On Tuesday nights, I’m going to
hurry my kids home from swim team and make sure that their homework is done
early, not so they can practice piano or go to math tutoring, but so we
can watch TV. The ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” features the misadventures of 11-year-old Eddie Huang and his family as
they move to Orlando, Florida. We tuned in to the premiere last week, and it was
sort of the Asian American version of watching Neil Armstrong land on the
There are plenty of reasons for me
to relate to the sitcom family: They are Taiwanese American, and they are even
named the Huangs! But their experiences running a restaurant in 1990s Orlando
are a far cry from my childhood growing up as the daughter of an engineer and
scientist in the 1970s Midwest, and even farther stretch from my sons’ reality
of growing up third-generation mixed-race Asians in 2000s California.
Still, there were so many things to
relate to: when the teacher mispronounces Eddie’s name; the way the popular
white kids tease Eddie as he opens his Tupperware full of Chinese noodles; Mrs.
Huang’s side-eye when the younger kids bring home report cards full of
stickers; even the slapstick humor of Mr. Huang trying to drum up business
for his struggling steakhouse.
I squirmed in my seat as my kids
watched the climax of the pilot episode, where Eddie’s lone black classmate
calls him a “Chink” and tells him he’s at the bottom now.
But would my kids relate? At the
end of the show, I asked my boys what they thought.
“I like it!” my fourth-grader
enthused. “But I don’t think the other kids at school would get it.”
Was it because his classmates
aren’t Asian? Was it because nobody pokes fun at other people’s race any more? Were
the white teachers and classmates too ridiculous? Was it unfair that the only
other non-white kid throws the racial slur?
Sometimes it’s easier to shove (a racial slur) down and forget about it than to tell someone about it, especially if no one’s ever talked to you about how to handle it. I know my parents never did.
While my artist and writer-type
Asian American friends were crying tears of joy over the show, the reactions from my other friends were mixed. Some Asians were cringing at the parent’s bad accents and at the tiger-ish mother and the goofy father. Many of my California friends
say their kids’ classmates think it’s totally normal, even enviable, to open up
thermoses full of rice or pot stickers.
And there’s the tricky part of
raising kids in a so-called “post-racial” world. It’s cool to bring the spring
rolls to the party, but when the talk turns to overzealous Asian parents and
overly academic kids, it’s not so cool. And as the tension between Edgar and
Eddie depicted, it’s not just a white thing or a black thing or an Asian thing.
When I pressed my friends on why
they didn’t like “Fresh Off the Boat,” many Asians said they couldn’t relate
and the non-Asians said they didn’t know whether they should laugh or be
offended. Yet when the discussion turned to the scene where Eddie is called a
“chink,” nearly every Asian friend revealed that they—and even their children—have experienced that.
Here’s the thing: Being teased,
marginalized or called a slur because of your race is a deeply shameful thing. Sometimes
it’s easier to shove it down and forget about it than to tell someone
about it, especially if no one’s ever talked to you about how to handle it. I know
my parents never did.
Whether or not you can relate to
life of Eddie Huang, “Fresh Off the Boat” is a family-friendly sitcom that
makes a great springboard to talking with your kids about race—whatever race
you are. I’m no expert, but here are some suggestions from a race-conscious
Do you relate to Eddie Huang?
Do kids at your school tend to hang
out with other kids of the same race? How do you feel about that?