I’m going to write on and off about my reflection on the Fresh Off the Boat series simply because I really enjoy the show. I watch it as a routine with my family every Tuesday night so that we can have meaningful discussions about our status as racial minority in the US. In case you haven’t watched the show (and you live outside of the US), it’s a simple comedy showing the cultural difference between the races in the US through the eyes of one Taiwanese-American family. It’s based on a book by Eddie Huang, a restauranteur in the NYC area who came from an immigrant family. I plan on reading the book soon. Although the real Eddie Huang had written a serious memoir with some humor in it, the show isn’t supposed to reflect on all the content of the memoir. The show was only inspired by the memoir.
This week, we have Eddie the little ABC (i.e. American-born-Chinese, commonly known in the West Coast and East Coast as “ABC”) kid going to school and being forced to meet his new classmate who is also Asian. I said “forced” because it was the principal’s idea to introduce Eddie to one of “his people.” (i.e. people who look the same). Eddie finds out that this new kid isn’t anything remotely like himself. While Eddie loves rap, this kid plays classical music. While Eddie dresses in hip t-shirts and jeans (much like my little son Ian), this kid dresses in a jacket and slacks. The humor was not lost on my own two kids when they both shouted “Heck, no!” as soon as they saw this other kid. To make matters worse, this new kid is adopted by a Jewish family and has a name Philip Goldstein. The difference creates a lot of comedy of errors.
The comical part starts with Eddie sitting in the principal’s office, this time, not for fighting or for some normal teenage prank but for meeting his new friend Philip. The principal knows that this is going to be awkward and doesn’t want to appear racist. So, he calls the teacher to send Philip in. The trouble is that the teacher has a lot of Philip’s in the class. Which Philip? Of course, it’s the Philip who would get along with someone named HUANG! Eddie immediately latches on to the situation and spouts something along the line that the principal only wants him to meet his new pal because Eddie himself is ethnic Chinese. Out of embarrassment, the principal tries his best to play off the awkwardness. Of course, just to prove his own non-racist diversity-senstive claim, the principal took a picture with BOTH Chinese kids. We laugh. We get it!
This show is a complete parody of our society. Everyone has an assumption, and some assumptions are implicitly racist. Some actions are laughably racist. The whole idea of “let me introduce you to a new friend who looks like you and must be able to relate to you because YOU are so culturally different from US” is completely true. In a white church, when there’s an Asian visitor, what do people do automatically? They grab me and my family. Now, I don’t mind meeting new people OF ALL RACES but do my white brothers and sisters mind? Of course they mind. Well, maybe not every single one of them, but a lot of them do mind. They want to offload their Asian visitors to us so that they don’t have to deal with them. Sure, there’re few who actually do go out of their way to welcome them. Now, notice I said “go out of their way” because it’s abnormal to greet someone of a culture you perceive to be different. Yet, are the differences really that much? Are the assumptions right? Not always. Frequently, the assumptions are wrong.
To grab me or my family to greet a native Japanese or Korean or even mainland Chinese with the assumption that we have cultural commonalities is an extreme form of ignorance. I grew up in the American South. Not only do I know American culture. I know Southern culture. That’s the culture that stuck with me, for better or for worse. If you go to the South, you’ll notice that we’re about as far away from Japan, Korea or China as possible. Just because I’m completely fluent in Chinese, it doesn’t automatically make me the White Castle hamburger fast-food stop for ALL Asian visitors. My wife grew up in SoCal. She’s about as SoCal as they come. I don’t think she can live anywhere else other than the West Coast of the US. My kids lived all over the world with me but they aren’t Japanese, Korean or mainland Chinese. They hang around mostly non-Asian kids because we have a lot of non-Asian kids in their schools. Assumptions can be silly. Assumptions based on skin color are utterly misguided.
What can the church do moving forward? First, the church ought to stop pretending like the principal in the FOTB show that it is diverse by appearing to be diverse (take a selfie with a minority!). The principal took the pictures with the Asian kids and sending them to his ex-wife to show that he’s diverse may look stupid, but that’s what a lot of churches do every Sunday. Stop pretending that we have no assumption or that we’re so “one in Christ” when our very praxis says otherwise! Admit to the assumptions. Have an honest conversation and hear the other side. In fact, better yet, let “the other side” speak once in a while like a real human being. Now, I’m not complaining about my pastor, to be sure, because he sure takes a lot of risks by sharing his pulpit generously with me, but this is not the way things often work. Second, individual white Christians should befriend someone s/he assumes to be culturally different than the typical white culture. Leave prejudices aside and just listen. Instead of saying, “Gosh, how I love Japanese food. You people are so polite,” how about just listen. Let them talk, and learn from them. Shutting up is one spiritual discipline that can help us all. This is what being a diverse church is like. Don’t assume that they’re our minority project. Assume that they can become or already are an equal partner in the Body of Christ. That means giving them space to participate and making room for them to have a strong voice.
FOTB may be comedic, but its message is quite serious. The church can learn from such a show.