Welcome, welcome, lovely blog readers. Nikkie’s at the helm today, and I’m here to talk about a show that Super Hubs and I love but have never discussed on the blog: Fresh Off the Boat.
But more than that, I’m also going to discuss the memoir that inspired the show: Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang. So, you’re getting something of a two-fer today! Get psyched!
We started watching FOtB either right when season one started airing, or right after it finished. We were struck by the sheer comedy within the show—which had hilarious comedian Ali Wong as a show writer for the first two seasons—as well as the rarely seen depiction of a Chinese-American family and how difficult it is to mesh family tradition with American culture. We knew instantly that it was a show we were going to stick with.
For those of you who aren’t aware, the show (initially) centers around Eddie Huang, the oldest son of Jessica and Louis Huang, as his family relocates from Washington, DC, to Orlando, Florida, so that his father can open a steakhouse. Taking place in the 90s, Eddie has fully embraced hip-hop culture, to the confusion of his parents. His younger brothers, Emery and Evan, better fit the “typical Chinese boy” mold that their parents (and society) expect of them, and it’s this mold that Eddie is desperately trying to break. Luckily, his wheelchair-bound paternal grandmother, Jenny, has his back, often helping his punctuate big announcements by carrying his boombox and pressing play.
As he starts up at a new school, he struggles to make friends as both the new kid and the Asian kid. There’s some overt racism up top**, but eventually the show scales it back to mostly miscommunications and lack of awareness of Chinese culture. For example, in a season three episode, when Emery enters the same middle school that Eddie attends, the former discovers that Eddie took advantage of people’s ignorance and spread a lot of lies about Chinese people that made it easier for him to slack off.
But the Huangs aren’t without their own prejudices and ignorance. That same season, Jessica reveals her bias against people who arrive in American illegally, only to discover that her green card lapsed. She also shared some awkward notes during a sexual harassment training at Louis’s restaurant (in season one), and she’s oddly tone deaf to the existence of lesbians—thankfully she finally figures it out in the latest season.
**Walter, a black kid whom Eddie eventually becomes good friends with, pushes Eddie down and calls him a “chink” in the first episode, and I REALLY can’t get over that. I have a hard time believing a friendship would eventually blossom from that exchange.
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The great thing about the show is the way it shows a family that struggles to connect to each other, but always loving each other, as they adjust to the strangeness that is Florida. A running theme within the show—which can also be found in the show Blackish—is smashing expectations and setting a new norm. Eddie is constantly pushing against what his parents want for him because he knows what’s in his heart. His parents (particularly Jessica) are constantly learning that the way they were raised won’t exactly work with their children. The family as a whole finds ways to infuse a little bit of China into Orlando, while allowing a little bit of Orlando to take hold within them.
I also think it’s great how, despite each family filling a particular niche within the dynamic, everyone has their little quirk or left-field personality trait to spice things up. Jessica, the authoritarian, perfectionist parent, loves singing and Stephen King, and just wrote a mystery novel called A Case of A Knife to the Brain. Louis, the sweet, gentle parent, has a fiery jealousy streak that gets ignited when he sees how well his older brother is living in Taiwan, and his pride is easily wounded when his help is often rejected by his family (particularly the boys). Grandma Jenny, who only speaks Mandarin, has a love of Garfield and O.J. Simpson.
As for the kids, Emery, the constant smiler and do-gooder, screams into empty mason jars to deal with his bad feelings. Evan, Jessica’s favorite and near-twin when it comes to perfectionism, lashes out when things don’t go his way—typical of a child, but somewhat unexpected from one who is often seen wearing bowties and button-up shirts tucked into his little shorts.
Now that I think about it . . . Eddie might be the only one without an unexpected personality trait. He rags on his brothers but stands up for them in a pinch, which is just typical Older Brother fare in family shows. He doesn’t have any surprising musical interests that I can think of; his whole story arc in one recent episode is how he and his friends go in on a stereo that can hold 300 CDs, and he gets really shitty about them (and his brothers) wanting to put in non-rap/hip-hop music. (He does feel inspired by one of Evan’s disc sets that depicts the American Revolution, though.) He has a crush on the girl next door, of course, but he never dates her, and when she reveals to him much later on that she might be a lesbian, he hesitates only briefly. So, Eddie might be the most predictable character—and I mean that in a good way.
The dynamic and roles within the Huang family is definitely the best part of the show, so imagine my surprise when I start reading the real Eddie Huang’s memoir and find out that a lot of it is fabricated!!! There are a lot of easy threads that connect the two versions of the story, but the reality is actually a lot darker!
While the real Jessica Huang was as strict as the show implies, her relationship with her husband and children was much different. She and Louis had an extremely volatile relationship. They fought, they threw things, and Jessica would often scream about how her marriage (and subsequent children) ruined her life. In other instances, she would actually pile the kids in the car and take off, driving around for a while before finally returning home.
Louis Huang, meanwhile, was far from the always-smiling and loving father portrayed in the show. Turns out, he used to run around with a Taiwanese gang, and he had the lifelong respect of a local food vendor because Louis protected him from street ruffians, and the vendor in turn helped Louis fight off members of a rival gang.
Not only that, but Louis Huang had a real penchant for violence—buying sturdy whipping tools that he’d break over his children’s backsides and having a dangerous weapon collection that he gathered with the help of his old crew from Taiwan. I had a lot of difficulty envisioning that when I just wanted to picture Randall Park, the actor who plays Louis on the show.
A similarly big shift was the portrayal of Emery. While he definitely started out sweet, he and Eddie became frequent brawlers any time someone at school or in the neighborhood tried to look down on their heritage. As a result, Emery became a JACKED rage machine. Again: WHAT?! Look at Forrest Wheeler, the actor playing Emery, and tell me that you can imagine him super ripped; I will know you for a fool then.
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But truly, the most difficult thing to get around was the real Eddie Huang. His writing style is very much how I imagine he talks in real life . . . The problem is just that it felt so . . . put on to me.
I would never begrudge anyone’s interest in the offerings of a culture that isn’t their native one—I mean, my favorite band is Circa Survive, for fuck’s sake—but it came off as though Eddie was laying on his whole “I’m all about black culture and music” thing REEEEEEEAL thick. There were times I actively had to stop reading the book and ponder why he would make all these random shoutouts in the middle of the text, after he’d made a point, that felt haphazardly inserted and impenetrable if you aren’t a member of his squad.
Which ultimately begs the question: Should I have read this book? It clearly wasn’t written for me, and while I can understand the struggle to connect to your own culture when your feelings for it are complicated, I just felt turned off by Eddie’s approach. The more I read, the more I felt like I would kind of hate him if we ever met in person. And he’d probably hate me back because while I’m actually black, I’m nothing like him—and I think he’d see that as an affront or my submitting to white assimilation tactics.
I don’t know. He just came off as very self-righteous about the right way to be a minority—and a cook, come to think of it. Real Eddie ended up following in his father’s footsteps by becoming a restaurant owner, and the book is littered with Eddie’s often-obnoxious opinions of how food should be prepared. Like, I’m all for having your distinct tastes, but don’t actively shit on people who like it a different way. My favorite cuisine is Thai food, and I can’t help but feeling like he’d totally roast me for never having “real” Thai food because everything I’ve eaten has come from America, and even if it’s Asian people cooking it, they’ve toned it down for the babyish American palate—or some shit like that. I’m not having it, Eddie! I. Am. Not. Having. It.
So, in summary:
Fresh Off the Boat the show is an absolute must-watch. It’s charming, it’s hilarious, and it’s informative without feeling like it’s hitting you over the head with the right way to perceive Chinese culture.
Fresh Off the Boat the book is a lot more niche—best suited for people with a strong background in rap/hip-hop and basketball players/teams from the early 90s.
I could be wrong, though. Please, read the book and challenge me on this interpretation.
I’ll be back soon with a preview-type post for my next Gilmore Girls-esque adventure!
May your adaptations stay as accurate as aesthetically possible,