Stale off the Boat

March 1, 2015 at 10:44 am

By Terry Watada

Fresh off the Boat, ABC’s anything-but-fresh sitcom about an Asian American family going through culture shock in Orlando, Florida, during the mid-1990s suffers from bad writing and stereotypical portrayals.  The show centres on a Taiwanese-American family moving from Washington DC to Orlando to realize the father’s dream of opening a steak restaurant with a wild-west theme.

Well okay, but the premise is hard to swallow.  Why would an Asian American family have so much trouble moving from one American city to another?  The parents and children speak perfect English even if the parents have accents.  The father’s, played by Randall Park, by the way keeps switching from forced Chinese to North American.  Another problem: is Washington DC located in East Asia?  The mother doesn’t understand an American supermarket in episode one.  Really?  Has she never walked into a DC market other than in Chinatown?  The reason for the disconnect is dubious at best – it is explained that the family spent all their American lives in DC’s Chinatown.  Has the writer ever been to Washington’s Chinatown?  It’s two blocks, maybe three, and that’s it.  There may have been a substantial Asian population (maybe 2000 at the most) living there in the 1990s but the small Chinatown could not have possibly sustained it.  Another issue: where’s the boat of the title?  They clearly arrive in Orlando in a van.  In other words, the premise insults the intelligence.

Yet, Facebook has exploded with comments.  Asian Americans in general love the show, an indication of the paucity of Asian American themes with all AA casts on television.  White Americans call it racist to their background.  True, white people are shown somewhat in a bad light.  A group of superfluous suburban women comment on the mother’s excellent English, for example.  On the other hand, the white kids in the local school accept the oldest boy (the narrator of the show) until lunch time when he opens his container of Chinese noodles.  Now that is something I can relate to, but I was denigrated for my chow mein sandwiches back in the 1950s and ‘60s (my mother never learned).  This incident supposedly happened in the mid-1990s.

The initial conflict in the school is between the central character and a Black student.  In fact, the Black kid calls the Asian kid a “chink” (and out of the blue at that).  Odd that none of the white kids throw the epithet.  So we are told a fight breaks out and the Asian kid beats up the Black kid, insuring the Asian kid’s high status in the school.  Really?  Why make the Black kid a heavy?  And why didn’t they bond afterwards realizing that they are both objects of oppression?  I personally would have liked to have seen the fight.  I mean the use of the epithet is fresh in contemporary, mainstream television, and the Asian kid winning would also have been fresh to see.  The Black kid seems to have disappeared from the show (for now anyway).

Then there are the parents.  The father plays the “nice guy” father and the totally henpecked husband.  He is constantly browbeaten into submission.  The mother (played by Jessica Huang) is the stereotypical “Tiger Mother” before, as we are told, the term existed.  She is money conscious to an absurd degree.  She stops one of the waitresses from giving a wad of napkins to a customer, who asked for them.  She chastises another employee for sneaking a crouton out of the salad bar.  She yells at customers for drinking water (which costs nothing) instead of beer.  She dunks all the samples of chips at the supermarket into her purse once she learns they are free.  Are there no free samples of food at a Chinese grocery store?  Okay maybe not at the time, but really, does she have to be so crass?

The three young sons are examples of the Model Minority.  The youngest two are polite, obedient, and academically sound.  The oldest is the rebel – loves hip hop and rap music (great soundtrack by the way) – but lives in fear of his mother.  He is always getting into trouble disobeying her, but he gets straight “As” in school (his biggest fear is getting a “C”).  His mother of course reacts by taking him to see the principal to complain.  “I really can’t answer complaints about a straight ‘A’ student,” he says in a confused state.  She answers with “This school is too easy!  You must make it harder so my son can learn.”  Now what do you say to that?  Easy, she starts a Chinese Learning Centre for her three boys.  She is the tutor of course.

The series is based on a memoir by Eddie Huang, a celebrity chef.  Perhaps the book is truer to life and the producers and writers did to Fresh off the Boat what they did to All American Girl, the ill-fated sitcom by Margaret Cho in 1990.  As it was back then, FOB’s concept drove the network producers to try to water it down.  First there was the problematic title.  FOB was an offensive term back in the day (maybe still is) to demean immigrants from Asia.  ABC wanted to call it Far East Orlando but reverted during development because of a Twitter campaign.  Many of the incidents in the book were discarded or amended.  Maybe that’s why the student fight was not shown.

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?  The only way they could even mention some of the stories in the book was by building a Trojan horse and feeding the pathogenic stereotypes that still define us to a lot of Americans.

Eddie Huang
New York magazine

That may be so but Fresh off the Boat is plagued by stereotypes and silly situations with predictable outcomes.  I have no doubt that Eddie Huang is well-intentioned and he truly believes he can evolve the show into a truthful portrayal of Asian American life, but I have my doubts.  There is nothing fresh about the Fresh off the Boat.  The ludicrous premise and stereotypes make it stale.  Yet viewers like it.  Go figure.