Fresh Off the Boat: A Success or Stereotyping?
I have started to watch Fresh Off the Boat, which is about a Chinese American family that moves from Washington DC to Orlando, Florida. Fresh off the Boat is based on a memoir written by Eddie Huang, about his own childhood growing up in Florida.
It’s among the first primetime sitcoms staring Asian Americans in lead character roles, at least since Margaret Cho’s All American Girl (which was cancelled in 1995 after one season). The reason I started watching Fresh Off the Boat in the first place is because the narrator and lead character is an 11 year old kid growing up in 1995. I was 11 in 1995, and I identify. (Remember the video game Shak Fu? Or being driven around in a 1994 Caravan Mini-Van?)
I didn’t really know about the controversy surrounding the show until later, mostly through the Facebook posts of other people. And I’m not alone. While mainstream media in America has generally embraced the series, it’s the people on Facebook that are taking issue.
What’s the Issue?
Firstly, it’s the title – Fresh Off the Boat – which has been used as a derogatory term to describe people that have just arrived in America (or Canada, or another western country) and also a reference to refugees that stow away on container ships. If you are “fresh off the boat” or a “FOB” you have a thick accent, difficulty adapting to western life, and are generally the butt of jokes. Unapologetic Eddie Huang, through the use of this term, is set on reclaiming it.
There has also been criticism of the accents used by the actors in the series and that some themes feel forced, for example, Asian families not saying I love you, or smelly Asian food.
Because I was interested, I went on a hunt for more opinions on both the use of the term “fresh off the boat” and the general offensiveness of the sitcom.
I started at my school because, well, if you know me at all you know who I teach, work with and spend the majority of my time with – Asian Canadians – mostly, people that have moved over from China.
First, none of my students (all under the age of 19) knew what “fresh off the boat” meant. Who is travelling by boat, Ms. Stewart?
Next, my colleagues: “Chinese people don’t get offended by stuff like that” and “You know what – it’s nice to actually see an Asian family on tv”, and “I have no interest in watching that show, please stop bugging me”
Next, my non-Chinese teacher friend – this time we actually sat down and watched an episode together. “I can’t find anything offensive here, Kath”.
This is such a small sample set – I’m still working on it. But this is also the point. Just as we can’t ask one person who immigrated from Taiwan, or Guangzhou or Hong Kong to epitomise the entire Chinese immigrant experience, we can’t ask a television show to do it either.
Why it Might be OK
One of the lead actresses, Constance Wu (who plays Jessica Huang) was interviewed about her role, and commented that one of the most important elements of this show is increasing the visibility of leading Asian characters on prime-time tv – not as individuals in supporting roles.
It’s smart for the television networks too – Asians are the fastest growing demographic in the United States today. And just as I like identifying with someone the same age as me in 1995, most people like to see representations of themselves on television.
Wu also comments on some of the controversy over potential stereotyping – they [the show] shouldn’t be a voice for all Asians – because they are such a varied group of people. Shows like Fresh off the Boat are given the burden of representing a huge slice of American society because their characters’ ethnicity’s are not well-represented. As Wu says, “If you see Tina Fey on television, you’re not like ‘All white women are like Tina Fey’.”
“I care the most about the conversation that will happen because of Fresh Off the Boat,” Eddie Huang told TV journalists last month. “I genuinely feel when you do something historic, there has to be conflict; there has to be debate.”
Are television shows like Fresh off the Boat progressive, or simply reinforcing tired stereotypes?