New Sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” and What it Means for Asian American Representation

It’s official! After nearly two decades since the first all-Asian American sitcom aired, All-American Girlstarring comedian Margaret Cho, ABC has picked up Fresh Off the Boat as part of their 2014-2015 primetime lineup. This is exciting news for many different reasons because: 1) I’m a huge fan of the show’s creator, Eddie Huang; 2) again, it’s an all-Asian American sitcom to get onto primetime television since the ’80s; and 3) this could potentially be a big deal for more representation of the Asian American experience on television.

Photo of cast Fresh Off the Boat, new ABC family sitcom
Photo of cast from new ABC family sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat, based off chef Eddie Huang’s memoir. (Source: Fresh Off the Boat Facebook page)

It’s no secret that there are very few representations of Asian Americans and the Asian American immigrant experience shown in the media. In the entertainment arena alone, Asian Americans tend to be typecast into the sidekick roles, doctors, nerds, or hypersexualized, exoticized Asian female fantasy. These caricatures are extremely narrow and often leave little room for interpretation and nuance for character development. Therefore, being able to see Asian American characters on television representing themselves and NOT the roles they’ve been confined to is a huge deal.

Fresh Off the Boat is a family sitcom that, I believe, is striving to redefine Asian American representation in the media. The show centers on the memoir of the show’s creator, Eddie Huang, a chef, restaurateur, and host of the Vice web series of the same name, Fresh Off the Boat. The Vice web series explores the relationship between food and culture in areas around the world (he focused mainly in Asia) and around the U.S. His web series, in my opinion, was a refreshing take on foodie culture and his analysis of it was insightful. Plus, he’s entertaining and funny, so overall a harmonious combination.

Huang’s memoir speaks to several experiences during his childhood and young adult life, to his family moving to Orlando from Washington D.C., to his early entrepreneurial gig in selling porn to his classmates. His experiences, although not all of them, but a lot of them, resemble the common immigrant narrative that people experience in the U.S., especially from the Asian immigrant perspective. Bringing cultural dishes to school for lunch, being teased for looking different, and having unconventional, non-Westernized parents are probably experiences that a lot of us Asian immigrants or first generation folks can relate to. That’s why this show is so special and can potentially break ground for Asian Americans. Jeff Yang from the Wall Street Journal writes more about the possibility of the show changing the game more explicitly in his article.

With all of this, I also want to emphasize that critique of the show is still welcomed and encouraged. It’s been about 20 years since All-American Girl aired and failed, which means we are more than ready to have the next Asian American show hit the mainstream airwaves and Asian Americans need to support it — regardless if you like the show or not. Here’s why: Fresh Off the Boat is not a show that is an end all, be all. Why the show is starting to pick up a lot of momentum is because of its comically accurate depiction of what we Asian Americans have actually experienced. But we cannot let this show be the one and only show in mainstream media that attempts to tell the Asian American narrative. What this show should be is a window of opportunity for a multitude of more shows — sitcoms, drama series — that showcase the Asian American experience, and/or emphasize more character development in roles that Asian Americans take on, ultimately abolishing the typecast roles Asians have been limited to.

I dream of a day where Asian American representation in media is comparable to what African Americans have achieved in the industry. There would be channels, whole networks, devoted to, hosted, produced and written by and for Asian Americans. I don’t think it’s too farfetched to claim that we, as an Asian American myself, can aspire for this. That’s why I’m hoping that Fresh Off the Boat can be the catalyst for a movement to happen.

As an Asian American and an avid media consumer throughout all of my life, not having accurate Asian representation in the media was a factor in the shaping of my identity. Which ultimately means I attempted to see myself in the narrow roles that Asians played, and of course, those roles were very, very few. There’s a joke from Margaret Cho that I always refer back to when I think about my early experiences in discovering the minute representation of Asians in the media. She jokes that her dreams were limited when she was younger because her only conception of Asians in the media were fixated to small, sidekick roles, like being an extra on the show M*A*S*H.

I think the world is finally ready for an Asian American family on primetime television. Don’t you think?

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Luann

Feminist, Pinay, coffee lover, boba aficionado and pop culture enthusiast. Current graduate student in Peace and Conflict Studies. Dwelling in the rainy city of Portland, Oregon but always California dreaming. You can also read more of her articles at browngirldecolonized.com

4 thoughts on “New Sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” and What it Means for Asian American Representation”

    1. My guess? The “model minority” stereotype. Some white people and non-Asian minorities see Asians as one step away from white, therefore they don’t need their own network. They’re trying to assimilate into white culture, why go “backwards” by embracing their own culture?

  1. OMG congrats to Eddie Huang!! I learned about him through a Slate review of his book and tore into that thing and have been (sporadically) reading his blog via GoodReads. I’ve seen a couple episodes from his web series too. I’m very excited to hear about this and look forward to watching the show and telling my friends about it!

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