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What "Fresh off the Boat" means to Asian-Americans

A still from "Fresh off the Boat"
A still from "Fresh off the Boat"
Courtesy ABC
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

When ABC's Fresh Off the Boat premieres on February 10, it will be a milestone. For the first time in 20 or so years, an Asian-American family will be the focus of a show on network television. Considering the lack of Asian American representation on television, that's a big deal.

Since ABC's announcement in May, the show's title has been causing a stir. There are rumblings that it's racist or disrespectful, but it isn't that simple. And it ignores what the phrase "Fresh Off the Boat" means to Asian-Americans. Here's a brief primer on the show:

What is the show about?

Fresh off the Boat is title of the show that will premiere on ABC on February 10. It's based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang's memoir of the same name, and revolves around his family's life in the United States. It focuses on aspects of his family's and his parents' relationship to American culture from an Asian-American immigrant perspective.

The show explores his move to Florida, from D.C. Here's the trailer:

What does the term "Fresh off the Boat"/"FOB/"Fob" mean?

The term is usually used to describe an immigrant who hasn't yet grasped the customs, the language, or culture of the country they're immigrating to. It's a way to point out that someone is acting strangely because they were brought up with and are operating under a different set of cultural norms and rules.

That sounds offensive. Is it offensive?

You'll find people who think so, or are seemingly alarmed by the term. The AV Club's Carrie Raisler raised the question on Twitter, leading to a pretty good and civil debate about the term:

Raisler wasn't the only one who voiced her concern for the show. Suey Park, the woman who started the #CancelColbert hashtag and campaign, called out the title of the show and the show's creator:

It's also worth noting that Huang has received a lot of criticism for sexism on his restaurant menus and on his TV show for Vice, though this wave of criticism hasn't centered around that.

So are they right? Is the term racist?

"It depends who's saying it," Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino-American journalist and director of Documented told me. Vargas immigrated to the U.S. as a child is an undocumented immigrant. "If it was a non-Asian person trying to develop the series, I would be like 'Wait a second. Who's telling whose story? And who's framing whose narrative?" Vargas added.

"FOB" can definitely be used as a slur by some people, but, like any slur or derogatory term or any word, you have to look at how it's being used, who's using it and whom they're referring to. And you might be hard-pressed to argue that Huang is using the term to denigrate himself, or that he (or Iranian-American showrunner Nahnatchka Khan) is being racist toward himself and his family. And therein is the rub—"Fresh off the Boat" or "FOB" are terms that are primarily used by Asian-Americans to refer to each other.

"The term FOB —which I should note is almost entirely an internal phrase; non-Asians rarely use it toward Asians, it's really something Asians say about other, less acculturated Asians — picks up on that notion of permanent foreigner status," Jeff Yang, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and father of Hudson Yang, who will play 11-year-old Eddie Huang on the show, explained to me.

"I was totally called a FOB," Vargas, told me, explaining that he pronounced the word "the" more like "tha." His choir teacher had to correct him. "My first instinct was, 'I gotta talk white…I gotta rid of this FOB accent,'" he added.

But Vargas and Yang both point out that the term has lost its bite over the years, that America's shifting demographic has changed the way Asian-Americans view themselves, and that the term has undergone a reclamation of sorts, with people starting sites like My Mom is a FOB/My Dad is a FOB. And there's been a growing sense that this "FOBiness" was part of a unique, at times funny, Asian-American experience. Yang explains:

When my generation used FOB, it used to be to distance ourselves (we who were born here) from those who weren't. When more recent nerds use the term "fob," it seems to be more to create or reinforce a connection with the person marked with the term, e.g., to actively embrace the fact that our community is not "just" American. At least, that's what the Wus [the creators of and] and Eddie seem to be doing.

Is the show just another step in reclaiming the word?

Until we watch the entire season, we can't know what kind of tweaking will be done to Huang's source material. Huang himself wrote about his frustration with producers sanitizing his memoir for network television. But starting off with the title like Fresh off the Boat is a bold move, especially to people that aren't as familiar with what it means.

"The show is setting itself up to educate about the term," Jenn Fang of Reappropriate, an Asian-American pop culture blog, told to me. Fang voiced a mild concern with the title, explaining that the term lives somewhere between an insult and self-deprecating humor. "Only time will tell to what degree it is successful in this regard, or if it falls into the ongoing perpetuation of Asian American stereotypes and/or normalizes for the mainstream a term that still has a history as an anti-Asian and anti-immigrant slur," she added.

To some degree, seeing Asian Americans on television will be a win in and of itself. Asian-Americans have practically been invisible on American television, mainly appearing as sidekicks or secondary characters if that.

"ABC ought to be commended. It's one of the places in network television that values diversity," Vargas, who read the book and is looking forward to the show, told me.  "The immigrant experience from an Asian-American perspective — which is rarely seen — is going to be on American television ... Judging it on the name itself is premature."

One other thing to consider is Huang's deep appreciation for hip-hop. "The term fresh has a radically different meaning in hip-hop, and Eddie was obviously conscious of the double meaning," Yang said. "The very first line that Eddie [played by Yang's son] says on screen is this: 'What do you think, mom? Fresh as hell, right?'"

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