I first came across Mr. Huang’s web series on Vice media, currently called “Huang’s World”, that documents his travel experiences around the world. The premise of the show mainly revolves around food and cultural nuances that he encounters, but what makes “Huang’s World” different from other TV shows that focus on travel is the new perspective that Mr. Huang brings to its viewers, as although Huang travels all over the world, interviewing locals, tasting different foods and sharing his encounters with different cultures, “Fresh Off the Boat” is by no means an ordinary culinary and cultural adventure program that simply showed the beauty of the world.
Most of the restaurants that are featured in the series are small mom and pop restaurants that most tourists would dismiss as a hole-in-the-wall, kind of places that most glossy travel magazines and websites would overlook. Then again, these are places that I have always sought out during two decades of my travels, places that serve up great food and authentic experience but may lack of ritzy atmosphere or décor – substance over fluff, you could say.
However, what fascinated me the most was Mr. Huang and his persona. I have rarely seen an Asian-American who was portrayed in the way Mr. Huang was. He was brash, bold, unapologetic and fearless, and his no-holds-barred personality transferred to other aspects of the show, preferring to interview and feature locals on the street, ethnic minorities and immigrants instead of restaurateur or hotel managers. He wasn’t afraid to show the darker side of places that most travel guidebooks and magazine would rave about, such as interviewing some of the locals in Dublin and exposing their racist views against ethnic minorities. In his word, “We tackled race relations through $4 sandwich.”
To me, it was not only the most conscientious travel journalism I have seen, but also, first time anyone had shown the perspective of the “others”, the viewpoint of the minority, and the realities of travel.
So, when I heard that “Fresh Off the Boat” was going to be made into a TV series by the same name, I could hardly wait for its premiere and to see this perspective made for a wider, whiter viewers.
And it didn’t disappoint! The two premiering episodes were as bold, witty, and comically in-your-face as the web series and the book. The story is told from the narrative of an Asian-American boy, Eddie Huang, recounting the stories and the experiences of his childhood growing up in Orlando. The show is viewed through the prism of Eddie’s memories, the trials and tribulations of acclimating, and in most ways, assimilating to a predominantly white suburban environment.
It’s a story that I can definitely relate to, and at times, it was as if I was watching a home video of my own childhood. There were also moments that made me reflect on the indignities that I’d experienced, as I watched the main character, an 11 year old Eddie, being confronted by the stereotypes and racist views of his classmates and neighbors. Like when he tried to explain to a group of neighborhood moms that his family moved to Orlando from Washington DC, and that he and his siblings were born in the U.S., to which one of the women replies condescendingly, “Your English is very good!” It was an encounter that I had all too often growing up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas.
Every minute of the show, I found myself either cringing with discomfort, especially when I heard the word “chink”, or laughing so hard that I was crying, as if I was at a family gathering sharing an inside joke.
More importantly, one thing I was aware of while watching the show was that the premiere of “Fresh Off the Boat” was a milestone, not just in the history of television but in the history of the United States. It’s the first network sitcom to star an Asian-American family in 20 years, and perhaps the only one to portray the Asian immigrant experience without equivocation or compromise.
As Mr. Huang said himself, he as well as the show does not speak for all Asian-Americans or does it encompasses the experience of 40 million immigrants in this country. However, it’s significant in a way that it is a show on a major TV network where lives of Asian-Americans are represented, and the story is being told from our perspective, perhaps a testament to the fact that Mr. Huang is one of the producers of the show.
Also, “Fresh Off the Boat” confronts a deeper issue that children of immigrants face day-to-day. To us, multiculturalism isn’t just a philosophy or a day to celebrate and try exotic foods but a way of life, a constant struggle to find our own identity and sense of belonging. So, when the show portrays an Asian-American boy who feels like an outsider because he doesn’t fit into being either “Asian” or “white”, it’s a reflection of our society and the dilemma that so many people in America (and around the world) face.
It’s important not only to see ourselves or some version of ourselves as ethnic minorities, but also to know that our lives and experiences is shared and is relevant to others. Especially in the new millennia, we are exposed to media on a nearly constant basis, and internet, television, advertisements, magazines, and movies have become integral part of our lives. Therefore, media has an enormous impact on how we see ourselves in relation to others.
Shamefully, there has been a rather ridiculous lack of visibility of people of color, especially Asians-Americans in the media. If we interpret and measure our reality by what we see on TV, ads or in the movies, and if there are no representation of Asian-Americans in the media, what does that say about our lives in relations to the society that we live in?
Therefore, I applaud shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” and hope to see more like it even if it’s just a glimpse of the Asian-American experience.