If your life was made into a movie, who would play you?
I’ve been asked this a few times throughout the years, and I always end up resorting to the same two actresses: Margaret Cho and Lucy Liu. Chances are, if you’re not Asian, you don’t have this problem. You probably have never even thought about how that question would be a much deeper question than it is on the surface.
When it came down to it, I always picked Margaret Cho. I just looked more like her than the skinny, tall, perfectly straight, long-haired Lucy Liu. Part of this answer may also have to do with the fact that in 1994, I saw Margaret Cho and her Korean-American family on TV in a show called All-American Girl. I guess I didn’t realize it until then, but it’s the first time I saw anyone that remotely looked like me depicted on TV. I was a nine year old who already watched too much television (go figure), and so I was used to seeing families like the Tanners and the Winslows, but never anyone like the Kims on All-American Girl.
The show may have been groundbreaking, but it was also criticized for its blatant use of stereotypes and basically became a caricature of itself. It ended after just one season, and there hasn’t been a show featuring Asian-American families ever since. Until last night.
20 years later, a new sitcom called Fresh Off the Boat premiered. Twenty years. That’s two decades. That’s a college student that is months away from being able to legally drink. Even I was surprised when I read that fact. Has it really been that long? Have we really not progressed in the past 20 years that there hasn’t been a show about Asians on American TV? While I think we’ve definitely made steps towards diversity in the media in terms of African-Americans, Latinos, and LGBT characters, it’s a little weird we haven’t seen bigger strides for Asians in terms of leading their own film or TV vehicles.
But perhaps it’s just a situation of good timing. Fresh Off the Boat is based off a memoir by Eddie Huang, in which he discusses his Taiwanese immigrant parents, their move from Washington, D.C. to Orlando, Florida, and his assimilation as an Asian kid who loved hip-hop. IRL Eddie is an outspoken guy who isn’t afraid to speak his mind or be politically incorrect. He wrote a piece for Vulture in which he talks about how ABC executives wanted to “turn his memoir into a cornstarch sitcom and me into a mascot for America”, to which he replied, “I hated that”.
With someone like Eddie at the helm, the problem ABC encountered 20 years ago with All-American Girl becoming too ‘white’ probably won’t happen. He’ll be there to make sure the show doesn’t cross the line into a parodic program. Moreover, lest we forget that racism is an even more prevalent topic in America today. I think part of the problem with racism in this country is that people are afraid to confront it. It’s such a taboo subject that people avoid it. They brush it under the rug pretending it doesn’t happen – but as last year’s events clearly show, it does. With a show like Fresh Off the Boat, it deals with the obvious cultural differences and racism head on. In the pilot, a kid calls TV Eddie a ‘Chink’ and they get into a fight over it. The show takes place in 1995, but I assure you it’s still happening 20 years later.
But this is what we need. Fresh Off the Boat is funny, well-written, smart, and deals with race issues in an accessible way that doesn’t sugar-coat it or blatantly insult Asians. Do you remember that episode of Full House when Stephanie gets glasses, and Joey advises her to make fun of herself with the new specs before her classmates can make fun of her? It’s kind of similar to that. Once we open the gateway of being able to talk about things like assimilating into American culture or what it’s like being the only Asian kid among a sea of white people, it’s easier to have that conversation about race without it being uncomfortable.
And as for the name, I have no problem with it. ABC execs briefly titled the show “Far East Orlando”, and for some reason, I find that more offensive that Fresh Off the Boat. IRL Eddie defended the title to Entertainment Tonight recently, comparing it to the N word – it’s a way to claim the term back to its people, and not have it used in a derogatory way.
And while I may strongly relate to this show because I, like Eddie (who I’ve deemed my spirit animal), am a first generation Asian-American, this show isn’t just about this group of an underrepresented culture (I know, I just wrote all those paragraphs about Asians), at its heart, it’s about exclusion. It’s about inclusion. It’s about family. It’s everyone’s story. A story that has yet to be told from this specific view of a race that makes up nearly 11% of the American population. It’s a show that’s funny – like actually, laugh out loud funny. So funny that there are multiple GIF sets I will be reblogging on Tumblr later. It’s a show that deserves to be on the air because of all of these qualities. And who knows – maybe this will lead to even more Asian-centric shows in the future. And perhaps my possible future children won’t have a shortlist of just two Asian-American actresses to play out their life story.