“Emily, Emily, you know that show about that Taiwanese chef?” my dad asked me one day in Chinese as the family sat down for dinner.
“Oh yeah, you mean Fresh Off the Boat?” I answered nonchalantly as I scooped my mom’s stir-fried eggplants into my bowl. A sitcom loosely based off of the memoir of the same name by Taiwanese American chef Eddie Huang, Fresh Off the Boat centers around the Huangs, a Taiwanese American family in the 1990s, who make the decision to move from Washington D.C.’s Chinatown to Orlando, Florida in hopes of achieving the American Dream.
“Yeah, they just went to Taiwan to film an episode there!” he replied excitedly, causing the dinner table to erupt into a chorus of “No way! They actually went there? That’s so cool!” Eager to watch the episode, we quickly finished our dinner and rushed over to turn on the TV. “Hey, that’s Taoyuan International Airport!” my dad cried out in recognition as the cast members set foot on the Taiwanese airport, ready to embark on their summer vacation in Taiwan.
My brother and I sighed sympathetically when the kids, Eddie, Emery, and Evan, moan about the unbearably hot and humid weather and the seemingly endless amount of mosquitos. My parents’ eyes lit up when the mother Jessica marches the kids down a street packed with food stalls to get a bowl of swordfish soup. We all burst into peals of laughter as a clueless Eddie tries to bribe a hotel concierge with a 100 NTD bill (which roughly translates to $3) to gain access to a fax machine.
These small moments may seem like just another set of ploys to push out a plot, but in reality, they are examples of what makes Fresh Off the Boat unique. While there have been a handful of TV shows centered around first-generation Asian immigrants like Kim’s Convenience and All American Girl, Fresh Off the Boat hits home for me as a first-generation Taiwanese American as the show both celebrates being Taiwanese American and acknowledges the struggles that come with the identity. When ABC announced it would be canceling the comedy, I had mixed feelings about it.
Growing up, I constantly questioned my cultural identity. It was hard to find role models who ate the same foods and shared the same struggles as me. The most Asian representation in American media were kung fu masters who came from some mystic mountain village, assassins whipping out swords from their backs, and other minor characters that disappeared from the screen with a snap of a finger. I remember one day while blankly watching TV, I thought to myself, “Am I American? I’m not even white.”
Fresh Off the Boat helped me reaffirm my identity as a Taiwanese American not just because the show put aspects of my culture on TV screens across America but also because of the cast. Throughout the show, the Huangs try to adjust to their predominantly white community while sticking to their Taiwanese roots. Eddie’s father Louis tries to make it big with a Western-style steakhouse while Jessica is the stereotypical no-nonsense Asian mother who finds it hard to accept American values and any grade below an A+. At the same time, Eddie grapples with accepting his identity and fitting in at school. While I didn’t share every experience the characters went through on the show, there were countless moments throughout the show that resonated with me.
When in one episode Jessica attempts to homeschool the boys by giving them extra academic work, I was immediately brought back to my elementary and middle school days when my mom would sit me down Saturday mornings to fill out page after page of math and grammar worksheets. Like Eddie, who tried to wean his way out of his mom’s regiment, I clashed with my mom a lot during these sessions as I cried and pouted about how I couldn’t go out to play and relax like my friends did on weekends.
Watching the episode not only helped me recall such memories, but it also helped me look back and realize the large amount of energy and time my mom sacrificed just for me to help me get better at school. The infamous dishwasher episode clicked with me and other Asian Americans as we all recalled memories of discovering the true identity of the ominous “drying rack” to be a dishwasher.
Despite the fact that the show centered around multiple familiar elements, it still felt a bit off.
At times, the characters said and did certain things, from Louis trying to give Eddie the “talk” to Jessica being overbearingly stingy, that made me cringe and want to stop watching the show. Eddie Huang himself has criticized the show and even left the show’s production team after the first season. In a piece for the New York Magazine, he wrote, “The network tried to turn Fresh Off the Boat into a cornstarch sitcom, and me into a mascot for America. I hated that.”
Even though they do shine a light on the obstacles Asian Americans faced, the show producers still glossed over the importance of certain aspects of Huang’s life and turned them into comedic elements instead. For instance, Eddie’s love for hip-hop is portrayed as just another culture clash when in reality hip-hop provided solace for the real Eddie as a child facing racism and abuse.
So, was Fresh Off the Boat’s cancellation called for from the beginning? Does the end of the show mark the end of Asian American representation? No, not really. Despite its shortcomings, the show did pave the way for more mainstream media focused on telling the stories of Asian Americans, from the box office hit Crazy Rich Asians, featuring Constance Wu, to Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe, starring Randall Park and Ali Wong.
If anything, the show has helped make the idea of creating and producing Asian American films and TV shows much more approachable and realistic to American media companies. It opened the doors to the stories of a community whose voices are often left unheard and helped Taiwanese Americans like me be proud of who we are. Because the show did not tell the stories of every single Asian American family, it gives a platform to and leaves room for other Asian Americans who want to put their own experiences on the big screen.