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.