There’s no such thing as Asian culture. We don’t all look the same, we don’t all eat the same things, and we are not all from one single mass of land. I’m pretty sure it has been that way since Pangaea split and inadvertently birthed the concept of racism. But I do have plenty of Asian friends. In fact, most Asians know exactly what I'm referring to when I talk about my Asian friends. It’s usually the group of people you feel like you can actually be yourself with—because at that moment, you are not the Asian friend.
If there’s one thing Asian Americans excel at, it’s code-switching. We have an uncanny ability to fluidly transition from adept corporate jargon in work emails to calling someone a trend-riding fuccboi in the Hypebeast comments section. We can go from explaining why Bonchon chicken is crack to our white friends to discussing the new Migos mixtape with our black friends. And many of us remain fluent in the languages our parents passed down to us.
It’s because "Asian American culture" largely exists as a mash-up of mutual interests and shared subculture. We define ourselves mostly by the music we listen to, the video games we play, the clothes we wear, and the shows we watch. Ethnicity is just one piece of the puzzle, and usually an irrelevant one.
Asian Americans can never fully be "American" because we don't look the part. Even if we were born here, we are forever foreigners. That’s why it’s so annoying when people ask, “Where do you come from?” and when you reply with an American city, they prod with something along the lines of: “No, where are you from, from?” It’s like trying to find out if someone is Irish so you can connect with them over your love of beer and potatoes. Hence, the reason it's problematic when a TCA journalist asks whether there will be "chopsticks" on a show with a predominantly Asian American cast.
Eddie Huang understands all this. He’s lived it and written about it. Always hyper-aware of his ability to exist in multiple worlds, he’s managed to make a very distinct path for himself between them all. His new show Fresh Off the Boat, despite his very vocal qualms, manages to make that experience more mainstream. It’s far from an Asian American studies course (although books like Helen Zia’s Asian American Dreams and Ronald Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore are good primers), and you don’t need to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to know what it feels like to be marginalized.
I remember the first time someone called me a chink. It was a neighbor. In elementary school. #freshofftheboat— Kat Chow (@katchow) February 5, 2015
In many ways, Fresh Off the Boat is the show about kids whose parents immigrated to America so they could have better opportunities, and became severely confused—perhaps even frustrated—when their kids created opportunities for themselves. There’s the stereotype that first-generation Asian parents often wish their children would grow up to be doctors, a role B.D. Wong played in Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, but in a professional climate where you can make Facebook money without a degree, who needs med school?
Huang would know: his self-made success has both perplexed and impressed his parents. Although Fresh Off the Boat is just two episodes in, it’s already twisting the trope of the hard-working, bootstrap immigrant family. America in the show is portrayed as far from a land of opportunity, more like a land of ignorance and (un)intentional racism, which is pretty accurate. Twitter beamed at the scene—lifted from the book—where Huang’s parents defend their son to the principal for getting in a fight after being called a chink, implying that suing the crap out of a school and the American way go hand-in-hand.
HAHA MY SISTER WENT TO A SCHOOL THAT DIDN'T GIVE REPORT CARDS MY DAD WAS LIKE "NAH NOPE NOT AT ALL"— Jon (@gblyss) February 5, 2015
In the following episode, Constance Wu’s Jessica Huang is more preoccupied with when report cards come out as opposed to LSD sightings in the neighborhood, a moment that hit me right in the childhood. Huang by no means is trying to be a representative for Asian Americans, but surely he knows that having these experiences validated on a network television show speaks volumes to how far we’ve come. After two decades of hiding in plain sight, it finally feels like we out here.
Not all of us can identify with a hip-hop-obsessed chubby Asian kid who aspires to meet Shaq, but we certainly feel him when he says he identifies with Biggie Smalls because they’re both “dudes with mad dreams tryin’ to get a little bit of respect in the game.” His comment acknowledges the common ground we try so hard to find with people who can't relate. For many of us, hip-hop was the gateway to a subculture that accepted our outsider status. It met the needs and acknowledgement that mass culture didn't, and still doesn't. For others, nerd culture and fandom provided an escapist fantasy from the reality that we could never quite fit in.
Fresh Off the Boat serves as a vehicle for us to invent our own version of American. Hudson Yang's young Eddie Huang is our avatar not because of what he looks like, but because of the distinct identity he's trying to carve for himself in wholly unfamiliar territory. He reminds us how wonderfully weird it feels to be ourselves.