The pilot for the new ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat starts inside a department-store dressing room. It's 1995, and 11-year-old Eddie, the American-born son of Taiwanese immigrants, adjusts his silver ring, watch, and chain before fixing his fitted Orlando Magic cap—a look that his mom says is too expensive and his younger brothers don't get at all.
"Isn't that necklace heavy?" one brother says, to which Eddie replies, "Life's heavy, son."
Based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang's 2013 memoir of the same name, FOTB is one of the winter TV season's most anticipated debuts. (It premieres tonight.) Most have called it the first network sitcom in 20 years to star an Asian-American family, but let's face facts: It's also the second network sitcom ever to star an Asian-American family, the first being 1994's Margaret Cho vehicle All-American Girl.
To me, though, that dressing-room scene proves that this show is groundbreaking for another reason. Its central character is an Asian-American hip-hop fan: a sitcom first, period. The first time I saw myself on TV was on BET, when Jin competed in 106 & Park's Freestyle Fridays. This is the second time.
I was in high school in 2002 when Missy Elliott dropped her "Work It" video, with its DJ booth inside a beehive, its Beetlejuice-inspired playground, and its slave slapping the white right out of an old-time legislator's skin. The more MTV played it, though, the more I fixated on perhaps its most ordinary detail: Elliott's Adidas sweatsuits. I didn't know that her outfits were an homage to Run-DMC; I just knew that she looked fierce. Which was why I convinced my mom, a Vietnamese immigrant, to buy me a sweatsuit in green apple with white stripes. It was from Express, because that wasn't as expensive, but I had to have it all the same.
Hip-hop is black music, through and through, but it's also largely the only music that speaks directly to racial minorities, black and otherwise, especially when it comes to detailing exactly how and why White America treats us like shit. When I read Huang's memoir, I felt like he articulated that perfectly. "We listened to hip-hop because there wasn't anything else that welcomed us in, made us feel at home," he writes. "I could see why Milli wanted to pull a pistol on Santa or why B.I.G. was ready to die. Our parents, Confucius, the model-minority bullshit, and kung fu-style discipline are what set us off. But Pac held us down."
That passage was the first that I dog-eared in Fresh Off the Boat. It's an important one, because it shows how Huang gravitated to hip-hop for other reasons than its taste for profanity. To me, it also helps explain why a Taiwanese-Chinese-American kid would quote rap songs the same way white kids dropped famous movie lines or Bible passages: as gospel.
But two years post-publication, I still feel like that part of Huang's memoir gets overlooked by critics trying to nail down his point of view. A 2013 New York Times profile described Huang as "a walking mixtape of postmodern cultural appropriation." On MSNBC, Huang aired out his main complaint of American food culture: "They'll go find something in Burma, or they'll go find something in Laos, or Thailand, and they'll bring it back. They'll put it on a square plate and drizzle a sauce over it, and now it's a Michelin-star restaurant." To counter that, Bon Appetit's Adam Rapaport pointed out how Huang "appropriated some African-American culture," like his deep appreciation for hip-hop was comparable.
Meanwhile, a Wall Street Journal commenter who saw Fresh Off the Boat's pilot long before tonight's debut summed up the role of young Eddie, played by Hudson Yang, as a "stereotyped White Kid Who In This Case is Asian Instead Who Wants to be Rapping Middle-Class Thug ... in other words, a middle-class Chigger."
Fuck that guy.
Still, I held my breath when I watched Fresh Off the Boat's first three episodes myself. There's another scene in the pilot, lifted from the memoir, where a boy at school calls Eddie a chink. Young Eddie tenses and narrows his eyes, as if he's about to lunge—and in that context, the Wu-Tang Clan T-shirt he's wearing feels just right. But there's another scene in the next episode, where Eddie fantasizes about making it rain to Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Shimmy Shimmy Ya," that felt odd even to the show's creator. "I told [the network] that Wu-Tang's Ol' Dirty Bastard came out way before 'making it rain,' but, alas, no one cared," Huang wrote in his recent New York magazine essay, headlined "Bamboo-Ceiling TV." Once I saw that scene for myself, the reason why was obvious: This gag wasn't for hip-hop fans, but a general audience with only the vaguest knowledge of rap and its place within pop culture.
Fresh Off the Boat's first three episodes also feature Notorious B.I.G.'s "Big Poppa" and Too $hort's "So You Want to Be a Gangster"—crowd-pleasers then and now. There's a lot of rap involved here, particularly in scenes where Eddie moves with a casual swagger to impress classmates or girls. It's not that I don't like these moments of comic relief; it's tough not to like Hudson Yang or this new character he's embodying, and I don't take that for granted. Part of me wonders, though, if like the memoir, this sitcom adaptation will have a more serious scene dedicated to Tupac's "Me Against the World."
According to his memoir, Huang and his younger brother Emery used to listen to that song over and over while reading comics. Their parents used to beat them with belts, whips, and kitchen utensils as discipline—Chinese tradition, but also fairly common in immigrant Asian households in general, which has historically been cause for concern to Children's Services. (Growing up, my mom used chopsticks and a broom on me and my brother.) When school authorities caught wind, though, Huang felt forced to defend his parents instead. "Me Against the World" helped him deal with being Asian-American, which often means choosing between two different sets of values—Asian or American—only to be dismissed as an anomaly by both sides, regardless.
"Pac made sense to us," Huang writes. "We lived in a world that treated us like deviants, and we were outcast."
Almost immediately in the pilot, Huang himself, serving as the show's narrator, gets at this issue while explaining why the young Eddie onscreen is wearing an Illmatic T-shirt. "If you were an outsider, hip-hop was your anthem," he says. "And I was definitely the black sheep of my family." The zinger-filled early episodes of Fresh Off the Boat don't skimp on the hip-hop, but it's only played for laughs; unlike the book, the show doesn't quite get at why this music attracts outsiders in the first place. The show needs to make the basis of that emotional connection clear—maybe by recreating the moment in the memoir where Huang first hears Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), with its samples of Shaw Brothers kung-fu films, and he actually feels proud to be Chinese.
During a recent Television Critics Association press tour, Fresh Off the Boat's producers and cast actually got this question: "I love the Asian culture. And I was just talking about the chopsticks, and I just love all that. Will I get to see that, or will it be more Americanized?"
The panel tried to shrug it off. "The original title was Chopsticks," actor Randall Park joked. Still, it stung. No one is used to seeing a family like mine on TV—especially me. But the larger world also isn't used to seeing young hip-hop fans like me (or my brother, or my uncle, or my cousins) on TV either, and I hope to see the show delve deeper into that, too: why Asian-Americans would connect so intensely with Cam'ron or Missy or Tupac in the first place. There's a reason "Work It" meant so much to me.
Christina Lee lives in Atlanta and has written for Wondering Sound, RollingStone.com, Billboard, and SPIN. Follow her on Twitter.
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