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Why You Should Watch Fresh Off the Boat: the First Asian American Sitcom in Twenty Years

Ellen Zacarias

Fresh Off the Boat

When I was a child of the ‘90s, there weren’t many TV characters that I easily identified with on a physical or cultural level. I was barely waddling out of my diapers when All American Girl, America’s first Asian American sitcom (featuring Margaret Cho), stopped airing after one season. Part of the reason it was canceled was because the show was full of stereotypical portrayals of Asian Americans with little character development. The producers also had trouble with the show’s direction, and the inconsistencies between episodes culminated in a confused and disappointed audience who had trouble identifying with the characters.

On March 15, 1995, All American Girl was canceled.

Twenty years later, Fresh Off the Boat is the first Asian American family sitcom to arrive on mainstream television.

Based on Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir, this show is a huge ‘90s flashback delivered by the narrating voice of adult Eddie Huang. The show revolves around the Taiwanese family, which had just moved from Washington D.C. to an insular, mostly-white neighborhood in Orlando, Florida.

The first two episodes hit the air on February 4, 2015. So far, it has been sailing on positive reviews (8.3/10 on IMDB and 88% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes).

Meet the Huang family:

• Eddie’s younger siblings Evan and Emery have adapted well to Orlando and are popular, subverting the stereotype of the timid and unpopular Asian nerd (think of Lawrence from Jack Black’s School of Rock).

Young Eddie (played by Hudson Yang) however, comes across some challenges fitting in with the kids at school, sometimes to the point of pursuing hilarious means to do so. The only other non-white kid at school is Walter, a black kid who scoffs at Eddie’s desperate attempts to fit in with the cool white boys.

Mr. Huang (Randall Park) wants to become successful at running his restaurant, which has been his lifelong dream.

Mrs. Huang (played by Constance Wu copes humorously with the culture shock in the new town. D.C. was a lot more fast-paced, and she had friends back in their old city. 

Grandma (played by Lucille Soong, who boasts an impressive filmography) is quite the unconventionally endearing and hip grandma, who teaches Poker to her grandchildren and dances to Eddie’s rap music.

True to its name, Fresh Off the Boat tackles the issue of race head-on, using a great balance humor and honesty for hilarity and also the touching moments that make this series easy to identify with. The term “Fresh Off the Boat,” often shortened to “FOB”, has often been used as a derogatory term towards Asian immigrants who haven’t quite assimilated into mainstream American culture. The “boat” part harkens back to the days when people moved to different continents by ship.

Originally, the show was called “Far East Orlando,” but it was later changed back to “Fresh Off the Boat”.

By using a phrase that has been used in a demeaning manner towards immigrants, the show reappropriates the term to a more general and inclusive meaning—Mr. and Mrs. Huang are from Taiwan, but the entire family experiences culture shock when they move to Orlando from DC.

The show removes the “otherness” aspect of its title by implying that “Fresh Off the Boat” would apply to anyone who has moved from one town to another, If you’ve moved from a town to a strange new city, then yes, you too, are “Fresh Off the Boat.” We’ve all experienced a form of culture shock at one point or another. Beneath the cultural humor is a universal story of moving to a new place and adapting to new circumstances. 

Besides, “Fresh Off the Boat” is much more memorable than “Far East Orlando”.

As newcomers to a place with its own norms and unwritten rules, the Huang family holds great potential for character development through the trials of adjusting to a new town. Mrs. Huang, who was introduced as a strict and overbearing tiger mom, has been humanized over the course of a few episodes by her love-and-rivalry relationship with her sister, as well as her friendship with the attractive housewife on the block with whom she shares the love of Stephen King movies.

Eddie’s parents might be somewhat strict with school and conservative with PDA (public displays of affection), but Eddie’s parents are ex-urbanites who are actually socially progressive.

“Go to your room,” said Mr. Huang. 

At some point, Eddie’s dad also mentions the fact that they moved away from Taiwan because it was too conservative. Mr. and Mrs. Huang are certainly more progressive than the parents that my Asian American friends and I grew up with, and their more progressive values make them easier for a wider audience to identify with.

Fresh Off the Boat nests in the age of YouTube and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. While Asian Americans are still, for the most part, marginalized to minor roles in mainstream television programs, the Internet tells a different story: Asian American entertainers, such as NigaHiga and Just Kidding Films, have taken up a larger presence on the Internet through their own channels. As the stars of their own projects, these Asian American entertainers don’t identify with the two-dimensional stock characters that they, as Asian Americans, are often cast as. Instead, they’re the stars of their own projects. Granted, comedy is still a male-dominated industry, whether in the mainstream or within the Asian American entertainment community. However, the widening visibility of Asian Americans in charge of their own projects on popular media means that there is a more receptive audience to such a mainstream show featuring an Asian American family as the main protagonists.

Ultimately, Fresh Off the Boat is a show about moving to a strange new town and making a new (and better) life for yourself and your family—something that many people, whether Asian American or not, can relate to. 

Starting this week, there will be reviews of Fresh Off the Boat episodes as they come out each week on Tuesday on the ABC channel. You can watch Fresh Off the Boat for free on the ABC website and follow the Huang family on their quirky adventures. 

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