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Last Wednesday, Fresh Off the Boat premiered on ABC Family and became the first mainstream network show to feature an Asian-American family in 20 years. Based on the memoir of celebrity chef Eddie Huang, the show tells the story of a Chinese immigrant’s family experience in a mostly white neighborhood.
I got emotional really fast.
“Watching a show depict [an] Asian family is like an out of body experience,” one of my peers Frank Shyong tweeted out. “Is this what white people feel like all the time?”
Truer words have never been spoken. Watching the show was like therapy; because as a kid I was thoroughly convinced my family was crazy.
My extended family emigrated from Taiwan to Los Angeles in the late 1980s, and my cousins and I were the only Chinese kids on the block. We were raised in a mostly white and Latino school system and had very few Asian friends. My dad worked to create his own business and my mom worked — well — on us.
“School is too easy,” my mom would mutter. Watching Jessica say the same words on network television was like an eerie flashback.
I was forced into after-school tutoring classes five days a week. Math, science, English, art, and piano teachers would visit my house regularly. My mom had somehow also coerced my third and second grade teachers to tutor me at home after school; they would drive me home at the end of the day and tutor me there for an extra couple of hours. I knew my multiplication tables years before my peers. I started playing piano the moment my feet could touch the pedals. I memorized Chinese poems and songs. In sixth grade I was sent to community college — to learn algebra.
That Chinese Language Center (CLC) that the show poked fun of? That’s not an exaggeration. That’s a real thing that exists.
The paranoia and micromanaging tendencies of Jessica couldn’t be more spot on.
Last month, a handyman and his team came over to fix something in my brother’s room upstairs. Someone had lightly strummed my brother’s guitar and my mom, who was sitting in her office downstairs, heard it instantaneously. “What’s that noise?” my mom scowled. “They shouldn’t be touching his guitar. Next thing you know, they start stealing stuff.”
Like Louis, my dad is convinced that making his company look as American as possible, however hokey as it may seem, is always the right business choice. His company logo has a bald eagle in it and is red, white, and blue.
“Clarissa, you need to find me an American model,” he told me over the phone the other week.
“Why? My only model friends are Asian.”
“We need a model to advertise our products. White person only,” he said.
And like in the Huang family, the words I love you are rarely spoken in our house. Love is shown through actions, and when people wrong us, my parents are fearless.
In preschool, I had a blonde friend, Brittney, who would pull her eyes into slants whenever she saw me. I didn’t think much of it, but when my mom saw, the next day I was sitting in an office and adults were profusely apologizing to me. I never saw Brittney again.
I grew up resenting my parents for all of the above because it was far different from the childhoods I saw and devoured on television. I thought my parents were crazy; that my mom was neurotic and my dad was overly obsessed with American symbolism. And while I had a vague sense that other Asian-American families had similar experiences, I had no idea just how similar the experiences were. There were no reference points.
Parents, I thought, were supposed to hug their kids when they got straight As, not lecture them. They were supposed to speak in a gentle and soft voice and embrace their kids in loving praises.
Yes, every Asian-American childhood is different, and Fresh Off the Boat is only based off of one Asian-American family. But I relate to it far more than any other television show I have ever seen in my life. For once I have something to identity with.
Asian-American kids desperately need shows like Fresh Off the Boat as reference points.
The small details matter. Watching Jessica eat an apple off of her knife, seeing Louis hire white actors for a commercial, seeing Eddie being taunted for eating noodles in school, and watching the Huang family encounter casually racist remarks by folks in the community — all this was like watching a montage of my own childhood.
On Wednesday, thousands of Asian-Americans gathered to watch the premiere. Some left teary-eyed, most exploded in applause.
"My family loved each other, but we didn't say it. We showed our love through criticism and micromanagement," Eddie says on the show.
Immediately on Twitter, we all bonded over that very quote. Finally, some context to our childhood. We were not alone.
As a show, Fresh Off the Boat does a stunning job. It’s funny, the cast is stellar, the lines are delivered perfectly, and the plot line works so far. But it’s excellent and historic and necessary because it normalizes the Asian-American and second-generation minority experience on network television. It makes us feel less alone. It helps us appreciate the quirks of our upbringing. It helps the rest of society understand why we are the way we are. And — perhaps most importantly — it helps us appreciate our not-so-crazy parents.