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Hudson Yang in ABC's Fresh off the Boat
Hudson Yang in ABC's Fresh off the Boat
Fresh off the Boat/ABC

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Fresh Off The Boat is the first time I saw my childhood on TV. That's why it's important.

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.

My obsession with Zack Morris began 25 years ago. Saved by the Bell was the only non-animated show I'd watch on Saturday mornings, and Zack was everything I wanted to be. He had swagger. He didn't need orthodontics. He single-handedly won the beach volleyball match of a lifetime at the Malibu Sands beach club. He had his pick of girlfriends. His rivals proved supremely unworthy in the end.

I was determined to be Zack Morris.

Because I was 7, and perhaps because I really didn't understand the concept of race, I grew up thinking I was going to look exactly like Zack Morris eventually. My parents and siblings were virtually the only Asian people I knew in real life. Asian-American teens specifically didn't seem like they existed. And it was easier to imagine growing up and being the white kids on television than it was imagining something you had never seen before. It wasn't as if the other shows I started watching — Full House, Step by Step, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Models Inc. — had any male characters who weren't good-looking white men either.

Looking back, my parents probably should have had more control over the smut I was watching. But American television was new to them, too — it's a way we all learned about (predominantly white) American culture. And my parents, who are from the Philippines, stressed the importance of fitting in, which I'd later learn was a response to the way they were treated when they didn't.

Being "fresh off the boat" was something you didn't want to be.

A year after Saved by the Bell premiered in 1989, my family and I moved from Northridge to Huntington Beach, California — where it became clear to 8-year-old me that a future of looking like Zack Morris was not in the cards. I was one of five Asian-American students in my grade at my new private school, and I was reminded of it every day. There were comments about my eyes, questions about what kind of gross food I ate, and lots of jokes about the lack of hair on my arms and legs.

I didn't tell my parents, because this wasn't like the racism kids learn about. You're told racism comes at you with bluntness, steeped in bile. You're not prepared when it comes at you slyly — when it feels like you're the one who's incorrect. And when you're made to feel like that, shrinking becomes second nature.

One of the most scarring, yet completely silly, moments happened during art class. At the beginning of the year, students were given a list of school supplies, including glue sticks. When asked to produce our glue sticks in class, I found mine, still in their package, in my pencil case. The kid next to me started laughing, hooting that my mom had gotten me the kind of glue sticks you feed into a glue gun.

My mom and me.

"Why did she buy those for you? Can she read English?" the kid asked.

Other kids joined in. The ones with manners stared. The teacher smirked, before calling the whole thing off and making someone lend me a stick.

I stared at the package of glue sticks in my hand, fumbling around with its edges. I thought about ripping the plastic, seeing if these glue sticks would still work if I scraped them on the paper vigorously enough.

I didn't want my mom to be wrong. My mom is a doctor. I thought telling her would break her heart. When I finally did break down, she swept me to Target where we got Elmer's glue sticks and a video game.

Some 20 years later, I found myself thinking about this moment after watching ABC's new comedy Fresh off the Boat. In one scene, a young Eddie Huang (played by Hudson Yang) is made fun of for not having Air Jordan sneakers.

Fresh off the Boat (ABC)

"They were jerks, but remember this was 1995 — before the internet," the grown Huang, a successful chef and restauranteur, says in voiceover. "I had to figure out a way to fit in."

The show is loosely based off of Huang's memoir of the same name, about his experience growing up in Orlando with parents who'd immigrated from Taiwan. Huang's parents, like mine and millions of others, moved to the US to give their kids a better life. His story is about that adjustment, the strange way you learn to deal with growing up and never seeing anyone like you, save for the members of your own family.

The show doesn't burn with the same type of fire, stoked by anger and frustration, that Huang breathes in his memoir. Huang himself has written about the painful process of feeling like his life was being sanitized to feed network television audiences.

Fresh off the Boat (ABC)

There are moments when you can see his point.

Young Eddie is called a chink in the pilot episode — something far more shocking than anything Modern Family, an ABC comedy lauded for its diversity, has done — but it's dealt with in a way that leans more toward slapstick than something more serious.

The scene begins during lunch, and a black student named Walter (Prophet Bolden) and Eddie are fighting for a proverbial spot at the table and to not be at the bottom of the totem pole. Walter flings the word, and you see the anger in Eddie's eyes before the scene fades to black and fast-forwards into the Huangs' meeting with the principal.

You see Eddie's anger. You see his parents defend their son. But you don't really understand if anyone is disturbed or to what depth they are disturbed by this word. The fight seemed inevitable, like it could have happened if Walter said any other insult.

If this is a show about the American experience, where exactly does being called a "chink" fit into the American Dream? The show doesn't seem to want to find out. It's unclear whether the show's writers, led by Nahnatchka Khan, didn't want to spell out why the word "chink" is so ugly, or if they didn't know a way to show that Eddie and his family aren't fazed by the word, even if it retains its ugliness.

Therein is Khan and the rest of the writing team's dilemma: figuring out the baseline knowledge that Fresh's network audience possesses. Will audiences who have never been called a "chink" realize the weight of this word? And if it is spelled out plainly, would this be too patronizing to an audience that gets it?

This results in moments when the show isn't quite aware of the point it's making. Asians are under-represented in pop culture in general, and this is the first broadcast network sitcom in 20 years to focus on an Asian-American family. Thus, its audience is, perhaps unfairly, expecting the series to make smart points about race, about masculinity, and about American life in a way that other shows are rarely asked to. It's as if critics and casual viewers alike expect the show to be a standard-bearer, rather than "just" a sitcom.

"You're never on my side," Eddie snarls at his mom in the pilot.

That's a soul-crushing thing to yell at a parent, but those words take on a different life and tone when you yell them at Asian parents whom you've been taught to respect, parents who crossed an ocean for their kids. Yet, the words are simply shrugged off with a smile in Fresh — same as on any sitcom where a white child and his white parents have a tiff. It's hard not to wonder what the show would be like with more brutal fearlessness, more serious moments.

But there's still so much to like.

Yang brings warmth and empathy to young Eddie Huang — something that's difficult, considering the real Huang's megawatt personality. Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chan, who play Eddie's brothers Emery and Evan, give the show an essential brightness. Randall Park, whom we last saw play Kim Jong Un in The Interview, is earnest and agreeable as Eddie's dad Louis.

Constance Wu in Fresh off the Boat (ABC)

And while this is Eddie's story and memoir, the show's most incisive moments come when the focus shifts to his mother, Jessica (Constance Wu). Just as reluctant as Eddie to move to Orlando, she nevertheless puts on her game face for her family. She's shunned by the women in the show in the polite, oblique manner of white suburbia, when they won't eat her food. She has trouble assimilating, and like Eddie, she has trouble making friends.

The difference is that Jessica's ethnicity and Taiwanese culture is more wrapped up in her identity, and thus more realized than with any other character on the show. Wu is graceful and savvy, even when she's delivering over-the-top lines like "his body is rejecting white culture." She's in command of these jokes in a way that doesn't lampoon her character. (I see elements of my mother in Wu's performance. Sub in Barbra Streisand and Dusty Springfield for Jessica's obsession with Stephen King, and we're more than halfway there.)

Wu and the rest of the cast begin to hit their groove in the season's second episode. Much more confident than the pilot, it offers more room for the show to unfurl its wings. That episode is dedicated, fittingly, to the idea of achievement and how success is never enough for Asian families.

Eddie brings home a sterling report card, and this troubles his parents who don't think he's being challenged enough. It makes for laughs, but it also hits at something closer to the heart of being a minority in America — you learn that you need to work twice as hard to get ahead in this country. And our parents worked twice as hard to even get in the game.

"Our parents worked in restaurants, laundromats, and one-hour photo shops thinking it was impossible to have a voice in this country, so they never said a word," Huang wrote in New York magazine, explaining the lack of Asian-American narratives in American culture.

Asian-Americans have become doctors like my parents, celebrity chefs like Huang, restaurateurs, businesspeople, scientists, civil rights leaders, CEOs, members of the military, pilots, diplomats, and financiers — but culturally, it's like those men and women never existed. When you don't see yourself reflected in pop culture, it's as if society is pretending you aren't alive. And that wreaks havoc on your pride, your confidence, and it makes you doubt your worth, unsure if you can call yourself an American.

That's why Fresh Off the Boat is important.

Having someone like Eddie, who is nothing like Zack Morris, is a crucial start. It's important for kids to have people on TV who look like them, people they might plausibly grow up to be. There is a whole generation of Asian-American adults who never got to see themselves in pop culture. And even if the show could do better — could be better — at reflecting these lives with more exactitude, its very existence is a proud moment for us, our parents, and our glue stick moments.

Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesday nights on ABC at 8 pm Eastern.


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