I approached the premiere of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat last night with considerable anticipation. I’m roughly the same age as Eddie Huang, whose memoir forms the basis of the show. I was also raised in the West by a Taiwanese mother. So I was curious to see what a network sitcom version of an Asian-American 90s childhood looks like. And my conclusion after watching the first two episodes is: it’s alright.
The broad strokes ring true: the unfairness of having extra school on the weekend, the embarrassing commotion that a homemade lunch elicits (perfectly illustrated in this animated short). But too much of the time the show doesn’t go deep enough into these uncomfortable culture clashes, choosing instead to keep things light, with the notable exception of a racial slur being hurled in a middle school canteen. It’s unsatisfying when the potency of meaningful, real moments is glossed over; and it’s the source of Eddie Huang’s own ambivalence about the show.
If you’re bothering to go there at all, then why not go all the way? Being authentic is like being pregnant, you either are or you aren’t. In one scene, Eddie’s mom tricks him into admitting he didn’t eat his lunch by asking him if he enjoyed the xiao long bao she packed. The script could have said “dumplings” but it specifically calls out a type of soup dumpling—one that many non-Chinese people would know. But if you’ve eaten xiao long bao you would also know that no-one would ever put them in a packed lunch because they need to be served hot.
It’s a minor gripe but it illustrates how the show is sometimes at odds with itself: it wants to tell a minority’s story with sincerity and humor, and it also wants to have broad appeal. We’re all the same deep down, it seems to imply, by making equal fun of Chinese and American culture. It’s a nice message, but not what I’m looking for from the first Asian American focused primetime show in 20 years.
Regardless, listen to the show’s awesome theme song by Danny Brown (you can stream it below). RELATED: Watch the Detroit Episode of Fresh off the Boat with Danny Brown and Eddie Huang