As a child of immigrant parents, my background and upbringing are similar to many in the United States. Growing up, I felt invalidated because I never saw anyone share my story and culture in the mass media. That was true until I decided to check out ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.”
Narrated by food connoisseur, Eddie Huang, author of Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir and star of VICE’s Munchies, Fresh Off the Boat is a sitcom about a Chinese-American family that is set in 1995. The show depicts the life of 11-year-old Eddie Huang and his family’s move from Washington, D.C. to Orlando, Florida. There, the family attempts to blend in with a mostly white, suburban neighborhood for the sake of the father’s dream to get his Western-themed restaurant business off the ground.
To say that the portrayal of Asians in the media is inaccurate would be an understatement. We are forever typecast as the master of martial arts or the foreigner who can barely string together a sentence of English. Who can forget Sixteen Candles’ cringe-worthy Long Duk Dong? Also known as ‘Duckie,’ the cliche character is an awkward, confused foreign exchange student from China who is taken in by the Baker family. He speaks with a thick accent, dons a horrendous bowl cut and is introduced in multiple scenes with the ring of a gong. He is the epitome of everything Hollywood has built to define as “Asian.”
Approximately 17.3 million people of Asian decent lived in the United States in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Despite the growing population, the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium has found that Asian Pacific Islander Americans occupy a scarce 3 percent of total film characters and only 1 percent appear in the opening credits.
In a separate study of Asians and Asian-Americans on American television conducted by Ling-hsuan Larry Tung of Kean University, he argues that stereotypes and the lack of representation of minorities on television have distorted public’s perception of these groups. Tung believes that the distortion can be avoided by hiring more production and editorial staff of minority background, which encourages more members of minority groups to make their voices heard by becoming active members of the media.
As I watched the show, I was relieved at the portrayal of Asian-Americans. Though some themes were forced, like the Huang mother’s excessive cheapness and the family’s awkward “I love you” exchanges, the show is fairly accurate in its illustration of the Asian-American family.
When I was younger, there were times when I was the one educating my parents on American culture, like Eddie informing his parents about 90’s hip-hop culture. We were often learning together.
Like Eddie and his siblings Evan and Emery, my siblings and I were always pushed by our parents to earn straight A’s in school. Getting progress reports in the mail would involve holding our breath until our parents opened the envelopes and either congratulated us or asked what prevented us from getting higher marks.
Growing up, I was always exposed to families of color on television. I watched “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “The Cosby Show,” “George Lopez” and more. I remember asking my mom when I was younger why there weren’t any Asian families on television. Since then I have been constantly aware of the lack of representation of a huge portion of the American population.
I’ve played the incredibly offensive ethnic guessing game with people–“Where are you from? No, but where are you really from?” I have been called “exotic” with a name like “Angeline”. I need shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” to introduce viewers to Asian-American culture and help eradicate the insulting comments.
As a person of color and a member of the media, I understand that “Fresh Off the Boat’ isn’t perfect. Like any other television show, it is an exaggerated version of reality, but I hope it can foster more discussion between viewers of how Asians are depicted on screen. Then hopefully it will kick down some stereotypes and open the door for more Asian-American representation everywhere.