“Go read the book” is the cliche suggestion for people who watch movies of books. I suppose this could well be a great suggestion for what Eddie Huang, the author of the Fresh off the Boat, said this week. In an interview, Eddie expresses his dissatisfaction of the show not representing his life well enough, and at a certain stage. I’m going to respond to Eddie’s comments and those who comment on Eddie’s comment in this blog, not just as an Asian American but as a Christian pastor who cares about Eddie as a person (in the book) than his perceived representative role for Asian Americans (Eddie went to a Christian school and was forced to convert against his conscience).
Eddie is right to insist that the show should represent some sense of reality. Many would appeal to artistic license. Since Eddie seems to take his own experience so seriously, perhaps, his concern should be addressed. I think the problem is genre. The book resembles a long rap in narrative form. The genre of comedy doesn’t adequately address Eddie’s sometimes funny and sometimes not-so-funny experience as an Asian American (AA henceforth). Some of the stories of continuous racist bullying, trying to be a tough guy in a predominately wealthy white world and trying to fit in resemble part of my childhood. Other experiences of sometimes abusive (but also sometimes strangely supportive) parents don’t fit my experience but perhaps fit some of my AA friends’ experiences. Those were the kind of experiences that got me real hot under the collar. As important as those tales are, they didn’t really make it into the show other than that one simple line by the black kid, “Chink!” The book also talks about wonderful Chinese food and Eddie’s innovative design of street wear. Other just plain dark experiences such as hustling drugs and getting into serious troubles with the law will not make it on primetime. Most of the book can’t make it into a sitcom because the sitcom doesn’t fit the genre of the book.
A lot of the response to Eddie’s complaint is, “Eddie, it’s a freaking TV show. You should expect THAT.” Some talk about the medium of television or entertainment media in general. Some think that Eddie’s comments will kill the AA show that has received good reviews from audiences of different races. I think the common threads with these comments are two: the medium of comedy and representative politics.
The medium of comedy is problematic in that Eddie’s book not only strikes a funny bone but also a pressure point (yes, as a martial artist, I just went there) as far as its content goes. You can’t simply put a comedy spin on something like that, no more than you can put a comedy spin on American Sniper. Sitcom is probably the very worst medium on an autobiography. As far as the book is concerned, I would love to see a movie made about Eddie’s book, but in our recent past, the only drama on AA life that succeeded is the Joy Luck Club. Things aren’t hopeful.
I want to talk about representative politics for a moment. We must first start with terminologies. The very phrase “fresh off the boat” is very AA. Most whites I know have no idea of what this phrase means until the show. It can be used disparagingly and sometimes quite smugly by second-generation AA’s towards fresh immigrants, as if speaking English and dressing like “an American” somehow makes them better. Surely, someone would object to my portrait of second-generation AA’s, but I’ve seen this quite a lot throughout my time as an immigrant here. The attitude is no more different than white Americans laughing at the accents and of fresh Mexican immigrants. In many ways, many AA’s have adopted the discriminatory attitude of their white friends. “Fresh off the boat” ensures that WE (the English-speaking ones) aren’t like THEM. The phrase has representative politics written all over it, except the show doesn’t represent what “fresh off the boat” really meant either.
IF Eddie’s parents are truly fresh off the boat, they would speak Mandarin Chinese or Taiwanese to Eddie. After all, what Chinese person speaks in English to his kid? The real fresh off the boat immigrants would speak in their native tongue. Instead, Louis and Jessica, the parents of Eddie, speak in reasonably good English with a hint of Chinese accent (Jessica’s Chinese accent is improving every show). The show should be called “Been a while since I’ve been on that boat”.
In my observation of AA life, at least in Chinese-American context, there’re at least two kinds of fresh off the boat immigrants. The first kind are the kind we don’t talk about much because they don’t fit the model minority myth. These are the blue collar workers who are honestly trying to make ends meet. They don’t drive around in BMWs or Mercedes. Instead, they drive used clunkers because that’s all they can afford. Their kids don’t go to good school districts and have to pack their own lunch. This is the lost AA we sweep aside. The second kind of fresh off the boat immigrants are the highly privileged ones. These aren’t like Louis and Jessica who also started working for little in a family business. Louis and Jessica have risen from the more grass root beginnings to middle-class respectability. I’m talking about the other kind of AA, the privileged AA. These arrive at our shore with boatload of money (yes, I also went there with the metaphor), ready to buy up anything and everything in real estate with cash. They may not speak English well, but their lifestyle is the envy of every middle-class schmuck. They drive around in everything above the grade of BMWs. BMWs are for their kids. These are the “crazy rich Asians”. I don’t think most Americans know that this type of Asians exist. They represent the dope, fresh and swag (yes, I also went with rap terms due to my children’s influence) in HK and Korean cinemas. They drive McLaren’s and Lambo’s.
Where does the typical AA fit? Actually, there’s a third kind of fresh off the boat that fits in the middle. These are the future AA’s who just got off the boat to study for an advanced degree. I say “future” because they haven’t had their citizenship yet, but they will soon when a high tech company hires them after their masters or PhD’s. They speak “OK” English but not without an accent. They sound a bit more like Louis and Jessica except Louis and Jessica aren’t here to study for an advanced degree and they aren’t too fresh off the boat. The people who evolve into Louis and Jessica with their advanced degree and the ever so slight Asian accent are what AA’s call the 1.5 generation, with the 1st generation being very fresh off the boat and the 2nd generation being fully English-speaking. In fact, my wife and I are probably a close 2nd gen with a 1.5 generation traits. In fact, Louis and Jessica are probably more like 1.25 since they still have loads of Asian hangups that are the vestiges of their fresh off the boat experience.
The above is the simple caricature (and that’s exactly what it is) of groups of AAs we can call fresh off the boat, and none of that fits very well with the name of the show. Among many AA Christians, the above dynamics aren’t even on their radar screen because they’re unaware the the present immigration issue today will become the AA issues of tomorrow. What am I saying? I’m saying that representative politics are inaccurate. The way things are discussed among AA Christians is inadequately short-sighted. The ideologies we create about what the show can do for AA is a hopeful caricature. We so want to discuss this show in terms of what it “can do” for AA’s but at a certain point, when we realize that it can’t do what we hope, we abandon our ideals for convenient acceptance by wider society. So, is the show to bear the burden of AA or not? I find no clear answer from the dialogue among AAs because many of us still speak in terms of representative politics. However, we experience where the politics fall short over and over again because Eddie isn’t our representative. He’s one guy who deserves to have his story told, but sadly, it’s told in an inaccurate way in an impossible genre. In some ways, the TV version of Eddie’s life has become a punchline simply because of its genre that produces the inaccurate caricature. Eddie has the right to call out the problem. As an AA with a Christian pastor’s heart, I do not care for the objectification of Eddie to be our cause. Neither do I care for the objectification of Eddie as somehow our representative. Even less do I feel like Eddie is doing a bad thing by killing off a show that is supposed to bear the burden of greater AA media exposure. EDDIE IS A PERSON. As a person, he has the right to say, “I refuse to be caricature and misrepresented in a show based on my book.” Eddie deservers his personal dignity. Have our activist selves become so calloused by our ideology that we fail to see Eddie with a real person who has a voice? Have we as AA’s objectified Eddie into our ideology? If so, we have failed in a big way and have become the very thing we fight against, the objectification of Asians.
Accurate representation, on the individual level, is necessary and even needed. Accurate representation, on the corporate level (i.e. the show has to represent the Asian American family), is impossible; it is dead. Of course, Eddie has every right to demand better representation of his life. The trouble with everyone else talking about the show is that we’re talking about representative politics for the AA experience (whether adequately or inadequately). The two are different matters. The show can’t represent us as a whole, but it should represent an individual like Eddie adequately. That’s why at the end of the day, I’d always say to people who talk in disfavor (and sometimes dismissively) about Eddie’s concern merely in favor of the good of this show does for AA’s, “You wouldn’t say the same thing if the show is about YOUR life.” Are we really willing to sacrifice Eddie as a person to our ideological Eddie who can carry our cause? Is that a pastoral or even Christian thing to do? Inevitably, representative politics (politics of ideologues) cheapen the seriousness of the racial problem.
Let’s say I’m writing this blog for Christians and church ministers. How often do we assume the people we don’t habitually meet are much like the people we see on TV? Probably more often than we realize. If we care about reality, we have to connect with real people without assumptions while looking at each person as an important individual first. Without doing so, we objectify and caricature people into things.
From observing the dialogue about the show, I do know one thing: representative politic is dead. Ultimately as a Christian AA, the issue mustn’t be just about activism. The issue is pastoral. Someone show Eddie some love! I hope he finds a different entertainment genre to express the fuller meaning of his work.