Louis has a revelation, “We are like Patrick Swayze in ‘Ghost’ ― stuck between two worlds, part of both, belonging to neither.” Jessica nods and whispers, “Damn it. It is the best movie ever.”

It was one of the very few times where I saw my dilemmas as an Asian-American not only reflected, but normalized on mainstream television.

While “Fresh Off The Boat” has never been perfect in depicting complex Asian-American experiences, this quiet, fleeting exchange was made radical by the assertion of two characters who, for most of the series, seemed obsessed with being liked by their white neighbors and assimilating. Louis and Jessica, in that moment, weren’t asking questions about what it means to be both Asian and American in the United States. They knew what they were: proudly American and proudly Taiwanese. They weren’t asking others to validate their identities or assert themselves as wholly Asian or wholly American. They were speaking in statements, quietly, definitely and defiantly affirming and accepting for themselves an Asian-American existence that wasn’t the butt of someone else’s joke, but complex, nuanced, conflicted and real.

They belonged to both worlds, and to neither — and that feeling in of itself wasn’t a bad thing, but a matter of fact. It was one of the very few times where I saw my dilemmas as an Asian-American not only reflected, but normalized on mainstream television.

This nuanced approach towards Asian-American identity was made even more powerful considering the fact that the Asian-American experience has long been represented in popular culture as either a punchline, or a wholly, foreign “other” in American society. Long Duk Dong of “Sixteen Candles” is often brought forth as a prime example of this perception, but recent stories about anti-Asian racism and stereotypes attest to this truth.

Earlier this month, the “O’Reilly Factor” aired a “comedy” segment showing correspondent Jesse Watters harassing Chinese-Americans in New York City’s Chinatown to the backdrop of “Oriental” music, asking them: “Is it the year of the dragon?” “Do you know karate?” and most infuriatingly, “Can you guys take care of North Korea for us?”

A week after Watters’ segment, The New York Times deputy Metro editor Michael Luo wrote an emotional open letter to a woman who yelled at his family to “go back to China!” Asking the woman to understand his experiences as an Asian-American, he wrote, “It’s this persistent sense of otherness that a lot of us struggle with every day. That no matter what we do, how successful we are, what friends we make, we don’t belong. We’re foreign. We’re not American.”

Luo’s pieces following his open letter, the conversation ignited by Watters’ segment and the cancellation of a racist NBC sit-com pilot “Mail Order Family,” proved something else: Asian-Americans of all colors and backgrounds shared experiences being vandalized, harassed and discriminated against because they were “othered” as being foreign. While Asian-Americans have come to be seen as an assimilated “model minority” who has become the “highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing” racial group in America, we are still seen as a foreign, exotic, un-American and sometimes, menacing caricature.

While it would have been easy to brush off Watters’ and Bill O’Reilly’s jokes as “gentle fun,” Asian-Americans who know the bloody and often violent history of this “othering” understand that it is no joke. For as long as we have been in this country, Asian-American identity has often existed in the American imagination as “Yellow Peril” — a racist and xenophobic fear of people of Asian descent as “foreign invaders” intent on taking over Western civilization. Yellow Peril first violently manifested in the 19th century as Chinese laborers came to the United States looking for work, and it ultimately culminated with the Chinese Massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, where 17 Chinese men were lynched and murdered by a mob of 500 people.

Prompted by the fear that Chinese-Americans were intent on taking over the country, similar mass lynchings also took place in Chinatowns across the country. By the end of the 1880s, it was estimated that some 200 Chinese people were lynched by mobs. The mass lynchings of Chinese-Americans remains to this day, this country’s great unspoken shame. Yellow Peril would be invoked time and time again, in the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II, in the brutal murder of Vincent Chin and most recently with the state-sanctioned profiling and monitoring of Chinese-American scientists.

What this violent history tells us is that no matter how removed historic Yellow Peril can seem from Watters’ segment or Chris Rocks’ Asian joke at the Oscars, these systems are connected. “Othering” Asian-Americans is an American pastime that seems to continue without question. And, no matter how much Asian-Americans believe that they can assimilate, that they can be “white,” that they are above systemic racism in the United States, that they can — as Lucy Liu tried this past week — ignore or dilute their Asianness, we will not be considered American by a wider United States that has premised citizenship on whiteness. As Wesley Morris reflected in the New York Times Magazine last month, “citizenship is citizenship, until appearances get in the way.” Model minority be damned.

It isn’t enough to be visible. We must normalize the act of speaking up and taking control over our identities.

What makes this stereotyping, this “othering” of Asian-Americans so outrageous and frustrating is precisely the fact that it is happening in 2016, when Asian-American voices, who have for so long been relegated to the sidelines of popular culture, are gradually finding representation in the mainstream. For example, we’ve seen a pregnant and hilarious Ali Wong, a staff writer for “Fresh Off The Boat,” ferociously rant about race, sexism and feminism on her Netflix stand-up special “Baby Cobra.” CBS News’ digital news anchor and vice presidential debate moderator Elaine Quijano became the first Asian-American and Filipino-American journalist to ever moderate a national debate. Mindy Kaling continues to make history as the only Indian woman starring in and leading her own groundbreaking sit-com show, “The Mindy Project.” Last month, “Masters Of None” co-creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang won the Emmy for best writing for a comedy series, with an episode (”Parents”) that depicted generational tensions between first generation and second-generation Asian-Americans. Yang in his acceptance speech declared, “Seventeen million Asian Americans in this country, and 17 million Italian Americans. They have ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Goodfellas,’ ‘Rocky,’ and ‘The Sopranos.’ We’ve got Long Duk Dong. So we have a long way to go. But I know we can get there, I believe in us, it’s just gonna take a lot of hard work.”

These are the voices of Asian-Americans who refuse to be seen as monolithic caricatures, the voices of people who have defined on their own terms, what Asia-America should look like: a rich, diverse and nuanced community not bound by stereotypes. They are the voices who upend the quiet, docile stereotype of Asian-Americans, and call out racism where it exists. They are diverse voices who acknowledge the multitudes of Asian-American identities today. Fully American and fully Asian; sometimes existing in between and sometimes belonging to neither. Existing in limbo, they are the voices of a new Asia-America that refuses to be defined and characterized by others. They are like Jessica and Louis — who acknowledge that they exist between cultures and fully, wholly accept that. They are the voices will inspire the next generation with the message: you are real, you are valid and you have a voice.

But progress doesn’t just happen with “hard work” or mere representation. They say that we often live with two identities: how we define our identity and how others perceive it. Recent events have shown us how a greater, whiter America still views Asian-Americans through the menacing lens of Yellow Peril. But, recent events also show us an Asia-America that is ready to upend stereotypes and proclaim an identity that is truly reflective of our own.

It isn’t enough to be visible. We must normalize the act of speaking up and taking control over our identities. We need to normalize Asian-American dissent. We must embolden and support the voices of Asian-Americans who seek to defy the status quo so that they become the norm, not the exception.

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