By Evelyn Huynh
After watching the premiere of ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” earlier this week, I marinated a bit over the similarities and differences between my experiences growing up as an American-born Chinese and those portrayed on this new, semi-controversial break-out comedy. There were a good, giant handful of interesting comparisons I’d made in my head over the past few days and decided I’d bite the bullet, write my thoughts down, and share with whoever cared to indulge in my musings.
How appropriate was it for Eddie Huang’s work about the experiences of an American-Born Chinese to end up on the ABC Network? A-B-C. It’s as if it was just meant to be. ABC has been no stranger to diving into the adventures of ethnic comedies with shows like “All-American Girl,” “The Goldbergs,” “Cristela,” and “Black-ish.” Though I can’t quite speak to the quality of these shows as I haven’t really watched them (I did see “All-American Girl” – it was all right), I have high hopes for the success of “Fresh Off the Boat” on this network. If it’s going to do well anywhere, ABC would be its best shot.
My quick review of the show so far: It’s funny. The actors had solid comic timing, a number of funny moments played well, and the show kept me wanting more (mostly because I want to see what other Asian-isms they decide to touch on in future episodes). There were a few things that didn’t sit quite right with me, the main one being the accents that the parents had; they were terrible. Maybe it’s one of those differences between east coast and west coast Chinese parents, but mine do NOT sound anything like how Randall Park and Constance Wu sounded. Dad sounded far too white and mom just sounded… off. Along with the accents were some questionable choices in vocabulary and phrasing. Maybe Eddie’s parents took to the American language much better than mine did, but I would never hear phrases like “inherently good people” come out of my mom’s mouth…
Somewhere way down there in the family tree, Eddie Huang and I could possibly share the same ancestral roots. Before Eddie’s parents made their move from DC to Orlando, they made the big trek from Taiwan to DC. Their family surname name could have transformed a number ways: Huang, Hwang, Wong, Wang – all are translated from the same Chinese character 黄 which means “yellow.” Unlike Eddie’s parents, my grandparents emigrated from China to Vietnam, which ultimately took our family surname 黄 to the Vietnamese interpretation, “Huynh.” From there, my parents found each other, took “Huynh” from Vietnam to Hawaii, then from Hawaii to California, and here we are today. Interesting Fact.
Similar to the show, my parents came to the states to pursue the American dream of being business owners. They owned and ran a restaurant in downtown San Jose for about ten years. I grew up with my parents dedicating their lives to making a success of selling Chinese fast food to San Jose locals. It was no Cattleman’s Steakhouse like Louis Huang’s place in Orlando. This was ready to go, semi white-washed Chinese fast food prepared 7 days a week by my dad, our restaurant chef. My mom prepped the restaurant each day for opening, served our customers, and ran the register. Most days, it was a team of 2.5 -3.5 that ran that place (I helped here and there when I was old enough to bus tables and do math to run the register). My parents hired minimally to keep costs down – all Asian as far as I can remember.
Unlike Cattleman’s Ranch, there was no need to put a white face in front to greet the crowd and draw them in. Anyone looking for good Chinese food looks for Chinese people behind the counter, right? With my parents spending most of their lives running the restaurant, there was not much time for socializing beyond the nearby business owners. Rollerblading and gossiping with neighborhood wives was NOT something my mom ever had the luxury or desire to indulge in.
I don’t know how Eddie’s family managed to sit down together for family dinner time while running Cattleman’s Ranch Steakhouse, but they did it right if that was true to life. It wasn’t until my parents sold the restaurant that our family fell into a more normal routine. It wasn’t until they joined the general work force that we would sit together each night to eat dinner as a family; my mom took over as family chef, and I never bussed another restaurant table again. Those bowls and utensils that the Huang family used in the show – all too familiar. Mom and Dad drinking glasses of water with dinner: non-existent in my house. It was all about cups of hot jasmine tea with every meal. Every. Meal.
Based on the first couple of episodes, it seems as though Eddie’s family dinner conversations were generally similar to those that took place at our table each night. It was always centered on people, school, or money. We never discussed things like music, weekend plans, or feelings. However, in the second episode of “Fresh Off the Boat,” the story line was driven by the tell-tale use of “I love you” when someone was up to something. This was one of the plot lines that I had problems relating with. “I love you” was NEVER something uttered in my household growing up under any circumstances. Ever. My parents showed me affection and comfort whenever I was hurt by downplaying things, making them seem less of a big deal than they maybe actually were, but there were no comfort hugs, no “I love you” uttered. It wasn’t until my adulthood that I got my parents somewhat accustomed to the idea of uttering words of fondness and displaying affection. My experiences there were apparently very different from Eddie’s considering how much “I love you” was uttered in just one episode of the show.
A poignant moment during the first episode of the show was when Eddie was confronted by an African-American kid who called him “chink.” That was a burn moment on the show that I appreciated them addressing, but at the end of the day, didn’t really relate to. This is where I believe the distinction lies between east coast and west coast. In grade school and beyond, I was never considered the minority. If you were some form of Asian/Pacific Islander or Hispanic, you were the majority; anything else was considered the minority in San Jose. I don’t think I had white friends until junior high school.
Speaking of school, though I never experienced the “Chinese Learning Center/CLC” as Eddie & his brothers did in the show, going to Chinese school on the weekends as a kid was very much a real thing, and a real thing that I hated. It was such a mixed blessing when our school caught on fire and I stopped going. I wasn’t friends with anyone in Chinese class – I think I was too white-washed and too young to fit in with the other kids. It may have been at that point that my parents realized that they didn’t really need to push me to study hard and get good grades (which was of great importance to them because good grades means good college means good job means good money). I did a stellar job of putting the pressure on myself, but I think they realized that it was important for me to be happy, so while I studied hard and got good grades, I deviated from the norm and started diving into the world of performing arts… which they were surprisingly okay with.
From that point on, my parents became less and less like the stereotypical Chinese parents. I didn’t need to study medicine and become a doctor to be successful and make them happy. I think this is where Eddie Huang’s lifestyle and choices greatly departed from mine and perhaps where Eddie’s parents’ expectations may have differed from mine. Though it’s still early on in the show, if ABC follows the general story of Eddie’s life to move the plot along, young Eddie will eventually grow up to go to law school, dabble in dealing marijuana, become a foodie and open a few restaurants, and ultimately write a book about his life, which then turns into a show on network television.
As far as my life story, I eventually found my way into corporate America, married a wonderful non-Chinese guy, and am as white as they come on the inside. I may not have become the big name that Eddie Huang has with his restaurants, books, and now his TV show, which I’m sure his parents are very proud of, but I’d like to think that my parents are proud of their only daughter who they raised the best they knew how and allowed to grow into her own.
I’m not sure how much more or less entertaining my life story would have been to follow than Eddie Huang’s, but it’s interesting to note so many differences there were despite our similarities.
Overall, ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” was an entertaining way for me to reflect on my own experiences as an American-Born Chinese and to compare notes with others out there like Eddie Huang and his family.
Evelyn Huynh is a talented actor, performer and blogger in the bay area. Check out her blog at: http://sleepyeve.com/