Fresh Off the Boat and Diversity on TV

TV Features

Reporters at the TCA aren’t particularly shy about vocalizing their displeasure with their peers’ questions. Throughout the week, disapproving tuts, eyerolls and laughter have all been common responses from the room whenever anyone has asked a particularly dumb question. But nothing drew a response quite like the first question posed to the cast of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat.

“I love the Asian culture,” a reporter began. “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?”

Some people laughed. Some people cried out “What?” The cast, to their credit, handled it gracefully, cracking a few jokes in response, and the tension was diffused when the second reporter to ask a question jokingly wondered “Will we be seeing fortune cookies?” But the tone was set for a weird, tense session about the series based on chef Eddie Huang’s childhood move from DC to Orlando.

The show is a smart comedy that deals with Huang’s father’s love for American culture—he owns and operates a steakhouse called the Cattleman’s Ranch—his mother’s reluctance to go along with the move, and his own experiences growing up as a first-generation American in Orlando’s suburbs. The subject matter, of course, is very personal to Huang, but it’s also a pretty big deal in that it’s a sitcom focused on an Asian-American family, airing on a major network—sadly, something that up until now has been virtually unheard of.

“This show to me is historic,” Huang said. “This show has a huge place culturally in America. I mean, I don’t think you guys have seen a TCA with this many Asian faces on stage in a long time…the first episode, like I said, to deal with the word ‘chink’ in the pilot episode of a comedy on network television is borderline genius and insane at the same time.”

Huang has been outspoken about the show, and he recently penned a much-talked-about article for New York magazine in which he says “The network tried to turn my memoir into a cornstarch sitcom and me into a mascot for America. I hated that.”

However, to say the article is entirely critical of the show is inaccurate, and towards the end of it, he clarifies many of his feelings. At the TCA panel, Huang bristled when the portion of the article where he questions whether Nahnatchka Khan should be running the show, considering that she’s not Chinese or Taiwanese:

QUESTION: Ms. Khan, I, too, read the article to the end, and one of the conversations it should provoke is the idea that you should not be running the show because you’re not Chinese or Taiwanese. I would think it’s hard enough for a woman in this business. What was your take on that?

EDDIE HUANG: That’s actually not the point of the article.

QUESTION: Well, I’m not asking you the question. I’m asking her take on that and her reaction.

EDDIE HUANG: I’m just debating your reading comprehension skills.

QUESTION: “Why isn’t there a Taiwanese or Chinese person who can write this? I’m sure there’s some angry Korean dude in Hollywood who grew up eating Spam watching his dad punch his mom in the face who knows how to use Final Draft.”

EDDIE HUANG: Absolutely.

QUESTION: Or “Written by a Persian American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth McFarlane, but who is that show written for?” So I would say—

EDDIE HUANG: Absolutely. Let me ask you, sir. What page is that on? I believe that’s on page 3.

QUESTION: So I would now ask Ms. Khan to answer the question.

NAHNATCHKA KHAN: I mean, I would—

EDDIE HUANG: But when you frame a question like that incorrectly, that’s why we have terrible laws and the EPA doesn’t have to talk to scientists anymore, because the framing of questions. So, sir, I’m going to debate you and make you frame this question in the proper manner because that statement was made on about page 3, and if my dot doc is right, it’s a 15-page article. So of course people’s opinions change and meramorph and then they reach resolutions. I mean, that’s even how TV shows work.

QUESTION: If there was a point in that article where you went back and said you were wrong, I didn’t read it. If you can point that point out, that’s fine.

EDDIE HUANG: It’s an experiential inversion article.

QUESTION: Again, this is not this question is not about you and this press conference is not about me. Could you please answer the question.

NAHNATCHKA KHAN: Definitely. I appreciate what Eddie’s trying to say. For me, it’s like, I related to this. When I read his memoir, the specifics were different to my growing up experience, you know, being Persian-American, him being Taiwanese-American. But what I really related to was the immigrant experience of this show, and being first-generation and having parents who weren’t born here and that, to me, was my access point. And I think that when you take something from the source material that is such a strong voice and you try to develop it for a broader audience and make it into an 8 p.m. family sitcom for broadcast TV, you need a lot of different access points. And mine is that. And I think that feeling like you don’t belong and trying to figure out the rules and trying to help your parents figure out the rules and being, like, almost a scout going out and into the world and reporting back to them what you see, to me, that’s what a lot of people are going to relate to. I think if you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong or feel like an outsider for whatever reason, this show is a show that you’re going to be able to relate to.

EDDIE HUANG: I wasn’t saying that to protect Natch, because Natch doesn’t need me to protect her, but publicity, you know, they even told me not to talk about immigrants or race or anything today, but the thing I want to make clear is I absolutely feel that we should have more writers of Asian American descent in the writers’ room, but I do not debate Natch’s ability at all to do the show, because if you watch the pilot episode, that’s one of the most proud things that we have in Asian culture today in America.

While it’s a proud moment, it’s also sad and disappointing that a show like Fresh Off the Boat can still be so misinterpreted (I’m still cringing about that chopsticks question) and that there’s still need for more Asian-American writers to accurately capture the first-generation experience described in Huang’s memoir. And the fact that a show with Asian-American leads is a notable rarity in this day and age speaks to how far TV still has to go before being able to truly claim diversity.

Fresh Off the Boat premieres on Feb. 4, and you absolutely should not go into it expecting “chopsticks and all that”—go into it looking for smart comedy and sometimes-uncomfortable confrontations of race. If there’s one thing to take away from its panel on Wednesday, it’s that it’ll be talked about in many different ways—some backwards and bigoted, some valuable and important—but it’ll certainly be talked about, and any show that fosters conversation about diversity on television is doing viewers a great service.

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