White men can't dance, black men can't swim, and Asian men ...
Martin Luther King Jr. said we should be judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin, but no one said anything about what's in our pants. There is an unspeakable fallacy that all Asian-American men must decide early in their adulthood to acknowledge or not, one that concerns their manhood. Call it the elephant in the men's room. An Asian elephant that America believes has a small penis.
What’s changed, maybe, is that this archetype has somehow become acceptable, even trendy. (See: black resin glasses, comics, obsessive collectioneering, geek chic, nerd-core, backpack hip-hop, nouveau japonisme.) Still, it continues to imply a lack of sexuality. Rarely does the Asian-American guy go home with the girl—and the injustice is doubled when his female counterparts are pathologically fetishized.
Eddie Huang’s new memoir Fresh Off the Boat suggests it’s up to the Asian-American man to pulverize his sexless image with hip-hop, fresh apparel, and authentic Chinese food. The book, and the life it documents, is an unapologetic attack on the Asian masculinity fallacy. It implicates everyone: from Huang’s closed-minded white neighbors where he grew up in southwestern Florida, to girlfriends who turn his would-be cohorts into milquetoast civil servants, to his parents for their misguided attempts at making him an upstanding dork. (They succeed only in teaching him that he must be more discreet in his aberrance.) But the message is clear: America has an unfortunate tendency to neuter Asian-American men, and Eddie Huang won’t take it lying down (unless “it” is America’s girlfriend).
The fact that Huang has initiated (some would say instigated) debate, conflict, and several full-blown fights in the world of New York high/low cuisine challenges the model minority myth, which would have Asian-Americans pushing only when shoved. Pushing/shoving/general mayhem makes up much of the memoir’s Part 1, which spans Huang’s early childhood up through early adulthood. During this time Huang drops out of college (to later complete his degree at a “lesser” school) and lands in jail twice: once in high school for throttling a classmate poised to beat up his brother Emery, the second time for crashing a Chi Psi frat party with an alleged concealed weapon. His coming-of-age scenes are always battle royales. One time, the Huang brothers confront a group of Indian boys from the neighborhood—Eddie’s grievances are obviously not exclusive to white Americans—who’ve parked a car with a vanity plate reading “AK-47” on the Huang driveway and lawn. Eddie (in high school at this point) gets clocked in the face; 8-eight-year old Evan (the youngest brother) comes out of the house shooting at the Indian kids’ car with a paintball gun; Emery eventually chases one of the boys with a pitchfork. As a kind of self-help guide for the neutered Asian-American male, the laugh-out-loud memoir mostly concerns itself with Eddie’s rock-star delinquency. Still, one can’t help but wonder—fear, almost—how the other Huang brothers turn out.
Part 2 begins with a hajj to Taiwan, and it’s a meditative break from the video game pace of young Huang’s mischief. Though the trip is part of a “Study Tour” program, Eddie believes his parents have sent him to Taiwan to “go home, see the motherland, and, eventually, get someone from the same tribe pregnant” while the effects of his second arrest cool down in Florida. He returns to the United States refreshed and even more confident—and immediately falls back into a whirlwind of deferred careers. An attempt to write for the Orlando Sentinel’s sports section is quashed by an editor who flatly tells him he can’t guarantee work for someone with “that face.” He goes to law school and briefly works for a Midtown firm. After getting laid off, he funds a new set of goals with gray- and black-market dealings in imported sneakers and weed.
Opening a restaurant was the last bullet point in a six-month action plan to kickstart his life post-being fired. (The list started with quarterbacking for the Redskins and playing for the Knicks.) What eventually became Baohaus, though, was Huang’s version of owning up to his own arguments about ethno-culinary authenticity. From Page 1, which describes his grandfather complaining about imperfect dumplings, it’s clear that Huang does not want heritage cuisines to be taken for granted. Instead, they should be vaunted by the people they represent. So he made Taiwanese gua bao (steamed pork bun sandwiches) the hallmark of his new business, even though he admits to not being the dish’s biggest fan. Slinging what amounts to a Chinese barbeque pork sandwich is a strategic marketing move: White America likes sandwiches, and damned if char siu bao isn’t close enough.
Delinquency can seem endemic to memoir-writing—though there is no indication either in the memoir or in real life that Huang has learned to stop antagonizing people. Recently, he started a public celebrity-chef spat when he accused Food Network hero Marcus Samuelsson of contributing to the gentrification of Harlem by opening Red Rooster, an upscale soul food joint. In his op-ed review of Samuelsson’s memoir, Huang attacks Samuelsson for willingly playing to tokenism—to what Michael Twitty of Afroculinaria calls the “one negro syndrome”—and for “writing the report on a book he never read.”
For Huang, race and cuisine intersect too often in a bourgeois white bubble. His gadfly/bête noir persona has earned him more followers than enemies, perhaps because authenticity can appear an Asian’s only defense in a food culture rigged for Food Network superficiality and prêt-a-manger “ethnicities.” It’s no wonder Huang files grievances both against said network (after losing to what he believes is a more telegenic competitor on Ultimate Recipe Showdown), and Asian-Americans like David Chang, whom Huang has challenged to several culinary (and one fitness) battle. Chang’s crime is being a sellout. Whereas Huang’s more explicit philosophy on race and cuisine would be, in the words of one of Huang’s idols Tupac Shakur, “Ride or die.”
It is worth noting that Huang’s offensive comes as Asian-American men start to infiltrate a category of manhood that hasn’t been available to them since Bruce Lee. This manhood has accrued the descriptors jock, or meathead. A pejorative when applied to other races, when it concerns the ever-elusive Asian masculinity, the image is almost endearing. As Huang has been declaring at events recently, Fresh Off the Boat “is the beginning of a movement of big dick Asians.”
His concern with the myth of Asian phalluses goes way back. “My cousin Allen was the first to point it out to me when we were still kids,” he explains.