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.