Many of us will find ourselves watching ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, a new series about an Asian American family's experience in the good U.S.A., based on a memoir by Chef Eddie Huang. The question is: Will they get it right? In a piece for New York Magazine published today, "Bamboo Ceiling TV," Huang writes about his experience having his book turned into a network show and boy is it depressing.
Not surprisingly, it's a headache to try to get your story as a minority represented in an authentic way rather than a watered-down version loaded with racial stereotypes. Anyone even casually interested in TV knows this.
In 2013, Huang released his memoir Fresh Off the Boat, which as he writes in New York, "told my life story as a Taiwanese-Chinese-American creating his own America replete with bound feet, bowl cuts, sports sex, and soup dumps." Huang produced/hosted Vice's Huang's World and also opened the restaurant Baohaus in New York.
More than just a series of complaints, the piece reveals all the compromises you have to make while trying to get your story told on a national platform, and the ultimate reward in getting it done. Huang starts off describing an annoying conversation with the show's producer, Melvin Mar, about how to represent a particular scene in Fresh Off the Boat.
(Note: Huang describes Mar as an "Uncle Chan," the types who are "willing to cast down their buckets, take off Cerebro, and forget that successful people of color are in many ways 'chosen' and 'allowed' to exist while the others get left behind.") Huang explains how he pushed back on Mar's choice of a Beastie Boys concert for one scene, writing:
"Of course you picked a Beastie Boys concert. That's what you people do — you make Asian sitcoms for white people praising Ill Communication because we're both acceptable, unthreatening gateways to black culture. These kids couldn't break bread at a Gravediggaz show?"
"It's not your story anymore. Get over it. The kids ARE NOT going to a Gravediggaz show! This is a HISTORIC network-television show inspired by your life, and it's going to get Americans excited about us. It's never going to be the book; it's never going to be Baohaus. It's Panda Express, and you know what? Orange chicken gets America really excited about Chinese people in airports."
Well, dang. Huang then told Mar:
"Then what did you buy my book for? Just make A Chink's Life … With Free Wonton Soup or Soda: A reverse-yellowface show with universal white stories played out by Chinamen."
The rest of the piece finds Huang breaking down what it's like to sit in on production meetings and on the set of a show that he's not 100-percent behind. He says, "I couldn't stomach the culture of scripted sitcoms." He explains that:
...everything Asian-American immigrants have was fought for. We still wake up spotting the man 10 points, walking with our heads down, apologizing for our FOB-y aunts and uncles as if aspiring to wash your shirt or do your taxes were really such an insidiously foreign idea. In a way, I accept that I have to be 10 points better; what I won't accept are Melvins.
Huang also describes wanting to make something more like "Married with Chinese People" than Malcolm in the Middle. After Mar and Huang book the TV deal—with a few important stipulations—Mar tells him:
"Your life story is going to be on network television! Get excited!"
"I would be excited, but you attached a Persian writer, and I'm kinda worried it's going to be The Shahs of Cul-de-Sac Holando."
Relax, Natch is a unicorn! She's a Persian writer who understands the American experience of getting shit on, fighting back, and wrote Don't Trust the B— in Apt. 23."
Huang goes on to explain his reservations about selling the book, writing:
I didn't understand how network television, the one-size fits-all antithesis to Fresh Off the Boat, was going to house the voice of a futuristic chinkstronaut. I began to regret ever selling the book, because Fresh Off the Boat was a very specific narrative about SPECIFIC moments in my life, such as kneeling in a driveway holding buckets of rice overhead or seeing pink nipples for the first time. The network's approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane. But who is that show written for?
To help ease his hesitation, Huang sought advice from Margaret Cho, who's experiencing backlash right now for her Golden Globes portrayal of North Korea but whose show All-American Girl was groundbreaking as our first Asian sitcom. Cho warned Huang:
"They have no idea what they're doing, but they'll have opinions about everything you're doing... When I did it, I was just happy to be there, and every time they told me I was too Asian, not Asian enough, too fat, too skinny, I listened. You have to fight them at every step... You've been irreverent everywhere you've gone, just don't change now. You go to Hollywood and you go be the same person you've been the whole time. I believe in you, and to be honest, we need this.
Read the whole piece because it's great. Huang seems satisfied with the final product, if only because it's a show that finally gives Asian Americans a voice. He writes:
Network television never offered the epic tale highlighting Asian America's coming of age; they offered to put orange chicken on TV for 22 minutes a week instead of Salisbury steak … and I'll eat it; I'll even thank them, because if you're high enough, orange chicken ain't so bad.
...It takes a lot of chutzpah to launch a network comedy with a pilot addressing the word chink, yet it works because it's the safest bet the studio could have made. The feeling of being different is universal because difference makes us universally human in our individual relationships with society. We're all fucking weirdos.
Image via New York