It’s been a full two decades since prime-time television has seen an Asian American family sitcom. But ABC’s new show Fresh Off the Boat, loosely based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s memoir, is changing that. Though the very first Asian American family sitcom, Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, was canceled due to poor ratings and lack of interest back in 1995, Fresh Off the Boat has already stirred up considerable buzz. It’s also a significant moment for many Asian Americans, who have largely been excluded or misrepresented when it comes to the mainstream.
But testing the waters won’t be easy for Fresh Off the Boat. Will the show resonate with a non-Asian audience? Will it manage to undermine stereotypes or end up reinforcing them? Will its jokes be lame?
So we wanted to discuss the series from an Asian American point of view. This week, Slate’s Jennifer Lai will be joined by Phil Yu, creator of the blog Angry Asian Man, along with Asian American female rapper and comedian Awkwafina.
Jennifer Lai: I was so impressed (and shocked!) that this week’s sex talk scene directly came from Huang’s memoir. In this scene, Louis explains to Eddie that the best thing about America is that you can have lots of premarital sex, unlike in Taiwan, where the girls are too conservative. In the memoir, it’s obviously a lot more vulgar—Eddie’s father actually uses the term “sports fucking” to explain how girls in America are willing to have sex for “fun” or “just practice”—but the idea is basically the same.
Phil Yu: That scene certainly busts some stereotypes, and draws a huge difference between the Huang family and my family (and many of my Asian friends’ families too). My parents NEVER talked about it. I cannot even imagine what "the sex talk" with my Korean American dad would look or sound like.
Awkwafina: With a primetime show, there are definitely limits on what we can talk about, especially pertaining to some true but kind-of uncomfortable aspects of growing up in an Asian household. But being sexual is not so much an aspect of growing-up Asian as being slapped with a backscratcher when you're caught smoking Marlboro menthol lights is.
Lai: It was all pretty unrealistic and ridiculous—what Asian parent, let alone any parent, would approach the sex talk with their 12-year-old son that way? (“Don’t go to Arkansas, they outlawed all the fun stuff.”) But it all just goes back to what Constance Wu has said before—that she doesn’t have to represent every Asian mom ever, and that she shouldn’t have to. While that exchange might be unbelievable to most of us, that conversation actually really happened to Eddie Huang IRL!
Awkwafina: That scene was done strictly for the humor and less for the relatability. I did have the sex talk with my father, and he did tell me to "use a bag" and it was literally the most horrifying moment of my entire life. But this talk didn't happen until I was 16.
Lai: What did it mean for you guys to see an Asian American dad talking to his son about sex like this?
Yu: This scene is pretty radical. Asian males have a long, storied history of being de-sexualized on screen. We are perceived as not sexy, not having sex, not being sexual, and being clueless about sex. Even coming from Louis, who, up this point in the series, has mostly been the goofy dad character, it's just refreshing to see an Asian male figure (who has clearly had sex) just trying to have a frank talk about it, as awkward as it plays out. It was also funny and awkward to see little Eddie, the Asian kid, be part of the age-old, time-honored quest to understand sex... and track down porn.
Awkwafina: Eddie is definitely that quintessential kind of horny little kid, and it’s cool to see that portrayed on television as well.
Yu: Can I just say that I was never so clueless that I would mistake a godawful sexual harassment training video for a dirty movie?
Lai: Right? The best part is that all of the kids – not only Eddie—mistake it for a dirty movie. Even with their different backgrounds, all of them are on the same level—in the dark—when it comes to puberty and sex. But do you think Eddie's sleepover really got him closer to acceptance from the white kids at school?
Yu: Baby steps. That damn kid Brock sabotaged Eddie's social climb.
Lai: Or did it just make him seem more weird? Jessica did offer pork bone soup to them, right?
Yu: It’s good for hearing.
Lai: I was honestly surprised though, that there weren't more "Ew! What's that?" moments at Eddie's house when they were sleeping over. I don’t think Jessica offered them Hi-C Ecto Coolers like Brock’s mom would have done.
Awkwafina: I remember the first time I brought people over to my grandmother's house—they definitely judged the way that I lived and how different it was from the way that they lived. But they didn't say "ew." It was more of a silent judgment.
It was around that age that I started to appreciate the non-Asian friends who warmly accepted my grandma's ox-tail soup or steamed red bean buns even though they had never tried them before. This was when I was around 8 or 9-years old, well into high school.
Yu: There was always a fear when other kids came over that they'd think your house or family was weird. The weird decorations, the smell. Maybe that's why I started hanging out with more Asian kids.
Awkwafina: It was intensely nerve-racking. I had some Asian friends in elementary school, and I remembered feeling like I could relate to them when I first went into their homes, like I understood certain things about them by default.
Lai: When you guys had sleepovers, did you try to make it as "non-Asian" as possible? Did your family order in non-Asian food for dinner?
Yu: Pizza. Pizza all the way.
Awkwafina: YES PIZZA!!
Yu: It was universally accepted. Non-threatening.
Awkwafina: But I guess that's kind of racist in its own way too… Assuming the white kids who are coming over will love the pizza. Imagine if we went over to someone's house and they went out of their way to cook chou tofu.
Lai: Good point. My mother once made steamed broccoli, stir-fried chicken, and rice for dinner, and even that seemed totally foreign to my elementary school friends, who couldn’t use chopsticks. On the flip side, what was it like for you guys to sleepover at non-Asian friends' houses?
Awkwafina: I remember it looking like the house from As Good As It Gets. There was always a difference I felt staying in someone else's house. It was like a dream world. I remember feeling like "one day, I'm going to live like this." Cabinets stacked with wholesale Chewy bars and speakers hidden in the ceiling that play light jazz.
Lai: They had so many different types of cereal, tons of candy and snack foods, and juice. Walking into my non-Asian friends’ homes was like an absolute fantasy. It was like walking into every show I'd ever seen on TV.
Yu: Haha. I remember seeing allllll the snacks, "People eat like this?"
Lai: We all experienced a bit of culture shock at sleepovers. I hope we get to see Eddie experience that on the show too.
Awkwafina: I also think that a suburban house in Orlando is always going to be different from a tiny apartment in Queens. I've been to some very Americanized Asian households, and it seems like the Huang's household on TV is rather Americanized.
Lai: How so?
Awkwafina: For instance, the interior of the house doesn't have any new years decorations or any of the kind of half-assed interior decorating that most Asian moms do. My grandma, for instance, was the most ratchet unnecessary decorator in the world. She was super into the calendars you get for free at the Chinese supermarket, (very obviously) fake plants. She had this whole cabinet filled with little glass things and figurines.
Lai: Same! But my house had a bunch of mirrors and mysterious figurines of old wise Chinese men with beards. What were yours?
Awkwafina: Fat little children riding a radish. Literally like 10 heads in the radish.
Awkwafina: I like the grandmother on the show—she kind of reminds me of the grandma from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. My own grandmother definitely had that old-world "Mao took my house" vibe, but she also watched the Nightly News, OJ, and Court TV on a constant loop.
Lai: That’s being Asian American.