NY Times (by Wesley Yang):
On a cold, dark street in Tijuana, Mexico, I asked Eddie Huang a question that many people were sure to ask him in the months to come. “What did you expect?”
For the past week in December, Huang had been venting about his tortured ambivalence toward “Fresh Off the Boat,” the ABC sitcom based on the memoir he wrote about growing up as a child of Taiwanese immigrants in Orlando, Fla. He deployed his gift for pithy, wounding invective against the show’s producers and writers — before professing gratitude and love for the same people he just vilified. He described what he took to be the show’s falseness and insensitivity to nuance — before praising its first episode as the best sitcom pilot he had ever seen. He lamented the choice he had made to sell his life rights to a major network — before insisting that the premiere of “Fresh Off the Boat” on Feb. 4 would be a milestone, not just in the history of television but in the history of the United States.
He had a point. “Fresh Off the Boat” would be the first network sitcom to star an Asian-American family in 20 years and only the third attempt by any major network in the history of the medium. Huang chose to sign with ABC in deference to the residual power of network television to alter mass perceptions about race, and he had hoped to portray the Asian-immigrant experience without equivocation or compromise.
“What did I expect?” Huang responded. “I expected I could change things.” He told me that he thought his story was powerful enough for ABC to allow him to tell it his way. “I thought that people in network television had their own conscience about things.”
Huang, 32, was dressed in an acid-wash denim jacket and a black fur hat with its earflaps folded up, which lent his large, round baby face a not-at-all-coincidental resemblance to a certain East Asian dictator. (Huang likes to give himself nicknames — Kim Jong Trill, the Rotten Banana, the Human Panda, the Chinkstronaut — all of which, like the name of his show, repurpose and reclaim slurs and stereotypes.) He was sitting on the back fender of a Vice Media van, in which a five-man crew was preparing its equipment to shoot. We were waiting for two young female marijuana dealers whom Huang would be interviewing for “Huang’s World,” the gonzo food and travel show he hosts for Vice.
He had, he admitted, been extremely naïve about the realities of network television. By way of explanation, Huang reviewed for me the string of previous triumphs that induced him to overrate his ability to set his own terms in the world. “You have to remember how unlikely all of this was. With Baohaus, for instance,” he said, referring to the basement hole-in-the-wall Taiwanese sandwich shop that took Huang to the forefront of a new generation of hip young New York chefs, “I had never worked in a New York City restaurant. I came out of nowhere. And I did it!” After a brief dalliance with the Cooking Channel, Huang started the Vice show, which at the time was called “Fresh Off the Boat.” “When had there been a television host with an identity like mine — a hip-hop Asian kid? I was the first! And the show was a huge success!” In 2013, he published a memoir, the story that Huang had always wanted to tell, and it became a national best seller. “And so I said, We can do this one more time! But network television wasn’t what I thought it was.”
Huang feels that by adulterating the specificity of his childhood in the pursuit of universal appeal, the show was performing a kind of “reverse yellowface” — telling white American stories with Chinese faces. He doesn’t want to purchase mainstream accessibility at the expense of the distinctiveness of his lived experiences, though he is aware of how acutely Asian-Americans hunger for any kind of cultural recognition. “Culturally, we are in an ice age,” he said. “We don’t even have fire. We don’t even have the wheel. If this can be the first wheel, maybe others can make three more.”
Then, he added, “we can get an axle and build a rice rocket.”
The story Huang tells in his memoir is one of survival and struggle in a hostile environment — a prosperous neighborhood in Orlando. Though the picaresque book is written in Huang’s jaunty mash-up of hip-hop lingo and conspicuously learned references to American history and literature, it is also an extraordinarily raw account of an abused and bullied child who grows to inflict violence on others. The racism Huang encounters in Florida is not underhanded, implicit or subtle, as it often is for the many Asians from the professional classes living in and around the coastal cities where the American educated elite reside. It is open, overt and violent.
“Up North and out West, you have a bit more focus on academics, and there are accelerated programs for high-achieving kids,” said Emery Huang, reflecting on the tumultuous upbringing he shared with his brother. “Down South, you’ve got football and drinking, and that’s it. If you weren’t fighting, you were a nerd and a victim.” In response to this bullying, the Huang brothers did not conform to the docile stereotypes of Asian-American youths, in large part because of the influence of their father, Louis. A hardened, street-smart man, Louis had been sent by his own father to the United States to get him away from the hoodlums he had been running with in Taipei. “We wouldn’t get in trouble with our dad if we got into a fight,” Emery said. “We would get in trouble if we didn’t win.”
Huang’s memoir records an unusual life trajectory: from tormented outsider, to angry adolescent who would twice be arrested on assault charges, to marijuana dealer, to high-end street-wear designer (under the “Hoodman” label, which eventually led to a lawsuit from Bergdorf Goodman), to corporate lawyer, to successful restaurateur. The book fixates on themes of pain and punishment. As a teenager, Huang was commanded by his father to kneel and bow to police officers after he was caught stealing from neighbors. Later, he would find himself surrounded by cops with guns drawn after he drove his car into a crowd of frat guys who were menacing him and several friends (after one of his own broke a window at their house).
At times, Huang comes across in his memoir as a dutiful son who admires and reveres his parents and feels the enormous weight of obligation to them — “I wasn’t mad at my dad,” he writes after being forced to remain kneeling on his asphalt driveway for several hours, “I deserved it” — and at others as an enraged teenager, rebelling against constant assaults on his self-esteem to which he was subjected in the home — he recalls “constantly being told I was a fan tong (rice bucket), fat-ass or waste of space.” He finds in hip-hop a language for his alienation, citing Tupac Shakur’s “Me Against the World” as the cathartic soundtrack of his youth. (“Our parents, Confucius, the model-minority [expletive] and kung-fu-style discipline are what set us off,” he wrote. “But Pac held us down.”)
In Los Angeles later in December, while driving with Huang in his canary yellow Porsche Boxster to his Malibu apartment, I asked him what his parents thought of his portrayal of the abuse they inflicted on him.
“My parents have never acknowledged that it was abuse — because in their culture and their country it wasn’t,” he said. Huang believes that the psychological and physical harm that was done to him was largely a matter of context. “I think the abuse had extra meaning that I gave to it, because I saw that it wasn’t happening to other kids.” For a time, every Friday afternoon, Huang said, social workers would take him out of class to inspect him for cuts and bruises. “And I knew that I was weird and different and was made to feel like I had done something wrong, like there was something wrong with us.”
The book proposal for “Fresh Off the Boat” was sent to publishers not long after an excerpt from Amy Chua’s memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” appeared in The Wall Street Journal. The commercial prospects of Huang’s proposal were almost certainly enhanced by this coincidence: Chua’s book indirectly addressed the chief preoccupation of the American upper-middle class — getting their children into top-tier colleges — and therefore generated one of the infrequent moments in which Asian-Americans aroused the fascination of the wider American public. Chua made Asian-Americans matter just long enough for Huang’s proposal to sell as a counternarrative to hers.
The Journal excerpt, titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” gave what Chua would later claim was a misleading impression of the overall arc of her book, which chronicled the crisis that ensued when her younger daughter revolted against “Chinese” parenting methods that might seem “unimaginable — even legally actionable” to Western parents. But the marketing campaign, of which the excerpt was a part, appealed to an underlying (and not entirely unjustified) concern among white American parents that they had grown too indulgent toward their children. Huang found the book repellent. “She Kumon-ized our existence,” he told me, referring to the popular Japanese after-school learning program. “This is something that 50- and 60-year-old Asians are still dealing with.”
When I spoke to Huang’s parents, they didn’t deny his claims, but they emphasized that there was a cultural and generational gap. They were young at the time, they said, and they had reverted to parenting practices they saw in Taiwan. “I wanted to make them tough,” his father said, “and I think that I did.” Emery, however, claims that his brother’s harsh depiction of their childhood in the book seemed “sugarcoated.”
Still, Huang is quick to say that he never thinks of his parents as bad people. “I do think about getting hit, though,” he said. “And I definitely am the way I am because of it. I am quick to react. I am quick to protect myself. I am very comfortable with people yelling at me. And I am very comfortable telling people exactly what I think. I am very comfortable getting personal.”
This mixture of love and loathing toward parents will be familiar to generations of immigrants of every color, but Asian-Americans feel this tension with an unusual acuteness, in part because Confucian tradition is so explicitly directed toward the breaking of individual autonomy in favor of the demands of the family. This tension is compounded by the fact that, as a result of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which eased national-origin quotas, Asians began arriving in the United States in large numbers just as the cultural upheaval of the 1960s was drastically loosening American manners and mores. Today the means that many Asian-Americans apply to achieve academic success (a narrow emphasis on rote memorization and test preparation) could not be more out of step with the attitudes and practices of the socially liberal elite that Asians aspire to join. The ensuing cultural dissonance generates an awkward silence around the topic of Asian-Americans — Asian-Americans don’t want to portray their parents as backward, and white liberals don’t want to be seen as looking down on people of other races and cultures whose parenting practices seem primitive. Huang hates this silence.
It is no paradox that Huang’s brazen attitude resembles nothing so much as that of his brash immigrant mother. As we arrived at his apartment in Malibu, Huang casually mentioned that his mother had on more than one occasion turned the wheel of her car sharply into oncoming traffic to terrorize her children into compliance. But Huang would later insist that he owes everything he has become to her. “Every morning, whether it was weekdays or weekends, she would get me up and start demanding: ‘What are you going to do with yourself today? What is the plan? What is the itinerary?’ ” Huang credits this with instilling in him the drive that made him relentless in his pursuit of success.
In fact, his mother’s haranguing inadvertently helped jump-start his writing career. In 2010, his attempt at a second restaurant, Xiao Ye, received a zero-star review in The New York Times. The restaurant’s menu included facetiously racist items, including an “Everything but the Dog Meat Plate” and “Princeton Review Bean Paste Noodles.” In the write-up, Sam Sifton lamented that “if Mr. Huang spent even a third of the time cooking that he does writing funny blog posts and wry Twitter updates, posting hip-hop videos and responding to Internet friends, rivals, critics and customers, Xiao Ye might be one of the more interesting restaurants to open in New York City in the last few months.” Huang’s blog went viral when he published an email his mother sent him after the review came out.
“Trust me, you much keep your bar license active just in case you need it,” his mother wrote. “You do not even understand your own strength or the whole scope of this business, and you are not even willing to listen. YOU MUST GET BURNT BEFORE YOU WILL HEAR YOUR MOM. Please calm down, analyze yourself, and be honest. You have a lot of potential, but you must make good choice and stick to it with the best choice. With all the staff, and your korean friend, no one was able to point out or warn you the mistakes, or problems you have???????????????????”
Huang closed the restaurant after repeat visits from the State Liquor Authority, which might have been peeved by his “Four Loko Thursday” deal, when the high-alcohol, caffeinated beverage was sold at a steep discount. (Huang had also floated the idea of an all-you-can-drink deal.) But Sifton grasped something important in his observation that the blog posts and Twitter updates mattered more to the chef than the food did. Huang’s true ambitions always had more to do with writing than with feeding people. He told me he opened the restaurant “because no one wanted to listen to me.”
Huang’s cocky social-media personality kept getting him in trouble, but it only seemed to swell his fame. His inability to censor himself, combined with his talent for speaking frankly and intimately to a mass public, aligned him perfectly with the mood of social media. When the Cooking Channel signed Huang to host a show called “Cheap Bites” — the kind of opportunity that most dedicated chefs would hold on to for dear life — the deal fell apart after Huang lashed out at the network’s biggest stars on Twitter. Huang has no regrets about the dust-up. (“The show looked like trash.”) He was later named a TED fellow, a potential gateway into the world of highly compensated corporate speaking, but quickly got himself booted from the program when he skipped some of the events to appear on a podcast with the graffiti artist David Choe and the porn star Asa Akira. Choe declared it to be a meeting of the “worst Asians in the universe.” Huang would later denounce TED as a “cult.”
Huang’s utter lack of instinct for self-preservation has had the curious effect of preserving himself against any harm. While the established institutions he railed against had myriad vested interests to balance and secrets to hide, Huang has always taken the inherently sympathetic role of the only honest man, refusing to compromise with arbitrary or corrupt authority. This has made Huang a particularly good fit with Vice Media, whose food channel, Munchies, seeks to appeal to young hipsters turned off by bourgeois “foodie-ism” but interested in educating their palates. Tricked out in big sunglasses, high-top sneakers and flashy street wear, Huang’s on-screen persona often resembles an Asian Ali G — easy to mock, were it not a deliberate self-caricature. Much of the pleasure of Huang’s Vice show comes from watching him slyly emerge from his buffoonish character to make incisive comments revealing an agile, literary mind — and then lapse back into the role of the pot-addled numbskull.
I met Huang in Los Angeles during a time of high tension surrounding his show, a few weeks after he exploded in a Twitter tirade, accusing the network of neutering his book, and a week before shooting would wrap. The executive producers were, at this point, careful to emphasize that the show was not a biography of Eddie Huang and his family. It was a loose adaptation “inspired” by, rather than “based” on, Huang’s book. The series borrows the setting and the characters but applies them to a plot that was invented almost entirely by a professional writing staff, led by the showrunner Nahnatchka Khan. Though Huang lived the life depicted in the show, 20th Century Fox Television (which produces the show for ABC) retains creative control over it.
Melvin Mar, the producer at Fox who bought the rights to the book, told me that Huang’s arrangement with the studio is atypical. Usually, a production company will pay an author for a book it options and neither seek nor offer further participation. But Huang insisted on being brought on as a producer as a condition of the sale. So, Mar told me, “we decided we would all do this together, like a family.”
More than anything, the fraught dynamic that emerged between Mar and Huang resembles that of Huang’s actual family. The ambivalence Huang feels toward his parents tends to manifest itself in all his dealings with authority, Mar most emphatically not excepted. Huang sometimes describes Mar as a mentor, someone who has taught him about when to pursue confrontation and when to acknowledge the necessity for accommodation. But these sincere expressions of respect often segue quickly to contempt for the compromises endemic to the entertainment industry. “It’s a system that is kind of similar to the Asian upbringing,” Huang told me. By giving up so much autonomy for his career’s sake, Huang said, Mar “got a second set of parents in network television.”
Mar and Khan met at a symposium for Asian-Americans interested in the popular arts, where they dealt with a familiar crowd of activists demanding to know why Hollywood seemed so uninterested in casting people who looked like themselves. (Mar’s family is from China; Khan’s is from Iran.) “You go to these conferences, and there’s always people saying, ‘You should do more for Asian people,’ ” Mar said. “And my response is, ‘Yes, I agree with you.’ But it’s easier said than done. I have to bring actual projects that are viable and convince the executives that there’s a real business case for making it.”
The business case for making an Asian-American show is simple: Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country, they earn and spend more than the average American and they are overrepresented in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic. But if the case were really so strong, surely two decades would not have passed without some network making a bid for this audience. Perhaps the reason is that the so-called Asian-American demographic (some 18 million viewers) is actually made up of many different nationalities with no common culture or language.
Moreover, comedies about nonwhite people generally must navigate a trap-laden path between offending the group represented and neutering the comedy to avoid doing so. And they suffer from having to be approved and produced by people who are overwhelmingly white, and thus unfamiliar with the nuances of the stories they are telling, and also intensely wary of giving offense — but all this does is increase the likelihood that these shows will be dull, though still capable of offending their audience. This is exactly what happened to “All-American Girl,” the sitcom starring the comedian Margaret Cho and the last significant attempt to make an Asian-American TV show. The series was disowned by the Korean-American community that it tried to portray and was eventually rejected by the wider audience for being unfunny. It was canceled after just one season, two decades ago.
“Fresh Off the Boat” was meant to be different. Not only is the production staff diverse, but the source material helps indemnify the show against criticism of many of its outlandish elements, which are rooted in Huang’s actual life. For example, the ferociously uninhibited and heavily accented mother portrayed in the series might appear to be an offensive caricature if it were a generic “Tiger mom” conjured out of thin air.
In fact, Constance Wu, the actress who plays Jessica Huang on the show, told me that she underplays her character in relation to the actual woman. “I don’t actually think they would believe she was real,” Wu said. “That’s what reality television is for — to show you people who no one would actually believe were real.” To preserve the appearance of reality, the show has had to depart from it — while also claiming that same reality as its license to go as far as it does in presenting a raw slice of immigrant life.
When Mar asked Khan to sketch out her vision for the show, she described what would become the opening scene of the series: a tight focus on someone in hip-hop garb that pulls out to reveal . . . a short, chubby Asian boy. The apparent incongruity (more apparent than real) is at once a joke for the prime-time network audience and a wedge that protects the series from recapitulating “model minority” representations of Asian-Americans. It is also the sore point that offends Huang more than any other aspect of the show.
Hip-hop had been the emblem of Huang’s alienation from his own household and the violence he encountered at school. It provided a language through which to reject the role of the eager assimilator that his own culture seemed to urge onto him. It was, as Huang described it in his book, a means of survival — not some glib, touristic fascination, or even a way of being cool. Huang identified with the black kids at school because they, too, were enduring beatings in their households in a way that white kids weren’t. “It’s a funny position being an Asian in America,” Huang wrote. “You’re the dude who can cross the union line. Your community actually wants you to sell the [expletive] out and work in law, accounting or banking. But I realized then that I wasn’t going to cross the picket line.” (Though he was briefly a corporate lawyer.) “I was down with the rotten bananas who want nothing to do with that.”
Huang’s appropriation of the language of racialized resistance might seem intrinsically noncredible to many white, black and even Asian interlocutors, who — implicitly or explicitly — regard Asian-Americans as the minority group that gets ahead by working hard and eschewing the politics of racial grievance. Not Huang, who likes to analogize his relationship with Mar to that of the “field Chinaman” to the “house Chinaman.” (Mar called this comparison “heightened,” which was his diplomatic way of saying “fantastically overwrought.” If there is a class distinction between the two men, it’s this: Mar’s family worked in the bean-sprout business in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, while Huang’s father become a millionaire many times over in Orlando.)
Huang especially took issue with the second episode in the series, in which a youthful Eddie develops a protosexual fascination with a blond, large-breasted trophy wife who has just moved into the neighborhood. It includes a scene in which Eddie fantasizes himself into a rap video. He “makes it rain” and squirts Capri Sun onto models. Though test audiences found the scene to be innocuously funny, Huang considered the thrust of the episode outright offensive. In his estimation, it denigrates hip-hop culture by portraying it as a vector for adopting sexist attitudes — a perversion of what, for him, had been a vital emotional outlet. His analysis is credible but, as the writers and producers told him, way too abstruse for anyone in the audience to think about.
“It’s so interesting, what he’s going through,” Khan told me. “Most people never get the opportunity to experience what he’s experiencing. So now he’s rebelling and manifesting the angst, and that’s what makes him him, and that’s why he wrote the memoir in the first place. Part of me just wants to say, ‘Sit back and enjoy this.’ ”
When I told Huang that Khan wanted him to sit back and enjoy the ride, he had an immediate response: “That’s what pedophiles tell children.”
Even if Huang’s attraction to black culture is played for cheap laughs, to him it is an essential element of his person. It provides the missing half of the fully human entity that the Asian-American who consents to the model-minority myth has to relinquish. A model minority is a tractable, one-dimensional simulacrum of a person, stripped of complexity, nuance, danger and sexuality — a person devoid of dramatic interest. Huang is something else: a person at war with all the constraints that would fetter him to anything less than an identity capacious enough to contain all his contradictions and ambivalence.
At the hotel on our last day in Tijuana, Huang spent the morning managing his Manhattan restaurant, Baohaus, by Skype. Besides traveling 24 weeks of the year for Vice, writing a second memoir and working on the ABC series, Huang continues to manage his restaurant. He often finds himself in fights with one cook in particular, an older Cantonese-speaking veteran of Chinatown restaurants. Huang is as exacting a boss as he is an insubordinate employee, but he is often forced to suffer the rebelliousness of his staff. He and the cook argued about how to properly cut chicken. The cook wanted to slice the chicken, which he believed white people prefer. Huang wanted it done the proper way, diced. “He never really accepts what I tell him,” he said. “And as soon as I turn my back, he starts doing it his own way.”
“I’ve wanted to fire him so many times,” he said. “The problem is, you can’t teach American kids the speed this guy has or his ability to problem-solve on the fly.”
As he thought about it, Huang hit on a comparison between Hollywood executives and the typical Chinatown restaurant. Each, he said, think they know what people want and strive to give them exactly that. But it never occurs to either of them to sell people the authentic thing itself — Chinese food the way Chinese people make it for themselves or, in the case of Hollywood, stories that don’t rely on formulaic contrivance to be funny.
“I really feel that people don’t always know what’s good for them,” he said. “When you have a strong conviction, you have a duty not to tell people what they want. At least represent yourself and say: ‘Yo, this is what I’m into, and this is what I’m seeing in the world. Let me take your hand and guide you through it, so you can see through my eyes.’ ”