Haters Gonna Hate: An Interview with Constance Wu of “Fresh Off the Boat”

Haters Gonna Hate: An Interview with Fresh Off the Boat's Constance Wu

The Muse:

Constance Wu is living the dream of every up and coming actor—landing the lead on a hit sitcom on a major network with a rapt audience. But Wu’s role as Jessica Huang, Taiwanese mom of three boys on Fresh Off the Boat, is more than just a sweet gig—it’s historical, as FOTB is only the second Asian American-centric sitcom in 20 years after Margaret Cho‘s All-American Girl in 1994. Add to the pot the outspoken opinions of the show’s creator Chef Eddie Huang, who went from bashing the show to supporting it in a matter of days, Wu’s first big break is breaking color lines and studio systems. But the 26-year-old is taking all of it in stride because haters gonna hate, you know?

For your first sitcom, your comedic timing is great without trying too hard. How do you strike that balance with Randall Park, who plays your husband Louis Huang, and the three boys Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen?

This is only the second comedy I’ve ever done and it didn’t work until I stopped trying to be funny. That’s the trap. Whenever you’re trying to be funny, it becomes cloying and manipulative. My goal with my performance is to be as true as possible.

People think that Jessica’s accent is funny but no one writes jokes about her accent. The humor comes from the writers giving me very funny situations and lines. What makes her so refreshing is that she has an accent and doesn’t know perfect English but she doesn’t think that’s a reason for her not to have a voice and a very loud one at that. That’s what’s interesting and fun about her and playing against Randall and the boys because we’re all just trying to have a good time and tell a specific story.

Speaking of the accent, some felt it was very controversial for you to portray Mrs. Huang with her Taiwanese accent. Why do you think accents in general are so divisive when it reflects actual humans?

Asians have been so rarely represented in mainstream media and historically, especially in the early stages, the accent was used as a humor tool with jokes written about it. But now I would challenge people who say that Jessica’s accent is stereotypical and ask what does that mean? An accent is not a stereotype, it’s just a set of linguistic phonetic changes that happen when your mother tongue has a different set of phonetic constraints than the newer language that you are now speaking. Stereotype enters when that accent is used for the purpose of humor. Of course there are people who are laughing at my character’s accent for very coarse reasons, but we aren’t writing jokes about the accent. It’s an important shift to make.

Recently, a lot of Asians actors want to neutralize their roles on television and say ‘This person is playing a character who happens to be Asian and that has nothing to do with their identity.’

That is a trend that is flying across all minorities, it seems…

My grandfather was an illiterate bamboo farmer and my dad really had to work himself up academically to get a full ride scholarship and a Ph.D in biology in America. He didn’t have a leg up anywhere, he had to work to get that. To even say that that type of journey has nothing to do with my place and opportunities now is dishonorable.

I don’t think that identity is purely determined by race and if a story wants to focus on other things that are important to the narrative, that’s great. But it’s not harmful to say that ethnicity plays an important part in identity and that that part of the story matters. It’s not fodder for humor, it’s just another unique and beautiful element of humanity. Hopefully, we celebrate that. And we’re also a comedy! We want that comedy to be great and warm in our show, which Randall and I both found important.

How’s Fresh Off the Boat been as your first TV experience, between participating in the first Asian American sitcom in 20 years and the tumultuous process creator Eddie Huang had making it?

Eddie and I are new to network television. Before this show I’d done one guest star on Law & Order when I was in college. The network system is established, so being a newbie in this already established constrained situation, we struggled to find our footing. There can be the danger of gratitude becoming complacency which Eddie wasn’t willing to let happen. I think he had to realize which battles he needed to lose in order to win the greater war of representation. Even for myself as an actor, there were certain parts that I was uncomfortable with in terms of lines I was given.

As someone new to television, I wasn’t sure how openly I was allowed to express my opinion. I certainly didn’t want to tread on the toes of people who have more experience than I but I didn’t want to let that inexperience be why my voice and opinion were not valid. Straddling that line was nerve-racking. I didn’t protest too much, instead I found a way within my character work to make it work.

Then last week I emailed our show runner Nahnatchka Khan about a live reading I gave in episode nine or ten. In the first takes, I was trying hard to be clever and improved these funny lines and then on the last take—the scene was with Hudson (Eddie’s character)—for the first time, I actually heard what Hudson said to me, which was ‘You did good mom,’ and I had a genuine response to it. So I emailed Nahnatchka and wrote ‘When I’m doing that series of takes and I’m trying really hard to be clever and funny, and I know that it came off, but if you don’t mind, could we use the last take because I have plenty of times during the series where I’m clever and funny. The last one was the only take in which I actually heard what Hudson was saying to me.’ She emailed me back like, ‘We did use one of your clever takes and we just re-watched it and you’re right. The last take you did was good and it was lovely for a different reason and if that really means something to you, we’ll change it.’

I was stunned because I thought, ‘She’s been doing this forever but this means something to me. So I’m gonna say it with as much respect as possible and if she says ‘No’ at least I tried.’ But she said yes and added ‘Don’t be afraid to ask things like that, I really want to run this with an open door.’ Because Eddie has been so vocal from the beginning—and in the beginning, maybe they didn’t listen to him as much—I think it’s making the system change a bit. People were quick to stigmatize the conflict that Eddie was expressing but that’s just people trying to do better and figuring out how. And of course he’s gonna be sensitive about the show, it’s about his family.

You spoke earlier of stereotypes and a bit of the Tiger Mom trope arises in your portrayal of Jessica Huang when she begins tutoring her three boys after school. Was that something you had to negotiate?

We have real source material in Jessica Huang. I don’t think I should play against a stereotype just to fight the war against stereotypes. Because I’m playing a role that carries the show and a character that has an arc, occasionally elements of Jessica’s personality do fall into a Tiger Mom stereotype. But I’m playing them because they are true to her, not because I am exploiting a stereotype. I’m never doing that. You have to serve the truth of the character and Jessica Huang does what she digs, whether or not it falls into a stereotype.

Chris Rock said that if Tom Hanks does a project, he’s free to fail, but if Denzel Washington does something, he’s representing the entire black race. How are you handling the pressure of being the first Asian American family on network television in 20 years?

I feel that pressure but it’s not something that’s manifesting itself in my work. Sure, there is a burden of representation but the burden shouldn’t be to represent every Asian ever. The burden is to represent an Asian story with as much truth as possible that it touches something in other people and strikes up a curiosity for an experience that is different than your own. Then that gets the ball rolling for others to make individual stories based in truth, intelligence and compassion. My job is not to give you a watered down McDonald’s version of an Asian family so that your next door neighbor thinks, ‘Oh they’re just like me.’ I’m not like freaking out, haters gonna hate, lovers gonna love. People like authenticity and courage, that’s why people like Eddie. Haters will always hate, they’ll see a beautiful flower and be like ‘Ugh, look at that flower!’

Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesdays at 8/7 Central on ABC.

Fusion: ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ uses black culture to talk more candidly about Asian culture

Fusion: (by Molly Fitzpatrick)

It’s clear from the first ten seconds of Fresh Off the Boat, the new ABC sitcom about a Taiwanese family moving from Washington D.C.’s Chinatown to Orlando, Florida, that 11-year old Eddie Huang is an anomaly and he just doesn’t fit in.

In the opening scene, the camera pulls back to show his tiny figure swathed in the baggy, brightly colored clothes synonymous with the hip hop uniform of the time, and little Eddie struck a now-familiar pose: he defiantly crossed his arms high across his chest and nodded, not unlike the way Kool Moe Dee and Run D.M.C. used to do at the end of a knowingly dope rhyme. This universal symbol of defiance was now being deployed to signify a little kid’s discomfort with his recent relocation from Washington D.C.’s Chinatown to the bright, bland landscape of suburban Florida. Young Eddie fully intends to shock with his wardrobe, using it to intimidate bullies and parents alike. A massive part of Eddie’s real life and onscreen cultural assimilation rested heavily on his affection for hip-hop culture.

But if there’s a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, which one was this?

I went to Los Angeles in November to have a warm weekend with an old friend. On our last night in town, we went to see a benefit show at comedy hotspot Nerdmelt. Towards the end of the show, a buttoned-up white guy got on stage. He was nerdy in a way that reminded me of the nerds I grew up with in the 80s—light-washed jeans hemmed a little too high, a bulky, gray sweater with a generic winter pattern printed around the shoulders, and the kind of plain white, shell toed sneakers that you buy when you care more about cost than fashion. His short brown hair was pulled to the side, the way boys used to do on picture day in junior high with one of the hundreds of black plastic combs the photographer pulled out of a box for each student. It didn’t feel like a costume, but it could have been.

The first 5 minutes of his set were entirely comprised of his telling the audience he was going to “smack dat ass.” He made his voice deep when he used that phrase, like Geoffrey Holder or Barry White, and said “smack dat ass” over and over again until I wasn’t sure if I was watching a comedy routine or if I was part of an elaborate prank. I wasn’t annoyed by the repetition; I was surprised that the entirety of this comedian’s joke so far was that he was a white man affecting a black man’s voice, and that his act was predicated on the asynchronous visual of his being a white guy talking like a black guy. It made me deeply uncomfortable; I crossed my arms and sunk lower in my chair, waiting for him to finish. As far as I could tell, I was the only black person in the audience. I was also the only person not laughing.

I had a similarly uncomfortable feeling when Eddie stepped out of the dressing room to the beat of MC Breed’s “Ain’t No Future in Yo’ Frontin’” at the start of the pilot, begging his mom to buy him the pinky ring, stacks of gold chains, and Starter jacket he was trying on at JCPenney’s. Was the only thing funny here that he was biting a cultural style that didn’t necessarily belong to him? And if so, what’s so funny about it?

I liked these first episodes of Fresh Off the Boat, and I’m not just saying that because ABC cuts my paycheck. It’s as funny as any other family-oriented sitcom and shocking in all the right ways — a fellow student lobbed the word “chink” at Eddie in a lunchroom scene in the very first episode. It’s moments like this that remind you about the different set of rules minorities are often asked to follow and how uncommon it is to see them showcased on TV; when Eddie’s parents came in to discuss the racial slur, they flipped the usually apologetic script and asked the principal how he could allow such language in his school. It was a teachable moment that preferenced the wisdom and anger of Eddie’s parents instead of bolstering the racist system they were trying to work within. They were just parents sticking up for their kid, but that’s harder to do when part of your parenting includes an extraordinary effort to assimilate to white culture. There hasn’t been a primetime sitcom starring an Asian family in 20 years (the first one was Margaret Cho’s short-lived All American Girl in 1994, also on ABC), meaning an entire generation of Asian-Americans have grown up without seeing their faces or their cultural values represented on the small screen in a big way. This scene, from the moment Eddie is called a racial slur to the second his parents are done talking to the principal, does more to evoke the multi-layered, intersectional reality of most immigrants and minorities, that constant push and pull between wanting to fit in and wanting to break out, than almost anything else on TV right now.

But the efficacy of their parenting and disconnect from American pop culture (at least generationally) comes to a head when Eddie displays a love for hip-hop, and particularly his clothes. While his parents happily sing along to Ace of Base, Eddie is a renegade in a Nas T-shirt. When his mother asks, “Why do all of your shirts have black men on them?” Eddie responds, “It’s Notorious B.I.G. Both me and him are two dudes with mad dreams, just trying to get a little respect in the game.” The joke lands (here’s a little kid talking like a streetwise adult about “the game”) but an unspoken discomfort is wedged in there, too — why are you wasting your time on black culture when whiteness is the clear pathway to respectability? Why are you rallying so hard against cultural assimilation? This is complicated by the fact that his mother, Jessica, is also having a hard time with their move to Orlando — when she first meets the mob of blonde, white, rollerblading neighborhood moms she asks if they’re all sisters, and Eddie’s insistence that he take Lunchables to school instead of noodles has her uncomfortably entering an American grocery store for the first time in an attempt to have help him fit in. Eddie’s family is a Matroyshka doll of outsiders; his dad is a wild west-loving Asian steakhouse owner who left D.C. to escape the oppressive cultural values that would have him working for his brother-in-law forever, his mother doesn’t fit in with the cookie-cutter Barbie version of the stay-at-home mom, and Eddie doesn’t fit in anywhere.

 

In this way, it’s easy to understand how hip-hop is crucial to the development of Eddie’s personality and outsider status. He’s trying to find a pathway to respectability on his own terms, which fits in completely with the hip-hop ethos. In a tense cafeteria moment, a potential fight with a loudmouthed white kid is diffused when he sees Eddie’s Notorious B.I.G. t-shirt. He perks up and says, “I bought Ready To Die the day it came out!” to which Eddie replies, “You bought it? I STOLE it.” He’s using the language and posture of hip-hop to cement his social status as a subversive badass when he needs it most. A black kid sitting nearby witnesses the exchange, and scoffs incredulously, saying, “A white dude and an Asian dude bonding over a black dude?” as if it’s the craziest thing he’s ever seen.

2015 Winter TCA Tour - Day 8

But it’s not too farfetched, considering what I remember about the year I graduated high school. In 1995, hip-hop was already mainstream, and having fictional Eddie shop for his hip-hop uniform in JCPenney is indicative of how mainstream the genre had become. Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre were on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1995, and Tupac was on the first cover of 1996, following Ice T’s cover in 1992. Notorious B.I.G. had four top singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1995, and that was the year the Grammys added the Best Rap Album category. White suburban kids were already huge consumers of hip-hop and rap, which may have been why Eddie’s mom found it particularly troubling to see him walk around in Wu-Tang Clan t-shirts — suburban parents were terrified by the rise of hip-hop. They were similarly upset about heavy metal, but its loudness reminded them of a loose connection to rock music. Hip-hop was completely foreign to them, and brought with it a violence they couldn’t access or explain. It was also, at times, absurd and funny and just good music, but the parts that put people on edge glorified and discussed a very real kind of violence. No one wants to see their baby boy lip-synching to songs about shooting someone in the face, least of all the white parents who largely moved to the suburbs to escape that kind of urbanized violence.

But the reason white parents felt terrorized by hip-hop is the same reason I still get uncomfortable when I see someone outside of black culture using the language and posture of hip-hop culture, why the hairs on my arm stand up when white women describe their friendships as “ride or die,” and why Iggy Azalea incurred the wrath of Azealia Banks —hip-hop and rap were born of a specific place, and made for a specific group of people. It was music that was socially stigmatized precisely because of who was in control of the message as well as what they were saying, with lyrics portraying with brutal honesty the systemic racism that created ghettoized conditions to begin with. Hip-hop has since gone global, but in 1995 we were still on the cusp, enough so that people in my predominantly white suburban town commonly used the word “wigger” to describe any white kid in my high school wearing a Cross Colours jacket and listening to Ol’ Dirty Bastard. You weren’t just someone appreciating a style of music or a way to dress—you were a white nigger. You were racially transgressive.

There is a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, the crux of which are the historical lessons of dominant culture and the power structures that uphold them. As Tami Winfrey Harris said in her 2008 article on the topic:

A Japanese teen wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a big American company is not the same as Madonna sporting a bindi as part of her latest reinvention. The difference is history and power. Colonization has made Western Anglo culture supreme–powerful and coveted. It is understood in its diversity and nuance as other cultures can only hope to be. Ignorance of culture that is a burden to Asians, African and indigenous peoples, is unknown to most European descendants or at least lacks the same negative impact.

[…]

It matters who is doing the appropriating. If a dominant culture fancies some random element (a mode of dress, a manner of speaking, a style of music) of my culture interesting or exotic, but otherwise disdains my being and seeks to marginalize me, it is surely an insult.

I don’t think that 11-year old Eddie is insulting, and he’s certainly not part of the dominant culture, which is why this question of appropriation/appreciation in this context is an interesting one. From a cultural standpoint relating to power, Young Eddie has more in common with black culture even if that’s not how he understands his fondness for rap T-shirts. He’s effectively powerless. Perhaps that’s why Eddie Huang has such an affinity for black culture, both in real life and on the show. His struggle seems to be as much about race as it is about just being an outsider, and, as he explains in the pilot, “If you were an outsider hip-hop was your anthem, and I was definitely the black sheep in my family.” He was trying to find a stronghold by honoring the parts about him that he already knew were unique, and hip-hop helped him express that. Huang has (now famously) railed against the TV show for being void of anything resembling his actual experience:

I didn’t understand how network television, the one-size fits-all antithesis toFresh Off the Boat, was going to house the voice of a futuristic chinkstronaut. I began to regret ever selling the book, because Fresh Off the Boat was a very specific narrative about SPECIFIC moments in my life, such as kneeling in a driveway holding buckets of rice overhead or seeing pink nipples for the first time. The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane. But who is that show written for?

The show is missing is the violence that shaped Eddie’s young life, and consequently, his affinity for hip-hop culture. Huang writes very candidly about being beaten by his parents as a child, and a network sitcom will never be able to accurately reflect how that shaped him. It would be an entirely different show on an entirely different network.

Huang gave a TED talk about self-identity in March 2013; he enters the stage singing along to Kanye West’s “You Can’t Tell Me Nothing” but curiously doesn’t mention how hip-hop shaped his identity for the entire 5 minutes he’s up there. It’s not until two months later when he sits down with Ta-nehisi Coates at the New York Ideas festival that he has an in-depth conversation about race, identity and hip-hop. When Coates called him a hip-hop head and asked when Huang first felt like he was a kindred spirit to black culture, Huang made an eloquent connection to his life at home and violence in the music.

“I was drawn to it, and I felt a similarity with it, because I grew up in a home where my parents beat me, right? And I talk about it a lot in the book, and no one needs to feel sad or awkward—that’s what happens in an immigrant home a lot of the time. I’m not co-signing that, I think it’s wrong, but the thing is is that when I heard [Tu]Pac talking about these things, and I heard all this music that was at many times laced with violence, I was a little desensitized towards it. It didn’t put me off. It was not, like, a barrier to my entry. So I would listen. I wasn’t listening for the violence, though, because I think hip-hop is much deeper, but when that’s what you grow up with—parents hitting you and things like that—that’s part of your DNA and fabric whether you like it or not. And a lot of people ask me would you do it different, and I said yeah, I won’t hit my kids like my father beat me, right? But also, they ask me, would you be the same person that you are, and I say absolutely not. And this is the gift and the curse, and I have to be honest about it. I do not encourage people hitting their children, but I would absolutely not be the same person.”

Huang goes on to say that hip-hop made him feel “less weird,” that he could connect experientially to something larger than himself. He also noted that he felt left out of most conversations about race, which were about black people and white people exclusively, until he discovered hip-hop — small things like seeing black culture embrace martial arts in movies like The Last Dragon or the Wu-Tang Clan’s entire oeuvre showed him how someone else appreciated Asian culture. Coates brings up the important point that Wu-Tang’s Asian obsession might have been essentializing that culture, too, and that’s where we come full circle to the idea of what it means to be culturally appropriative once something becomes a global phenomenon. Is there a difference between Tom on Parks and Recreation adoring hip-hop and the rapping granny from an Adam Sandler movie using hip-hop as the punchline to a very obvious joke? The question isn’t what happens to the culture that created hip-hop, but what does it mean to the cultures that embrace it?

How does Fresh Off the Boat‘s hip-hop identity measure up to Fox’s Empire, ABC’s or Black-ish? Both of those shows, in different ways, feature black families looking for legitimacy beyond the constraints of hip-hop culture. In the pilot for Black-ish, advertising executive Dre Johnson is excited about his promotion until he learns he’s been promoted to the head of the “urban” division; in Empire, Lucious Lyon is looking for a way to leave a legacy of success far removed from the shadow of his thuggish beginnings. In both cases, Dre and Lucious still have to work within the boundaries of black culture to achieve legitimacy, like it or not. In the video for the New York Ideas festival, Huang quickly mentions in passing that he is a lawyer, and spends a little more time talking about how much he disliked the constraints of business clothing. That’s the difference between a dramatized version of race and the reality of race; Huang can choose to identify with hip-hop but still go on to be a lawyer and successful business owner. He can hang up the cultural affectations whenever he wants to, simply because it’s something he’s allowed to grow out of. He may not like or prefer code switching, but it’s possible for him. On TV, Lucious and Dre can transcend class quicker than they can transcend culture, and in real life, Eddie gets to do both.

Does hip-hop still exclusively belong to black culture anymore? And does that even matter if it offers a weird little kid some solace? That we’re even able to have this conversation is a result of finally seeing a TV show about an Asian kid having a hard time fitting in. If one of the Modern Family kids suddenly started wearing FUBU and talking with a Bronx accent, it would be an open and shut case of abject racism and posturing, and I’d be yelling about it on Twitter instead of writing about it here. Fresh Off the Boat allows us to consider the experience of being a non-white person in America from a non-white perspective. It opens a window and lets us see how American minorities lean on each other to survive. It’s a little bit like a game of Telephone, but instead of getting a twisted, filtered version of the message about what it means to be a person of color in America after it goes around the rest of the group, you’re sitting next to the originator and getting it straight from the source.

Knowing more about Huang’s background helped me realize that his connection to hip-hop is solid and very much a part of him in a way that hasn’t been made clear on the TV show yet. Unlike the comedian I saw in Los Angeles, it’s also not an affectation; hip-hop music helped Eddie Huang get a foot in the door of what it meant to be American, and what it meant to be different. Those are all still real problems, possibly more so now that America has allowed the far right to pour its poison directly into the melting pot that used to sustain us culturally. It may not be exactly the show Huang wanted, but I can’t help but feel like Fresh Off the Boat is going to help another generation of kids feel like they’re a little less alone.

“Fresh Off the Boat” star Constance Wu: I Don’t Need to Represent Every Asian Mom Ever

Constance Wu

TIME Magazine:

ABC’s new sitcom Fresh Off the Boat — the first Asian-American family sitcom in 20 years — is a loose adaptation of the memoir by restaurateur Eddie Huang, who’s profiled in the new issue of TIME. But while the TV show may draw from Huang’s life story, its real star is actress Constance Wu, who plays Huang’s mother, Jessica — and nearly steals the show with her deft comic delivery, according to TIME television critic James Poniewozik.

TIME spoke to Wu about accents, avoiding stereotypes and the importance of Asian-American visibility on television.

TIME: Given how historic the show is, how do you make sure that Jessica is portrayed responsibly and doesn’t become a stereotype?

Constance Wu: Stereotypes are only dangerous when they are used as the butt of the joke, and our writers have taken great care to never write a single joke that is based upon a stereotype. The fact that this is the first show in 20 years that has Asian leads— carrying a story instead of supporting a white person’s story — takes away that burden of stereotypes. What makes a stereotype harmful is when it’s a one-dimensional person.

I think the reason people have been quick to throw the stereotype criticism on us is because there will always be people who are laughing at the wrong thing. Some people are like, “Oh, stereotypical accent!” An accent is an accent. If there were jokes written about the accent, then that would certainly be harmful. But there aren’t jokes written about it. It’s not even talked about. It’s just a fact of life: immigrants have accents. Making the choice to have that is a way of not watering down the character and making it politically correct. It’s choosing authenticity over safety, and I think that’s bold. The people who are going to laugh at the alleged stereotypes are the same people who are going to laugh at their Chinese waiter in the restaurant next door for very coarse, uneducated reasons.

We’re not writing the show to placate the idiots. So to anybody who accuses us of utilizing stereotypes, I would challenge them to point them out when they’re used as humor tools, because they aren’t. And I would challenge people to see if those alleged “stereotypes” are really there, or if they’re just the truth of the actual Jessica Huang, who is a real living and breathing woman in Orlando.

Did you not want to do an accent originally?

No, that was Randall [Park, who plays Huang’s father]. Randall actually wrote an article in which he was like, “If it were up to me, I’d never have to do an accent.” Not only am I okay with doing an accent, I actually think, as an actor, character work is one of the most fun parts. It’s my privilege to be able to play somebody not myself. I’m an actor who creates characters based in voice, movement, emotional quality, speech.

And you worked with accent coaches, right? I know Eddie has taken issue with the accents and the ways they don’t resemble those of his parents.

We had two different dialect coaches. I break my accent work down like a drama student does, in a phonetic and rhythmic way. It’s very apparent that Randall and I are attempting to do the same accent, but we’re doing it differently — like if I tried to do a New York accent and you tried to do a New York accent. There’s no such thing as like carbon-copy accents. And I hear that, that he doesn’t hear his mother’s accent the way I heard it. Nothing’s perfect on its first try. I can see why that’s annoying to him, but it was the network’s effort to at least try to make it as authentic as possible. Maybe he doesn’t think it helped, or maybe he thinks it hurt, but the awareness and the concern to get it right was there.

One of my favorite scenes is when Jessica’s neighbors try and explain the rules of the Daytona 500 to her. The joke isn’t that she doesn’t understand because she’s an immigrant — it’s that the the familiar things we take for granted aren’t any “stranger” than the things that strike us as foreign.

Totally. I don’t think her foreignness is ever the butt of the joke. She’s aware of her difference, yet she doesn’t think that’s any reason for her to not have a voice. It doesn’t elicit shame in her. She doesn’t become a shrinking violet. And instead of that being something that Asians should be embarrassed of, I think that’s something that we should be proud of — the types of characters who know they don’t speak perfect English, who know they have different customs, who don’t think that that’s any reason for them to not have a voice.

That’s what makes Eddie special: he’s not a placater. He doesn’t always say things that are smooth and easygoing. In fact, he rarely does. But he’s not afraid to say them, and he’s actually acutely aware of the fact that that is what makes him special. I think he gets a lot of that from his mom. She’s not afraid to have her voice. She even said to me at dinner, “My sons always told me that I’m too loud and I need to not be so loud. I told them they just have to get used to it because that’s who I am!” That’s something to be admired.

How much time did you spend with her?

I spent a weekend with her and the whole family, including the other kids, in Orlando. Both [of Eddie’s parents] were nice enough to videotape themselves speaking all of our lines. I phonetically studied it ad nauseum, little mannerisms she had. There was one line in the script that she did not like. She kind of made this stinky face after she said it, and you could tell her opinion of that line. The little mannerisms like that were real gems for me to help build my character. And that line actually did not end up making it into the cut. It was a line about the next door neighbor and her very tight pants, so it wasn’t like an Asian line. It was just commentary on fashion, but she didn’t like it.

What would you tell someone who doesn’t understand why the kind of visibility Fresh Off the Boat offers matters?

I wouldn’t say that just visibility is important. I would say visibility as the stars of a show is important. That says that our stories matter. We’re not here to do the taxes of the white person, or to be the chipper best friend to the white person. It’s important to see Asians in those leading roles because it changes what I’m calling the anglo-heteronormative status of TV. [Imagine] that a producer says, “Guy and girl meet-cute at an ice skating rink. They fall in love, but then she has to move away.” If you say that to anyone, including an Asian person, you picture a white person because that’s what’s become normative to us. If it’s “Asian-American meet in a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown,” that’s the only time you picture it. We need to have a picture of Asian Americans. We have a unique experience that has myriad opportunities for storytelling, if other people are willing to tell those stories.

Could you talk about the show’s balance of relatability and specificity?

I think you honor the universality of it by honoring the specificity. There are going to be people who are like, “Wait a second, my family doesn’t do that.” Or, “My Asian supermarket doesn’t do that.” Great! That means we’re actually not doing stereotypes because you’re saying to us that your family doesn’t do that. You can’t please everybody, and you don’t want to, because that’s when things becomes watered-down.

Eddie’s definitely trying to push the show to be more specific. I do think, because it’s network TV and they want to appeal to a broad audience and get their corporate sponsors and all that, they’re seeking a more universal, everybody-is-pleased type of stance. That’s the genesis of the conflict, I think, between Eddie and the network process. I really want to make sure that people understand that I do not stigmatize conflict. I think a lot of people read his [New Yorkmagazine] article and were like, “Ooh, drama on the set!” That should not be seen as bad, or as an indicator of anything remiss. I think it’s actually an indicator of strength and of commitment to excellence.

We shouldn’t be a voice for all Asians. We are such a varied group that there’s no one show that can be like, “This is what Asian America looks like!” But we’re given that burden because we’re so rarely represented. If you see Tina Fey on television, you’re not like, “All white women are like Tina Fey.” Yet people are like, “Oh, Jessica Huang’s not like my mother, but this show is supposed to be about Asians, so shouldn’t she be like my mother?

I understand the burden, because the history of our representation on TV is very sparse. But we’d be doing a disservice to the people who are worried about that by watering it down instead of trying to be specific. Specificity is what makes good storytelling, and good storytelling is what makes money, and making money is then what encourages new producers to invest in different stories about Asians.

In the more immediate, “How is my next-door neighbor going to see me after this show?” I get the anxiety. But we’re trying to be a little more far-sighted in this mission. We were featured at the SAG Awards in a little diversity clip, which is great, but the fact that in order to feature Asian leads in a montage about diversity, they have to show a clip from a show that hadn’t even aired yet? That just goes to show we don’t have Asian leads! We just don’t. Hopefully this will get the ball rolling in terms of other people telling other stories that are completely different and totally unique.

 

“Fresh Off The Boat” reviews

fob1

 Audrey Magazine:

Happy Fresh off the Boat Premiere Day! After much fanfare and some commotion, Fresh Off the Boat will finally premiere it’s first two episodes tonight at 8:30PM and 9:30PM. The big question is will it live up to the hype?  Based on my impressions from the pilot, Fresh off the Boat has charming actors across the board, laugh-out-loud lines and most importantly, the potential to be great. But don’t just take it from me. The reviews are coming in and most of them say the hype is warranted.

Thumbs Up Reviews:

Some reviews are calling Fresh off the Boat one of the best, if not the best, new show of the season. There is no lack of praise here.

fob2

1. Vulture :
Fresh Off the Boat is not a faithful adaptation of Huang’s book or experiences. But it is a successfully funny, sweet show, and one of the most polished and promising new comedies in a long-ass time.”

2. Huffington Post:
Fresh Off the Boat is good — at times, very good. Without question, it’s one of the best new shows of the broadcast network season: funny, well-acted and promising on a number of levels. ”

3. TIME:
Fresh Off the Boat (premieres Feb. 4) is damn funny–but not only funny and not cheaply funny. Three episodes in, it’s the best broadcast comedy of the new season, a daring but good-hearted sitcom about the complexities of identity–about not only being different but being different from the different.”

4. The Hollywood Reporter:
“In a season when ABC has already found success being both funny and diverse with its programming — Black-ish in particular — it strikes again with Fresh Off the Boat, one of the better freshman broadcast sitcoms in a while.”

5. Variety:
“ABC’s diversity push in comedies this year has saved its best for midseason. Representing a leap forward from the 1990s Margaret Cho vehicle “All American Girl,” “Fresh Off the Boat” combines the nostalgia of “The Wonder Years” and “The Goldbergs” with a specific take on the immigrant experience in general, and Asian-Americans in particular.”

6. HitFix:
“”Fresh Off The Boat” is one of the best new network comedies of the spring and both are probably better than any network half-hour — allowing for “Jane the Virgin” genre wiggle-room here — that debuted last fall.

7. Boston Herald:
“The network needn’t have worried: “Fresh Off the Boat” is the funniest, most charming show of the season.”

8. Flavorwire:
“‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Is 2015’s Best New Sitcom”

9. Village Voice:
“Or you can distill the message and adapt its packaging for a mainstream audience, hoping to spark new conversations instead of shouting everyone else down, as Fresh Off the Boat showrunner Nahnatchka Khan has been doing with her quietly revolutionary network sitcom.”

10. In These Times:
“It’s not the most sophisticated racial humor, but at a time when mainstream comedy continues to rely on racial stereotypes, lampooning the racists instead of the racialized is a step in the right direction.”

11. Denver Post:
“It packs a bigger wallop than the average half-hour purporting to be inclusive or to showcase “diversity.””

12. Slate:
“There is no better proof of this than ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, yet another damn good, diverse network sitcom that premieres this Wednesday night and remains funny, charming, sweet, and subtly provocative despite—according to no less an expert than the subject of the show itself—having had some of its edge sanded off.”

13. Hyphen:
“As such, Fresh off the Boat is layered enough to appeal to the culturally-informed. There is unexpected sass, hilarious side-eye and a universally-relatable struggle for adolescent normalcy.”

14. NPR:
“There’s a warmth to the show, though, that feels earned. It has promise. It’s a family with a lot of rootable, likable people in it.”

15. Salon:
“The humor comes both at the Huangs’ expense and at the expense of the hypocrisies of the world around them—carrying with it the sharpness and snark that characterizes Huang’s writing.”

16. Boston Globe
“The show, which premieres with two episodes on Wednesday night at 8:30 and 9:30 before moving to its regular Tuesday at 8 p.m. slot, is sweet enough and features a likable cast. The assimilation material is a bit obvious in the two episodes provided for review, but that’s typical in new comedies trying to establish their stomping grounds.”

17. Media Life Magazine:
“The writers find the common humanity in the ethnic particularities, eliciting a few laughs and smiles along the way.”

18. Orlando Sentinel:
““Fresh Off the Boat” proudly lives up to the fresh.”

 

Thumbs Down Reviews:

Of course, a show can’t please everyone. Some reviews claim the show is not “fresh” enough. In fact, there are a couple of reviewers who find the depiction of white people down-right problematic. – See more at: http://audreymagazine.com/fresh-off-the-boat-review-roundup/#sthash.qvS7txWp.dpuf

BROOKE BAUMER, HUDSON YANG

 

 

1. Deadline

2. NYTimes
“So it’s disappointing that two of the first three episodes are little more than familiar reworkings of overused formulas and plots. But Episode 2 — showing on Wednesday along with the premiere — indicates the concept’s promise; the show stops trying to be too many things and, for a half-hour at least, finds a groove.”

3. YahooTV
Then too, there’s a predictability to Fresh that undercuts its potential freshness. It repeats tropes we know from about a hundred contemporary sitcoms, good and bad.”

4. We Got This Covered
“The basic plots of the first three episodes are so mind-numbingly expected they border on archaic.”

5. NY Post
“The show’s view of Caucasians is certainly not going to entice anyone to stick around for Episode 2.”

6. Uncle Barky
“The series further strengthens ABC on the diversity front during a season where it’s also ushered in black-ish and Cristela. This is laudable, but it also would be a good idea to write out the white stereotypes.”

 

Fresh off the Boat premiered tonight on ABC at 8:30 and 9:30PM and will air in it’s regular timeslot Tuesdays on ABC at 8:30PM.

 

NY Times: “Eddie Huang Against the World”

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.’ ”

New York City: “Fresh Off The Boat” premiere viewing party (Wednesday, February 4th)


Angry Asian Man:

As you probably know, the groundbreaking ABC sitcom Fresh Off The Boat hits airwaves next week. Based on the bestselling memoir by Eddie Huang, the show stars the first Asian American family on the network television in over two decades. If you’re in New York, you’re invited to a special community viewing party.

Because this kind of a big deal. Watch the live two-episode premiere, along with a talkback with series star Hudson Yang and proud dad Jeff Yang, and special guests Erin Quill, Grek Pak, Richard Lui and more. It’s happening Wednesday, February 4, starting at 8:00pm at The Circle NYC.

Here are some more details about the event:

“FRESH OFF THE BOAT” LIVE COMMUNITY VIEWING PARTY AT THE CIRCLE NYC

Wednesday, February 4
at 8:00pm – 11:00pm in EST

THE CIRCLE NYC
135 W 41st St
New York, New York 10036

Gather together for the special two-episode preview of ABC’s groundbreaking new Asian American family comedy “Fresh Off the Boat,” inspired by Eddie Huang’s bestselling memoir!

EDIT: WE ARE LIKELY TO HIT CAPACITY! Space can accommodate 1000 max; COME EARLY as RSVPing here DOES NOT GUARANTEE ADMISSION

FREE EVENT (cash bar) — with Live Talkback featuring Jeff Yang, Hudson Yang, and special guests Erin Quill (original cast, AVENUE Q), Greg Pak (writer, BATMAN/SUPERMAN; STORM), Richard Lui (anchor, MSNBC) and more to come!

Special Thanks to Our Hosts Bobby Kwak and The Circle NYC!

This is going to be fun. But like it says, the venue is likely to reach capacity, and seating is first-come, first-serve, so make sure you get there early. For further information about the event, refer to the Facebook event.

Controversial Tweet about Eddie Huang’s “Fresh Off The Boat”

The official Twitter account for ABC‘s upcoming spin-off comedy series Fresh Off the Boat is in some hot water after posting a controversial ad depicting various cultural hats. Chef Eddie Huang, whose memoir serves as the basis for the forthcoming comedy series, expressed his distaste for the ad, calling it “plain offensive and ridiculous.”

Receiving criticism from audiences for its stereotypical nature in particular for its “bamboo hat” reference, the Twitter ad has since been deleted as executive producer Jeff Yang confirms. While it is no secret that Huang has expressed his frustration on getting the television series on air, the chef praises ABC’s efforts in pioneering a story that has yet to be told on major networks.

Check out the tweet below…

View image on Twitter