I want to be a fan. I want to be a hater. And therein lies the problem.

If you follow current developments in network television, you might have noticed an anomaly in upcoming programming, in a show that is an eye-catching example of “one of these things is not like the other.” ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat (FOTB), based on the bestselling memoir of restauranteur and chef Eddie Huang, premieres this week. It is the first sitcom featuring an Asian-American family in more than 20 years.

The last such show, All-American Girl starring comedian Margaret Cho, was never renewed past its first season. Fresh Off the Boat is similarly set in the 1990s and centers on the life of a 12-year-old version of Eddie, who struggles to fit into his new life in Orlando after growing up in more multiethnic D.C. Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang (who also happens to be the father of Hudson, the actor who plays young Eddie), describes FOTB in his piece “Why the ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ TV Series Could Change the Game”:

The show is like nothing you will have ever seen before on television…it will blow minds, raise eyebrows…It’s that different. And provocative. And, yes, gut-bustingly funny.

Oh, how I’d love for it to succeed.

And yet, part of me hopes it will not.

If the show does well, then it’s a sign to those invisible powers in control of television programming that putting Asian Americans on the small screen is not an automatic money-losing proposition. Given the recent fate of shows in which the likable and talented John Cho has  been a lead actor (Selfie, FlashForward ), I fear that network executives are biased to think that Asian Americans can’t carry shows that appeal to a broader audience. (Of course, it has nothing to do with the fact that those particular shows were poorly executed, now, does it?) But if Fresh Off the Boat does well, a new narrative might just emerge, in the same way that The Cosby Show paved the way for a spate of programs featuring predominantly African-American casts. Whether you’re the only person of color in the room or the only Asian-American sitcom in the entire lineup of network or cable television, you bear the burden of representing all the others who appear to share your characteristics, whether you want that burden or not.

So maybe, just maybe, a FOTB ratings bonanza will open the door so that Asian Americans are featured more prominently and frequently than one show every two decades. If the medium is in fact the message, then the current message television broadcasts to hundreds of millions of viewers is that America is almost entirely white, with a sprinkling of black, and a minute smidgen of every other ethnic group or race. After watching the Parenthood finale this week, my fellow Asian-American friend and writer Kathy Khang tweeted, “Watched #ParenthoodFarewell…still wondering where were the Asian Americans in SF.”

The skewed reality of on-screen television demographics merely perpetuates the fallacy that those of us who are not white are just visitors in this country.  In the ten-year history of the show Friends, only two actors of color ever appeared, and only as minor characters, despite the real-life setting of multicultural/multiethnic Manhattan. So a show like FOTB, whose very cast features 200 percent more racial diversity than ever existed over 236 episodes of Friends, communicates volumes to Asian Americans: that we are not invisible, that our presence matters. These are ideals to celebrate. And the celebration will be much longer lived if the show actually holds its own. Which I am rooting for. I am.

But at the same time, I am not. There is a downside if FOTB actually does well. One of the risks of being a minority in America is that people tend to ascribe the attributes of one example from that particular minority and apply it to the whole group. If viewers of the show have little personal knowledge of other Asian-American families, they might be inclined to assume that the FOTB family is a fair representation of what all or even most Asian-American families are like. And nothing could be further from the truth.

By appearances alone, a viewer of FOTB might assume that my own family is just like the Huangs depicted in the show. As a person of Asian descent married to another person of Asian descent, and with three sons almost the exact same ages as those on the show, we look just like the fictional on-screen Huang family. And yet we are completely different. My family is not Taiwanese American, but Korean American. I am not a recent immigrant like Eddie’s mom on the show, but a natural-born American citizen. I don’t speak with an accent, as far as I know, and I don’t have a problem with feeding my kids “white people food”—an issue Eddie wrestles with in an early episode of FOTB. My family eats “white people food” much of the time, only we just call it “food”.

FOTB is depicting a specific, particular slice of a specific, particular Asian-American family, and not even a current-day version of that family, but a 20-year-old representation of it. And while there might be themes and struggles in the show that resonate with me more than they speak to a non-Asian-American viewer, such as dealing with incidents of being called “chink,” the commonalities only go so far. Back when the movie The Joy Luck Club was released, I remember how often people would tell me how much they loved it (or the Amy Tan novel on which the movie was based). The subtext of those comments was, “I understand you! I know all about your experience as an Asian American now!” And I could see the disappointment and confusion in their faces when I didn’t share their love for the film or book, that somehow I was not being true to my own identity as an Asian American, or to their perception of that identity.

This is the challenge of being a minority in America, racially or otherwise. Whether you’re the only person of color in the room or the only Asian-American sitcom in the entire lineup of network or cable television, you bear the burden of representing all the others who appear to share your characteristics, whether you want that burden or not. But no one member of any particular minority group can speak for all. No one show about one particular Asian-American family can represent the experiences of every Asian-American family. And that is the risk should FOTB succeed.

One key reason it has taken so long for a second show featuring an Asian-American cast to even have a chance on network television is that Asian Americans are underrepresented amongst those who wield power and control in the television industry. No Asian-American version of Shonda Rimes, creator of hit shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder, has emerged…yet. But Rimes’s story demonstrates what happens when someone with cultural sensitivity reaches the top echelon. Change manifests quickly, as evidenced by the racial diversity represented in Rimes’s casts. (Whether those racial differences are ever discussed onscreen however—that is an issue for another day.)

One commendable example of cultural nuance related to an Asian-American role on television occurs in the treatment of the character of Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead, played by actor Steven Yeun. A number of times in the first season of the show, Glenn is specifically identified as Korean-American; in one episode, when Glenn is referred to as “the Chinese kid,” another character corrects, “He’s Korean.” The relationship between Glenn and Maggie, a white woman, is a racial pairing infrequently seen on television but forms the foundational romantic heart of the show.

The refreshing way Glenn’s character is treated is no accident. The Walking Dead has two key writers/producers, Angela Kang and Sang Kyu Kim, who are also Korean-American. When it comes to cultural sensitivity and breaking stereotypes, whether in the television industry, the Christian subculture, or any other institutional setting, it matters who is at the top.

So yes, I am thrilled to see a sitcom of an Asian-American family given a chance to break through, especially one that purports to tackle topics that are often not given voice in the sitcom context. But  yes, I am also nervous about how America will react if it’s a hit. I don’t know if FOTB will be a game-changer in television or not, but I would be happy to see the show change the rules. Twenty-one years is a long time to be given a chance to play.


  1. Helen, thanks for writing this. I really appreciate your thinking through the ramifications, whether the show does well or not.

  2. Here’s to hoping that FOTB succeeds to the point where we see a greater interest in Asian representation on television and that Hollywood responds in kind. That’s the only scenario I can think of where more nuances and microcosms to the culture can be represented and we as a greater ethnicity can avoid the overarching simplifications of a single show.

  3. I understand your concerns but let’s be realistic, unless there’s ANOTHER show with a different Asian American narrative, you’re going to continue to have these trepidations. this is what we’re offered so let’s hope it’s a success. i have a tiny bit of reassurance in knowing that the producer is Asian, the writer is a first generation immigrant i believe.

    1. So far so good, but it will be interesting to see if the show catches on. The creator and one of the executive producers of the show is Nahnatchka Khan; she is Iranian-American and wrote the teleplay of the pilot episode. Melvin Mar is another executive producer; second episode was written by Kourtney Kang, a writer/executive producer of “How I Met Your Mother.” So yes, various POC are involved in all levels, which is an improvement over what happened with All-American Girl (“None of the show’s 11 writers were Korean-American (two were Chinese-American), nor were any of the directors or producers.”)–http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/american-girl-20-evolution-asian-americans-tv/

  4. I came to the States from Korea back in the mid 60s at a young age. Of course, I used to be called chink every so often. Then it stopped for a long time… until I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 90s. Someone called me a chink in the city of San Francisco. I don’t watch much tv anymore. But I fully get why shows like Parenthood and Friends lack an ethnic presence. It’s because there seems to be a growing self-imposed segregation in this country. This country has made a certain progress, but it seems that people have retreated back into a default mode of separation that reveals the racist heart in almost everyone. I wonder if heaven will be like that. Not likely. The entertainment industry has a lot of influence, so thank God for any show that promotes cultural sensitivity and breaks racial stereotypes. I pray it promotes peace, love, and understanding for now.

  5. Maybe you’re overthinking it. Let it succeed on its own merits. Not every predominantly black show represents black families everywhere.

    This is a start in the right direction. Trying to meet everyone’s expectations and experiences is calling for a jumbled mix of messages. Let one person’s voice be heard.
    Don’t like what Eddie’s story tells then pray that someone who has your story gets on network TV. Maybe that person is you. Just a thought.

  6. There are a growing number of Asian/South Asian/SE Asian-American individual actors who are making their mark. But FOTB would be the first network show since All-American Girl featuring a predominantly Asian American cast. K-Town doesn’t count. =)

  7. Though friends is predomiently white in it’s casting, to be fair more than two actors of “color” make appearences. You have the copy place guy with the giant afro, julie, ross’s chinese girlfriend, charlie ross’s black girlfriend. There was the young actor in joey’s acting class who bear him out for the part as “nick the boxer”. During Chandlers internship there was a fellow black intern working with him. Chandler had a black female boss who sent him to tulsa. Ken in the tulsa office along with another black woman in that office. The asian actress who asked monica for more candy, claiming them to be “like little drops of heaven”. That makes 9 actors of color without using google.

    1. Eric, I was only considering characters who appeared in running plot lines, which would be Julie and Charlie. Those are the two that I mentioned, but yes, occasionally (VERY occasionally) we would see brief glimpses of the diversity that populates NYC. Still way, way less than real-life NYC, though, wouldn’t you say?

  8. Both the Huxtable and Banks families were popular, but I don’t think many of us assumed all black families were like them. Yet I can understand your worry.

  9. It’s not fiction. The show is based on a book, a autobiography, of the same name. What happened in the premier episode was entirely from his own experience. Besides, the title FOB has only been exclusively used on new immigrants, not 2nd generations like you. I think you’re overreacting in your worries.

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