Asian-Americans have been unfairly maligned by Hollywood over the years and the trend shows no sign of abating. Kulture monitors the entertainment media for offensive representations of Asian-Americans and documents stereotypes and denigration of Asians in movies and television. The site is easy to navigate, categorizing offenses by media outlet, by type of offense, such as “Reinforces Stereotypes,” and by media type, such as TV commercials. Visitors to the site can also submit their own witnessed offenses through the “Report an Offense” feature.
Kulture is the only website that maintains a database of media offenses against Asian-Americans. They pull the curtain back onHollywood’s subtle racism and feature write ups that explore the offensive themes and tropes that are used to belittle Asian men and sexualize Asian women. In addition to providing the information on the offense, Kulture also analyzes the situation and provides explanation as to why it is considered offensive. Popular shows featured on the site include: “2 Broke Girls,” “Royal Pains,” “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “The Mindy Project.”
The offenses range from “Depicting Asians as Perpetual Immigrants” to “Asians as a Subordinate.” Every media offense, once added to the ‘Kulture Offense Database,’ stays forever. It serves as a repository and reference for the Asian-American community to know which TV shows, which directors, and which companies stereotype and demean Asian cultures.
According to Kulture, the Asian-American community doesn’t yet have full awareness of how depictions in the entertainment media disadvantage them in real life. As an example, Hollywood representations of Asians as timid translate into real-world stereotypes whereby whites refuse to see Asians as leaders. Asians are often unable to fundamentally change attitudes towards them, which are stubbornly reinforced by Hollywood. In other cases, Asians have a general awareness, but there is no common understanding as to why exactly certain Hollywood depictions are offensive; this forms a shaky basis from which to advocate change. Kulture addresses this by unpacking TV and movie scenes in detail and explaining the offensive nature of them.
Asian-Americans account for approximately 5.6% of the United States population, roughly 18.2 million people. According to student surveys conducted by the University of Michigan, Asian-Americans, when asked, could not name more than a few Asian actors, and the ones they could name were often portrayed in negative terms. Women are often sexualized while men are cast as villains or uncultured characters.
“Many Asians know TV shows represent them in a bad light. But they may think they’re alone in that view,” says Kulture’s founder Tim Gupta. “Kulture spotlights how Hollywood mocks and excludes Asian men while fetishizing Asian women. Kulture helps Asians and those concerned about media racism stay abreast of how Asians are depicted, and we will eventually serve as a platform for them to take action against Hollywood offenders.”
To view the list of media offenses, visit www.kulturemedia.org.
BBC- Magazine (by Dr. Christopher Harding):
National and racial stereotypes are often hard to dispel, but in the case of Japan, argues Dr Chris Harding of Edinburgh University, people in the West seem particularly determined to cling on to a set of long-established myths.
Landing in Japan for the first time 10 years ago, I couldn’t wait to get out of Narita Airport‘s dull beige arrivals area and into the real Japan.
Pretty soon, I felt sure, I would be lost in the intense verdant greens of paddy fields and forests, the steaming waters of natural hot springs. A sip of green tea would set me up for an afternoon of meditation in some old Buddhist temple tucked in among fragrant cedars. And then as night fell, a bullet train would zoom me into central Tokyo for a joyously baffled embrace of its Blade Runner futurism and crazy entertainments.
None of these fantasies survived a three-hour gridlocked bus ride into Tokyo, the motorway’s faceless concrete sidings occasionally dipping to allow views out across faceless concrete high-rises.
I drank sugary milk marketed as “ice coffee” with the Japanese acquaintance who’d come to meet me. We established that though his family was “technically Buddhist” he had no idea what that meant and he associated temples with school trips and dead people.
As we lapsed into silence, I considered asking Japan’s tourist board for my money back. I had been mis-sold Japan!
Later I realised they were just doing their job, generating tourist dollars with the material available to them – one extremely gullible young man, plus a century and a half of Western misrepresentations of Japan.
Here are three of the best misrepresentations – or worst, depending on your point of view.
1: Japan is inherently strange
“To find oneself suddenly in a world where everything is upon a smaller and daintier scale than with us – a world of lesser and seemingly kindlier beings, all smiling at you as if to wish you well – a world where all movement is slow and soft, and voices are hushed… this is surely the realisation, for imaginations nourished with English folklore, of the old dream of a World of Elves.”
That was the writer Lafcadio Hearn, 125 years ago. Across the century that followed, countless Westerners visited and worked in Japan. Japanese culture became readily available to us in literature and film. And yet despite all this, the keynote of the brilliant 1980s travelogue Clive James in Japan was a drily comic bewilderment at everything.
When he buys a snack on a bullet train, thinking that it might be a ham sandwich (while also noting that it looks like a pair of tights) it turns out to be a powerful-smelling dried squid – “dried and ironed” he speculates. Revolted, James stuffs the snack into the seat pocket and heads off for his next misadventure with the carriage’s on-board telephone.
Maybe I shouldn’t gripe. This was light entertainment, after all. But whereas most travel documentaries try to offer a portrait of a place, helping viewers or listeners get to know it, when it came to the Japanese the underlying message was: “It can’t be done! They’re completely inscrutable!”
Why? One reason may be that in a world where true strangeness and surprise have become rare and precious commodities, we have to find them somewhere. Financial Times journalist David Pilling quotes a friend who said Japan was the most alien place she’d been that had good plumbing.
At the same time, Japan offers us a mirror in which to look at ourselves. We say “Japan is…“, but we’re really asking a question: “Are we…?” The Japanese are dainty, kindly, soft – are we coarse and hard-hearted? Japan is hobbled by a group mentality that trumps individualism – how free are we…?
2. The Japanese are dangerous
Atrocities committed during World War Two gave the Japanese military a powerful reputation for cruelty. But a notion has long bubbled away in the West that the Japanese as a people are inherently unpredictable and dangerous – the famous gentility masking something menacing. This goes back at least as far as the 1850s, when British travellers and diplomats saw Japanese tolerance of their presence in the country morph into sporadic attacks against Westerners and their Japanese assistants. They linked the violence to the particular outlook of the samurai class, and the association stuck.
Some of these early ideas about the samurai were in part Japanese creations – fantasies concocted for a Western readership willing to pay good money for exotic tales of violence and sex. World War Two gave the legend another twist: the chivalrous, highly ethical elements of this samurai fantasy were lost, and what remained was the unthinking loyalty, the refusal to surrender, the indifference towards death – and others’ lives.
You can hear the results of all this in Alan Whicker’s nervous postwar musings on karate.
3. Japanese women are submissive
Japan has been seen as the land that feminism forgot. Both Japanese and Western commentators have tended to see the geisha girl as the ideal of Japanese womanhood – attractive and subtle, subservient to men, but clever enough to be good company. Then there was the influential American anthropologist of the 1940s, Ruth Benedict, who heard that Japanese girls were given just enough education so they could put their husbands’ books back the right way up once they’d finished dusting them. By the 1960s, for Western men unsure what to make of the rise of women’s liberation movements, all of this appeared deeply attractive.
Japanese women even received the ultimate British seal of approval in 1967, as Mie Hama became Bond-girl “Kissy Suzuki” in You Only Live Twice. Given the low-down on domestic arrangements in Japan by his male host – women are inferior to men, they’re happy with that, and they live to serve – Bond gives his blessing: “I think I’ll retire here…”
And if you think that nothing of this sort could possibly go on in the early 21st Century, then you haven’t been paying attention to Japanese pop culture, and the success of Japanese pop behemoth AKB-48.
Yes, 48 young girls (in the original line-up, though the group has since expanded), forbidden from having boyfriends and content instead to smile and dance around in bikinis or mock military uniforms or really whatever a paying public of – critics would argue – socially inadequate young and middle-aged men want to see.
All in all, this particular myth about Japan is simply worth too much to too many people – Western men mourning the passing of the patriarchy, Western feminists looking for sisters to save in Asia, corporate Japan chasing the under-deodorised male dollar (or Yen) – for it to be revised any time soon. It’s the perfect example of how diverse interests come together over time to create misrepresentations with a surprisingly long shelf life.
This past weekend, Netflix premiered Tina Fey’s new series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. While Fey doesn’t star in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt like she does in 30 Rock, the show is unmistakably hers with its sense of outlandish, wacky humor. Another commonality Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has with 30 Rock is toeing the line with racial humor, whether it’s the use of ironic blackface in 30 Rock or Jane Krakowski’s backstory in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
When Korean American actor Ki Hong Lee (from The Maze Runner and People’s “Sexiest Men Alive” 2014 list) shows up as an immigrant Vietnamese character named Dong in Kimmy’s ESL class, it’s hard not to see parallels with Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles. As soon as Dong is introduced, he laughs at Kimmy’s name because “it means ‘penis’ in Vietnamese.”
There are numerous “dong” puns afterwards, but Kimmy quickly tells a character to get over the snickering since Dong is a common Vietnamese name.
The rest of the series both plays into and subverts Asian stereotypes with Ki Hong Lee’s character. On one hand, Dong is working as a Chinese food delivery boy, good at math (though this is mostly just used as an excuse to have Kimmy and Dong spend time with each other) and worried about being deported. On the other hand, Dong is the rarest of the Asian American male characters — a viable love interest.
Part of what made Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong offensive and racist is that he is made to seem like a buffoon. Long Duk Dong is not a human character, he is simply an amalgamation of Asian stereotypes to be laughed at. His romantic interest in Molly Ringwald’s character is never taken seriously by either the other characters or the audience. And therein lies the key difference between Long Duk Dong and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s character, Dong.
While Dong’s character is not without stereotypes, he is never ripped of his humanity. His romantic interest in Kimmy is never played for laughs; they are both outsiders in New York, they share a childlike innocence and glee in the silliest things, and they actually like each other. It’s rare to see an Asian male character as a viable part of a love triangle and even rarer to see the Asian guy “win.” In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Kimmy chooses Dong and their romance is shown as something real.
By the end of season one, Dong is stuck in a situation where he can either continue to show up in the second season or be easily written out (Ki Hong Lee is currently a guest star on the show). Yes, Dong is character that could be tagged as #YourFaveIsProblematic on Tumblr, but if Ki Hong Lee isn’t too busy running in more mazes, we would definitely like to see where his romance with Kimmy goes.
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 memoir “Fresh 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 Chink’s 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.”
With expressions ranging from happy to sad to ironic, emoticons serve as a kind of virtual extension of the self on online messaging platforms. As a result, many rejoiced when Apple decided to import Japan’s Emoji keyboard back in 2011, eliminating the need for app extensions. Yet something was still missing. “Where’s the diversity?”asked everyone from Tahj Mowry to Miley Cyrus, addressing the notable lack of non-white cartoon faces.
It looks like Apple has been listening closely to these concerns, with plans to implement a more racially and socially diverse set of emoji for iOS 8.3 later this year. Problem solved? Not quite. As Apple unveils its most recent developer betas, a furor has broken out in China regarding what some regard as a prejudiced depiction of Asians. While one can certainly make a case for this position, Apple claims the startlingly yellow emoji at the heart of the uproar doesn’t depict a normal human face at all.
The controversy began with the series of emoji shown above. At first glance, it seems Apple’s aim with these new emoji is to provide a greater range of skin tones, thereby promoting one aspect of diversity. This then leads to the inevitable question of whether the emoji are also intended as a visualization of race.
Many Chinese citizens seem to think the emoji do, in fact, depict a variety of races, rather than a mere progression of skin tones. Therefore, they argue, the yellow face furthest to the left cannot be construed as anything but Apple’s idea of an Asian face. At this point, the problem becomes obvious. Comments on Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging platform, included the following:
“That emoji is seriously yellow. How does a person get to be that kind of color?”
“That can’t be an Asian person… I’ve never seen anyone so yellow in my life.”
“Has anyone ever actually seen someone who shade of yellow? I’d be worried they were ill.”
However, the ultra-yellow emoji might not be showing a natural skin color at all, Asian or otherwise.
As it happens, the developer of the emoji is not Apple itself, but rather Unicode Consortium, which aims to promote a greater range of skin tones in 2015. In a document on the subject, they write:
“Five symbol modifier characters that provide for a range of skin tones for human emoji are planned for Unicode Version 8.0 (scheduled for mid-2015). These characters are based on the six tones of the Fitzpatrick scale, a recognized standard for dermatology… The exact shades may vary between implementations.”
This is followed by a graphic showing the emoji modifiers.
You can see how the sample colors on the left side align with those of five emoji in the upcoming release. So what about the bright yellow face? The reason it is absent from this chart is because the yellow tone is, as Ritchie noted, the default color. Gradations in skin tone are achieved by adding a color modifier to the default, as seen below:
In light of this information, Apple’s explanation suddenly becomes much more plausible. Even so, it might be too late to reverse the damage. Sales of last year’s iPhone were higher in China than they were in America, making the former a vital market for Apple–which must now surely be concerned about its image among Chinese consumers. Ultimately they will decide with their wallets whether or not to give Apple the benefit of the doubt.
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.