Fresh Off the Boat: Did ABC Do Eddie Huang's Life Story Justice?

Photo: ABC

After months of speculation, controversy and high hopes, Fresh Off the Boat finally arrived last night. The show, based off the unflinchingly honest memoir of restaurateur/general badass Eddie Huang, fit snugly among ABC’s other family-friendly Wednesday night sitcoms (the unstoppable Modern Family and unexceptionally likable The Middle). The show, like the book, chronicles Huang’s formative years growing up in very white Orlando in a very Taiwanese family. It’s non-offensively funny, sweet and cute; everything Huang feared it would be.

Not one to keep his feelings to himself, Huang penned a fiery essay for New York Magazine, in which he called out the network and people he worked with for attempting to water down his story. As he saw it, they were trying to make his authentic Taiwanese Chairman baos into Orange Chicken from Panda Express.

I began to regret ever selling the book, because Fresh Off the Boat was a very specific narrative about SPECIFIC moments in my life...The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane. But who is that show written for?

That’s the central question Huang has been wrestling with since Fresh off the Boat began an arduous journey to become a sitcom on the increasingly colorful network. And now that the show is out for public consumption, it’s a question audiences have to answer too.

Huang is right to be angry at the idea that his show needs to be “Americanized” to become palatable to an audience. (We all know “American” is a friendly euphemism for white and male.) His book is bawdy, it doesn’t shy away from the complexities of race and feelings of otherness, and it’s rife with those wonderfully awkward life lessons that transform children into the adults they’ll one day become. Most importantly, it reveals new dimensions to what it means to be Asian in America, going beyond stereotypes to delve into the hearts of the people­­—his people. Basically, it’s the stuff of great television.

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Yet as Huang aptly points out in his essay, his very specific perspective doesn’t jibe with the myth that Americans are all one in the same.

While ABC may feel they need to sanitize the messiness of Huang’s life to make it universally relatable, they’re wrong. What makes the show relatable is that Huang is different. Everyone, everywhere feels like an outsider looking in at some point in his or her life, which is how young Eddie feels most of the time. Eddie’s different from his Lunchable-eating classmates, from his freewheeling neighbor, even from his swagger-less family. It’s those recounted memories that made the book a New York Times bestseller and it's those onscreen moments that pull viewers in, bringing the show to life.

As a non-Asian American from a non-immigrant background, this show is not for me (ABC airs mine on Wednesdays at 9:30 and Thursdays from 9-11 PM). That’s okay; I’m going to keep watching. Although a show like Fresh Off the Boat doesn’t tell my exact story, I can still be entertained and educated by what I see; maybe more so because I’m looking at the world with the fresh eyes of foreigner.

Despite all his frustration with the show, even Huang can see that the audience he intended is broader than anything he ever imagined.

This show isn’t about me, nor is it about Asian America…Sell them pasteurized network television with East Asian faces until they wake up intolerant of their own lactose, and hit 'em with the soy.

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So now it’s up to us as audience; if we like what we see—and there’s a lot to like—then ask for more. If we let networks decide what we want and how we want it, then we’ll continue to have a television landscape that doesn’t accurately reflect the true diversity of the America they’re trying to please. So let them know that you’ll slide over your mac ‘n’ cheese to make room for something new.

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