In the voiceover for ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first sitcom in twenty years centering on an Asian American family, Eddie Huang (played by himself) introduces his on-screen family as “an American family, the Huangs.” American here is a loaded term. It’s important to the show that Huang does not introduce the Huangs as an Asian American or Asian or Chinese or immigrant family. At one point in my life, it was important to me to be called American instead of Asian American or Asian or Korean or immigrant or adopted. It was important to me because the terms that qualified American were fraught and did not seem to belong to me.
Early in the pilot episode, Eddie’s father, Louis, hires a white man in an attempt to draw more people to his restaurant, Cattleman’s Ranch. He gets the idea while he is doing his hair—while he is aware of his physicality. Instead of his white customers seeing his Asian face, Louis says they will think, “Oh. Hello, white friend. I am comfortable.”
At one point in my life, I would have given anything to hear those sentences from my friends. And yet I hated to hear them implied by my family.
My conception of Asian, like my Self, was Asian As Constructed by White People.
“Fresh Off the Boat” is historic, foremost, because of representation. Asian Americans have been dying to see themselves on TV. Seeing themselves on TV, though, is not a straightforward proposition.
I bring up my adoption because I understand the desire to be Asian colliding with the desire to be white. I bring up my adoption because, for me, it wasn’t clear what being Asian meant. Most of my ideas of Asia came from the (almost exclusively white) media and the (almost exclusively white) people I knew. My conception of Asian, like my Self, was Asian As Constructed by White People.
How can one represent Asian America in a medium dominated by white creators and white audiences?
It is a question that Eddie Huang butts up against in his essay on how “network TV ate [his] life.” It is a question that Asian American critics seem to circle around and around as they write and tweet about the show. Critic and comic Jenny Yang coined the term “rep sweats” for the anxiety Asian Americans have that any representation of them in the media will be inaccurate, a stereotype, or worse. There was a mass fear on Twitter during the “Fresh Off the Boat” premiere, a fear that the show was “pandering” or “selling out” or “watering down.” The feeling I came away with, though, not only from the show but from the tweets and comments from friends and colleagues and students, and myself, was hope.
I recognized in the show and its hoopla the enormous hope that was (and is) involved in my search for identity. I recognized that hope in its flip side: in the fear that the hope would be let down. Behind my fear of being called Asian was a terrified hope for a life I knew was already unaccessible. I would never be able to be Asian “for real,” and so it was much less terrifying to embrace whiteness. And as strange as it sounds, there was hope in my desire for whiteness and the hope was about being Asian.
In the pilot episode of “Fresh Off the Boat,” young Eddie says he has big plans: first to get a seat at the table, and eventually to “change the game” (with Shaq’s help). The hope for his Asian acceptance, though, is on the other side of a vast country of white acceptance. There is a wide historical and cultural space (table) between Asian Americans and the promised land of bringing whatever food they want to lunch and not being made fun of.
In the novel Americanah, author Chimamanda Adichie describes a Nigerian immigrant’s assimilation as “the strange naïveté with which Aunty Uju had covered herself like a blanket.” The naïveté there is in Uju’s belief that if she creates herself in the image of white Americans, she will be able to achieve white American success. The truth is that a person of color cannot follow a white path to the top of the white mountain. That path is white all the way up.
What is the reaction, then—to “get a seat at the table” and try to achieve change from the inside? Or to fight from the outside, without compromise and without acceptance from the table you are trying to break?
“Something’s wrong,” the real Eddie Huang says in an article for NBC News, “when your parents tell you you can’t do something because of the structural racism in a country you live in” (italics mine). Huang’s parents told him he would never see a face like his on American TV. Huang got himself and his family on primetime. But is his show something accomplished in the face of structural racism or with the permission and under the gaze of?
The “rep sweats” may go deeper than a fear of misrepresentation. The sweats may go as deep as wondering if representation within the structure of white media is even possible for Asian Americans. The hope I felt from the APIA community during the premier was a hope of breaking out of the structure completely, a hope that was always going to be partly let down. When the community came away partly satisfied, the satisfied part was with representation within the structure of American media. “The show did the best it could.” “It was watered down, but funny.” “At least the accents weren’t over-exaggerated.”
I didn’t know how to be Asian when I wanted to be. As a child, I thought that what was holding me back from being Asian were my white parents. People who saw me with them knew that I was not what I looked like. In my small town, I was always either with my parents or with people who already knew the truth. One of the first things I did in college, before I knew many people or could let their views of me cement who it was possible to be, was to attend a meeting of the Asian Student Association.
There is a fantastic scene in Americanah where the Nigerian protagonist attends a meeting of the African Student Association. At the meeting, she can be herself. She is surrounded not only by people like her but by people who see her as she really is, and around whom she does not feel ashamed to be so. The leader of the ASA makes a speech about how black students either join the BSU, the Black Student Union, or the ASA. The BSU is for African Americans, and the ASA is for American Africans. The protagonist wonders about her cousin, who is still young, and who he will choose to become—or rather, what identity will be chosen for him.
At the Asian Student Association, I thought I would find people like me. There were all kinds of Asians, first and second and third generation, and so on. People who had grown up here and were Asian by ethnicity, and people who had grown up in Asia and were in America for school. I tried to make friends; everyone communicated easily. I would get along fine with someone, but in the end there always seemed to be a wall between us when it came down to why we were there and how we were Asian. I had tried my whole life to get rid of the “Asian” in Asian American. I never felt as if I succeeded until that meeting. It was clear to me by my shame that the Asian Student Association was not a place where people saw me as I really was. Neither was anywhere else that place. Because I was Asian As Constructed by White People, I did not have a real Asian self or a real white self. Even when I acted how I always had, that was not who I really was but who I had let myself be defined as.
At the end of the “Fresh Off the Boat” pilot, Eddie’s father joins in Eddie’s hope: He too has big plans. Eddie’s mother agrees: “I want more than okay for us.” Eddie’s father’s plans are just like his son’s: success by getting through the vast space of white people to the other side, selling whiteness to white people at Cattleman’s Ranch and toughening his family up enough that they won’t be so hurt to be themselves. Or so I interpret those words with my immigrant heart.
That speech is the part of the show that rings least true for me, though I do not share the same cultural touchpoints as other APIA viewers, even as the father’s sentiment tugs at my heart. Does one ever reach more than okay by trekking across the country of okay? In one scene from the pilot, Eddie’s brother says, “You want it too much,” as an explanation for why Eddie doesn’t fit in.
I want it too much. But that is the hope that keeps me moving forward.