The New Yorker: “Home Cooking- Funny families on ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ and ‘Black-ish.’ ”

If “Fresh Off the Boat” emphasizes family warmth, it’s complicated by sharp details.

If “Fresh Off the Boat” emphasizes family warmth, it’s complicated by sharp details. (Illustration by David Saracino)

The New Yorker (by Emily Nussbaum): 

Like many pioneering TV series, ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” a sitcom about a Taiwanese-American family running a Western-themed chophouse in Orlando, Florida, débuted to impossibly high expectations, hand-wringing, and prickly waves of preëmptive backlash. In an unusual twist, this hazing came from the man whose life the show was based on.

In an essay in New York, Eddie Huang, the celebrity chef, Vice TV host, and author of the memoirFresh Off the Boat,” merrily trash-talked his own collaborators, including a Chinese-American producer, whom he called an “Uncle Chan,” and the showrunner, Nahnatchka Khan, an Iranian-American. “What did you buy my book for?” Huang yelled, frustrated that the show had bowdlerized his story, which included whippings by his father, an immigrant restaurant owner. “Just make A Chinks Life . . . With Free Wonton Soup or Soda.” Thousands of words in, Huang tossed out a few lines of praise, but the impression he left wasn’t great—if he saw his sitcom as a sellout, who were viewers to disagree?

At the heart of this rant was the question of what makes TV bold: Huang wanted something pungent, like an FX anti-hero dramedy, or like the nineties sitcom “Married with Children,” the type of show that would underline (and maybe glamorize) his violent youth, his charismatic dick of a dad, and the roots of Huang’s own flamboyant persona. That desire wasn’t sheerly egotistical: Huang was eager to push back at the cliché of Asian men as passive, genitally cheated nerds (“the eunuch who can count,” as he puts it in the book)—a Long Duk Dong stereotype still visible on shows like CBS’s “2 Broke Girls.” Huang wanted “Fresh Off the Boat” to “go hard,” like his nineties hip-hop heroes. In the process, he was claiming TV’s own bad-boy role, the provocateur who shoves authenticity down the throat of The Man. Think Roseanne; think Louis C.K. and Dave Chappelle.

In reality, of course, the bad-boy provocateur very rarely gets final cut on a network family sitcom—it’s a genre more prone to compromise than a Senate bill. Even the edgiest shows have limits: Al Bundy never hit Peggy, after all. So it’s no surprise that, aesthetically, “Fresh Off the Boat” fits right into ABC’s sweet-tempered slate of comedies, which includes the subtly retrograde “Modern Family,” the wonderful “The Middle,” “The Goldbergs,” “Black-ish”—a smart new show that I’ll get to in a moment—and the unfortunately bland “Cristela.” Like all these shows, “Fresh Off the Boat” is brightly lit, with an A plot and a B plot. The jokes aren’t dirty and nobody gets his butt whipped. The parents—patriotic restaurant-manager dad, Louis (Randall Park), and proudly alienated mom, Jessica (the terrific Constance Wu)—love one another. There’s even a “Wonder Years”-esque voice-over, performed by Huang, and an ensemble of adorable children. It’s a comedy the whole family can watch together—which may be either an insult or a compliment, but is definitely a business plan.

Yet, even in its half-dozen early episodes, those burnt first pancakes of sitcoms, the show has a radical quality, simply because it arrives in a television landscape with few Asian characters, almost none of them protagonists. Khan, the showrunner (who wrote for Seth MacFarlane, and who produced the wicked ABC sitcom “Don’t Trust the B—— in Apartment 23”), is her own sort of provocateur, an expert at slipping rude ideas into polite formats. She uses the Asian-American family to reset TV’s defaults. The characters aren’t the hero’s best friends; they’re not macho cartoons or eye candy, either, as on some cable dramas I could name. This can be an unpleasantly clinical way to talk: it places the critic in the camp of the bean counters, not the gonzo rapscallions. But simply watching people of color having a private conversation, one that’s not primarily about white people, is a huge deal. It changes who the joke is on. “Fresh Off the Boat” is part of a larger movement within television, on shows that include the CW’s “Jane the Virgin” and Fox’s “Empire”—a trend that’s most influential when it creates a hit, not a niche phenomenon.

Reading the book, then watching the show, you get why Huang was frustrated: without a cruel bully for a father, Eddie’s taste for hip-hop feels more superficial—in the book, it’s an abused kid’s catharsis and an identification with black history. But, if the show emphasizes family warmth, that theme is complicated by sharp sociological details: the only black kid in the school calls Eddie a “Chink” and smirks at his hip-hop T-shirt; Jessica grabs every free sample at the supermarket, then gives the employee a hilariously dismissive wave; Louis hires a white host to attract customers (“A nice happy white face, like Bill Pullman,” he explains firmly). There’s no violence, but there are specific immigrant perspectives, shown through multiple lenses.

In one of Khan’s most effective gambits, we see Eddie through his mother’s eyes as often as we see her through his. In the book, Jessica is a brazen, mysterious goad to her son; on the show, she’s a full character, Eddie’s equal in cultural alienation, even if her escape is Stephen King, not the Notorious B.I.G. In one of the most interesting early episodes, mother and son are both drawn to Honey, a trophy wife who lives next door. Eddie sees a hot MILF he can show off to the boys; Jessica sees a kindred spirit who will eat her “stinky tofu” and bond over “Dolores Claiborne”—then pulls away when she realizes that Honey is the town home-wrecker. The show hits every awkward angle of this triangle, including a surreal fantasy sequence in which Eddie, inspired by his hero Ol’ Dirty Bastard, sprays Capri Sun on gyrating video vixens. (His mom intrudes, complaining that he’s wasting juice, while his father offers the women free samples from the restaurant: “Come on, Fly Girls. Try a rib! Tell a friend.”)

In the final scene, at a block party, everyone’s loneliness collides, as Eddie gropes Honey, and Jessica sees her neighbor’s humiliation. Opening her heart to a fellow-outsider, Jessica seizes the karaoke mike to serenade Honey with an awkward, earnest rendition of “I Will Always Love You.” The sequence doesn’t “go hard”; it goes soft, quite deliberately. But somehow it still manages to find strangeness within its sentimentality. “Fresh Off the Boat” is unlikely to dismantle the master’s house. But it opens a door.

ABC’s other new family sitcom, “Black-ish,” created by Kenya Barris and Larry Wilmore (who left to do “The Nightly Show,” on Comedy Central), has had fifteen episodes, giving it more of a chance to grow than “Fresh Off the Boat”—and in that time the series has transformed from hokey formula into one of the goofiest, most reliably enjoyable comedies around. Early on, the show kept aggressively re-stating its thesis: Andre (Dre), a successful adman, is worried that his four kids aren’t black enough. Growing up rich in a white suburb, they don’t remember a time before Obama; Andre Junior is a nerd, not a thug. Andre’s biracial wife, Rainbow, an anesthesiologist, is less concerned about race. Each week, Dre tries to toughen the kids up, terrified that if they don’t get “blacker” he’ll have failed as a father.

The problem with the show, initially, was that Andre himself felt so off-putting—childlike and abrasive, a man-baby in the Homer Simpson mode—that it was hard to buy his marriage or his success, let alone his lessons. Rainbow, played by the fantastic Tracee Ellis Ross, was trapped in the gruesome role of wife-as-mommy, the sighing goody-goody. It’s hard to even remember that version, though, because, once “Black-ish” settled in, it began, like so many smart sitcoms, a quiet reinvention. Andre got more insightful; Rainbow became a glamorous dork with a temper and her own loose-limbed charisma; the kids clicked, too; and Andre’s workplace became a reliably hilarious setting for him to brainstorm about his troubles. It helped that he began to acknowledge his own outsized personality, too, rather than presenting it as interchangeable with authentic urban blackness. “I’m a lot,” Andre says, about his parenting. “If they can get past me, they can get past anything.”

A funny Valentine’s Day episode featured a date night that went downhill—a sitcom chestnut that paid off, miraculously, owing to sharp dialogue and the couple’s great chemistry. Andre and Rainbow sniped over his mispronouncing the word as “Valentimes.” They revisited a childbirth scenario so awkward that the doctor asked her, “You mean he’s actually part of your life? Because plenty of women successfully raise children alone.” They argued over whether or not Andre saw Gene Hackman at a roller rink. (“You think everyone is Gene Hackman!” Rainbow fumes.) In the best tradition of the mainstream sitcom, the show felt both new and familiar, giving the show’s marriage emotional roots.

As these relationships became more organic, “Black-ish” also got looser with its ethnic humor, with plots about Andre competing to be a black Santa Claus (he loses out to a Mexican woman) and microaggressions on a baseball field. When Rainbow notices a gray pubic hair, Andre tells her, “You look distinguished, going all Frederick Douglass down there.” When their daughter dates a French boy, a co-worker of Andre’s says, “I cheated on my husband with a French-Canadian. His Frenchness was so powerful that I forgot he was Canadian.” Andre’s mother tells Rainbow, “You are too hard on the kids. If I didn’t know you were mixed, I’d swear you were Chinese.”

In the show’s most outrageous episode, a ski trip becomes an outlandish parody of Martin Luther King Day. Rainbow throws sardonic air quotes onto “Doctor,” because King had no medical degree; Andre Junior admits that he’s never fully absorbed King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, because “I always kind of zone out when people start to tell me about their dreams.” The jokes overlapped, turning flippant, wild, verging on misfire—an elbow in the ribs of boomer earnestness. In a safe sitcom structure, it was a different kind of risk: inside jokes in an outside voice.
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The Meaning of Mandela to an Asian (American) Woman

 

Former Hyphen publisher Lisa Lee reflects on her childhood years spent in South Africa

 

Photo: Lisa Lee with a group of her classmates in 1998 at St. Mary’s DSG, a women’s boarding school in Pretoria, South Africa.

“This is how you use a Taser,” my father said calmly, as he held the black flashlight-like device and made the electric shocks come alive in front of my brother and I. “Here, both of you try it. It’ll be underneath my pillow if we need to use it.”

It was the eve before something big was about to happen. In 1994, I was ten years old. Brian, my older brother, twelve. Typically, bedtime meant retreating to our own separate bedrooms, but that night, my reserved immigrant father requested that my brother and I sleep upstairs in the master suite with him. All my father divulged was that if a man was not elected the president of South Africa, then a riot would most likely breakout. Even though we’re Chinese and considered to be “coloreds” in most countries, we needed to be prepared because no one would be safe.

My ten year-old self wondered about the man I saw on TV with the contagious smile and the significance of the huge lines of people waiting patiently to vote for him.

Little did I know, then, that the man my father was referring to was a man named Nelson Mandela, a man who had been imprisoned for over 27 years because he fought to end apartheid in South Africa, a system of racial segregation under which the rights of the majority black citizens were severely diminished. It was only years later when I was living in the United States that I realized the magnitude of the history that I had witnessed.

To my father’s relief, the outpour of support of black South Africans on April 27th, 1994, ensured Mandela’s place as the country’s first black president. A riot never broke out, at least not then. Instead, joy filled the air. Mandela symbolized freedom—that finally, after years of living as second-class citizens in their own country, black South Africans could finally live.

Over the course of the next few months, a new story of South Africa emerged. This time, it’s a story that made the natives proud. Our history classes changed and I started to learn about Shaka Zulu, one of the most influential South African leaders. I learned of his bravery to fight off colonizers instead of learning about the Cape of Good Hope, where “friendly” trading took place between the Europeans and South Africans. Thanks to the immediate reforms thatMandela mandated, I saw an increasing number of black students in my public primary school, where there were none before. My world started to shift and I watched Mandela and his warriors push forward amidst the racism of all who doubted him and everyone with darker skin.

This was merely 20 years ago.

Mandela’s passing on December 5th, 2013, left me with a variety of emotions. I was beyond sad, angry, and shaken up. How do you begin to talk about a man whose life has always been bigger than life itself?

In the past, I’ve felt guilt and shame for having great childhood memories during a time when South Africa was truly broken. However, to have grown up in South Africa during those years and to have breathed Mandela’s ideals have had a huge impact on me. I see now that hisunwavering faith in democracy and steadfast strength to guide his nation to true equality for all have been the north star in my own beliefs. Even though I was an ignorant little girl during Mandela’s most heightened years, a Chinese immigrant from a community that hardly appeared in any of the history books about South Africa’s new freedom, he was and is Tata Madiba to me.

Despite the difference in our physical appearances, Mandela’s legacy explains the conviction that I have for the work that I do as a diversity architect who advocates for the communities that have been left behind in the midst of tech innovations. More importantly, beyond equality, Mandela’s influence made me feel at home when I was in a country that was not my own, and that is what I want to do for the rest of my life—build places, spaces and communities for those who have been racially marginalized in order to truly feel at home.

On December 5th, the world lost a symbol and I lost a father. But deep down inside, I know that the best way to honor his life’s work is simply to follow in his footsteps. He knew, and we know, that his work is far from over. We must honor him with our commitment and our actions to shape our world to be one where human rights are equal for everyone. We may never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again, but if we let him live inside of us, perhaps we won’t have to.

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Lisa Lee is the diversity program manager at Facebook and the former publisher of Hyphen. She is also the cofounder of ThickDumplingSkin.com, an online community that aims to address body image and eating disorders amongst the Asian American community. Lisa lived in South Africa with her family from 1993–1999.

 

Check out this link:

The Meaning of Mandela to an Asian (American) Woman

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Roy Choi’s “L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food” Book Tour 2013

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Renegade chef, restauranteur, food truck pioneer and now author Roy Choi‘s debut book L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food hits shelves on November 5. Part cookbook and part memoir, it tells the unlikely story of how a Korean American kid went from lowriding in the streets of L.A. to becoming an acclaimed chef.

To celebrate the release of L.A. Son, Roy is heading off on a book tour throughout the month of November. If you happen to be in New York, you can join Roy in conversation with Anthony Bourdain for the official book launch, Tuesday, November 5 at The Powerhouse Arena. $85 gets you signed copy of L.A. Son, wine, and food from Momofuku and Momofuku Milk Bar!

Check out this link:

Roy Choi’s “L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food” Book Tour 2013

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