By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Although they could have stayed home and watched it on TV, hundreds of people, mostly Asian Americans, gathered at the Japanese American National Museum on Wednesday night for a community viewing of the new ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat.”
More than 200 people filled JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum to watch the first two episodes. In an effort to promote “Fresh Off the Boat,” ABC showed one episode after “The Middle” and another after “Modern Family.” About 100 more people were unable to get in, but some were able to watch the show down the street at Far Bar.
Based on the memoir of the same name by food personality Eddie Huang, “Fresh Off the Boat” takes place in the 1990s, when the Huang family moves from Chinatown in Washington, D.C. to an all-white neighborhood in Orlando, Fla. The show stars Hudson Yang as young Eddie, Randall Park and Constance Yu as his parents, Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen as his brothers, and Lucille Soong as his grandma. The real-life Huang is the narrator.
While his parents struggle to run a restaurant called Cattleman’s Ranch Steakhouse, 11-year-old, hip-hop-loving Eddie has trouble fitting in at school. His white classmates think the Chinese food he brings for lunch is gross, and he tells his mom that he wants to switch to “white people food” — Oscar Meyer Lunchables.
After viewing the pilot episode, panelists shared their reactions.
Oliver Wang, associate professor of sociology at CSU Long Beach and NPR music critic, commented, “This might sound like damning with faint praise. It was better than I expected it to be. For a pilot, you never expect it to be that good because it’s going to have some issues. I think the racial humor was more biting than I would have expected. I thought the pacing was a bit odd, but again I just chalk it up to being a pilot.
“The accents still bug me … My parents of that generation, they don’t sound like that. But maybe they’ll work it out.”
Cartoonist, illustrator and writer Jen Wang said, “I thought the back half was better than the front half. The front half seemed weird, a lot of set-up, not enough jokes. The parents to me are stronger than the kids. So I’m curious to see how that develops, because it is Eddie’s story …
“The racial humor, some of it was really funny, but I felt like ‘white people,’ that phrase kept popping up, and … I hope it’s just not like this one-note white people joke thing.”
Milton Liu, director of programs and artist services at Visual Communications and partner at Kulture Machine, said, “I love that grandma. She’s got one line in the whole show.” (The grandma’s lines are in Mandarin with English subtitles.)
Regarding the accents, he said, “I wasn’t too put off by that … For me it just felt a little bit like how growing up in Chicago, first (American-born) generation, was for me.”
Phil Yu, founder of the Angry Asian Man blog, remarked, “I don’t know if people have problems with the fact that they have accents or it’s not authentic enough or something like that. I’m just glad the accents are not the joke itself.”
He noted that there has been both anticipation and apprehension over the show’s debut. “Going into this, we’ve all just been inundated with articles and reflections about the show … A lot of stuff I’ve read is from people who haven’t seen it yet. They were like, ‘I’m hopeful but I’m not going to get my hopes up too much.’ … People have been burned before by (depictions of) Asians in TV and movies. So it’s like … steeling yourself for something to be really bad.”
Standup comic and writer Jenny Yang announced a new term for that kind of feeling. “How do you describe the anxiety that comes with that kind of trauma? It’s like representational anxiety — ‘rep sweats.’ … If you have been so invisible, every time there’s a moment where you can possibly see yourself on television or mass media … you hold your breath … ‘I hope it’s not something that people can use against me.’”
“It’s ridiculous that any one show should bear the burden of having to be that one sole example of Asians in mass media, but it is,” Yu observed.
A member of the audience confessed to feeling “rep sweats” when Jeremy Lin made his NBA debut.
Peter Kwong, an actor whose credits include “Big Trouble in Little China,” said that Asian American actors feel “double rep sweats” whenever they appear in a film or TV show because they have to worry about “how America views us and how our own people view us.”
Much has been made of the fact that “Fresh Off the Boat” is the first network TV sitcom about an Asian American family since Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl” in the mid-1990s.
“I think a lot of us are old enough to have gone through the ‘All-American Girl’ phase and everything else that came in the 20 years between that,” said Oliver Wang. “We’ve just always been set up — ‘We gotta do this, we gotta represent, we gotta support’ — then it’s like ‘oh’ when it finally comes out. For me at a certain point, I don’t have that energy to be completely optimistic. I have to be a little bit guarded because it’s been a long time.”
Yu, who has been promoting the show on his blog, said, “I saw the pilot months ago and I really felt like we can get behind this. I don’t think people should just watch it because there’s a bunch of Asian people on screen. I do feel like this something that’s worth giving a chance. I think that people, if they see the pilot and thought that was okay, I think it does get better. I think like all pilots, it’s representative of the potential that the show has. I’ve seen a couple more episodes and I can attest I think it does really go into interesting places. There hasn’t really been a show like this.”
As for the jokes about white people, “I never got to see Asians tell those jokes, so I’ve got no problem with that whatsoever,” Yu said.
Yu discussed the scene where Eddie has a confrontation with the only black student in the school. “For them to address that idea of this hierarchy at this mostly white school is quite bold and kind of brave. I’m super nervous that the kid that he does get into a fight with is African American.” But he added, “That kid comes back. That relationship is developed a lot more.”
A woman in the audience remarked, “My parents talk about white people, black people, not that they’re intentionally racist … (The show) is kind of hard-hitting on issues that people are probably still hesitant to talk about … We’re making fun of ourselves but we’re also making fun of everybody else.”
A Latino man in the audience said that “Fresh Off the Boat” feels “more genuine” than the way that George Lopez’s sitcom addressed the Latino experience.
Two men in the audience agreed that the show seems toned down compared to Huang’s memoir, but one said about the book’s edgy content, “Even if it’s not pushed out there right away, they’re being a little cautious with it (but) they’re cognizant of it.”
A Taiwanese American man called the show “a dream come true” because it depicts a family from Taiwan.
Another man declared, “This is f—ing huge. We’re watching a sitcom that is not making fun of the otherness of Asian culture. We’ve got a sitcom that makes fun of white culture and our relationship to it. That’s f—ing huge.”
Jen Wang said, “It is so stressful to be Asian. We are so stressed out … I’m actually sweating. I think speaks to the cautiously optimistic view … A sitcom on a major network! I am really nervous.”
Liu acknowledged, “There is a sense that this has to be a hit so we don’t have to wait another 20 years.” But he added, “They’re telling … a good, fun, honest story, and of course they’ve got to look after what the network wants … From the episodes I’ve seen, I think it’s going in the right direction.”
Oliver Wang offered a slightly contrarian view. “I think the stakes are actually lower now than they have been in the past. My daughter turned 10 today, and the world that she grew up in … in terms of media, in terms of our representation within it, is unlike certainly what we grew up with … If she wanted to go into entertainment or she wanted to be in TV or cinema, she’s seen those faces, they’ve been out there. We don’t have to wait for ABC to give us a chance …
“Of course, I’d like to see the show succeed because that can open up more doors, but if it fails, we don’t need it to be the one thing that we put our baggage in because we have this generation of kids who have gone out and done it all on their own anyway. I’m hopeful in the wider scene regardless of what happens to this particular show … That’s not going to stop her from doing what she wants to do.”
“Fresh Off the Boat” moves to its regular timeslot, Tuesdays at 8 p.m., on Feb. 10.
Fox Audience Strategy, in partnership with 8Asians, will host a watch party next Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at 147 Dodd Hall on the UCLA campus. It will feature sneak-peek episodes of “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Cistela” and highlights from the family drama “Empire.” Seating is limited. RSVPs are required. For more information, click here.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo