Valley Voices

Nancy Vang: An Asian-American watches ‘Fresh Off the Boat’

Finally, it is here. The first Asian-American family sitcom to hit television since 1994’s “All-American Girl.” The ABC comedy series, “Fresh Off the Boat,” set in the mid-to-late 1990s and is inspired by the life story written by celebrity chef Eddie Huang.

It stars Randall Park (Louis), Constance Wu (Jessica), Ian Chen (Evan), Forrest Wheeler (Emery) and Hudson Yang (Eddie.)

The story follows 11-year-old Eddie as his Taiwanese family moves from Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown to Orlando, Fla., in pursuit of his father’s American dream of owning a successful steak restaurant.

Present-day Eddie narrates his struggle back then to fit in with his new peers in the white-dominated Orlando community. “Fresh Off the Boat” debuted its first two episodes in February, generating a buzz in the Asian-American community.

A network television sitcom with Asian-Americans as the lead characters? It’s about time.

When telling of our different experiences, what we often forget is how funny they can be. The limited outlets where the Asian-American community could share these stories causes many of them to go unheard. That is why the introduction of an Asian-American TV family is so perfect to the world of comedy sitcoms. There aren’t any other shows that already capture this type of humor.

“Fresh Off the Boat” does it with scenes like when Eddie gets teased in the cafeteria for having Chinese food, so his mother decides to take him to buy “white people lunch.” Staring, in confused awe of the enormous, brightly lit store, his mother holds his hand and says, “If we get separated, try and join a white family. You will be safe there until I can find you.”

Yes, finally, after years of being unable to truly relate to families on TV, I can now understand how it feels like to be in on a joke.

“Well, Evan is not going to school today. His fat friend, J.J., gave him string cheese and apparently he is lactose intolerant. His body is rejecting white culture, which make me kind of proud. Good job, Evan.”

As an Asian-American growing up, I rarely saw anyone who looked like me on television. This resulted in my fascination with any glimpse I had of an Asian face on TV.

“Wow, it’s an Asian!” I would think to myself, referring to the extra that appeared for half a second before blurring out of focus in a random commercial. Even the limited portrayal of Asians, no matter how racist, was enough for me as a child. It was like, “Oh look, there’s an Asian person whose sole purpose is to play the stereotype so the real characters with actual story lines can have a laugh or two in their expense. Cool.”

Obviously, something was wrong there.

Representation in the media is a very important thing. Television and movies teach us who we are and what we do. It is essential to understanding our identities. So when we can’t identify with what we see, we begin to question our own experiences.

The misrepresentation of my people in the media instilled within me a sense of shame. It took me years to understand where this embarrassment of my culture came from and seconds to realize it was wrong.

For young Asian-Americans today, ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ can be the show that helps them take full pride in who they are. This is a step for a community so underrepresented and misunderstood in the public eye. It’s time for America to see an Asian portrayed as not the butt of a joke, but rather as the one telling it.

Now with any new show come the critics. The switch in perspective portrays the white characters in a more negative light. Let’s be honest though, in the 1990’s, ignorance toward Asian-Americans was shamelessly in the open. This show is merely reflecting the racial attitudes of the time it takes place in. One can even argue that in some parts of the United States today, not much has changed.

My parents experienced it first hand. So did I as an elementary student whenever my teachers would say things like, “Wow! Your English is very good!” You can probably imagine how I felt watching a very similar scenario play out for young Eddie in the first episode.

It may come as no surprise when I say the people who critique the show the harshest are other Asian-Americans. Being the first show in 20 years to feature an Asian-American family, expectations are bound to be set high. Not only does the show have to speak for itself, it also carries the responsibility of somehow speaking for every Asian-American family out there.

In response to the criticism, actor Constance Wu said to Time magazine, “We shouldn’t be a voice for all Asians. We are such a varied group that there’s no one show that can be like, ‘This is what Asian America looks like!’ But we’re given that burden because we’re so rarely represented…”

Members of a minority group simply cannot afford the privilege to represent only themselves. This is an issue we must take time to reflect on because we also contribute to it.

We, as a community, must recognize the burden we place on ourselves when we hold each one of us responsible for the overall image of Asian America. It is an impossible expectation for one TV show to change the whole game. Yes, it is a step toward future progress but how big of a step it is can only be determined by how well it is received.

To catch episodes of “Fresh Off the Boat,” tune in Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC30.