The episode that marks the end of the season is called “So Chinese.” It’s an episode about assimilation. Jessica has been invited to join the country club. This is what we call gentrification. The funniest line comes from a country club member, “Come on, Louis, this club is classy as hell” followed by “sometimes, I just forget that you guys are Chinese” and “you guys are just regular all Americans to us.” Yeah! In an ironic twist, Jessica’s responds to this whole overwhelming situation, “Are we Chinese enough?” In order to make sure the kids remember their roots, Jessica has started a new rule: everyone will now speak Mandarin at home and take off his shoes. Once Jessica sees that the country club can potentially cause the Huangs to lose their Chinese identity, she has decided against joining. On the opposite end, Louis is warming to the idea of joining the country club because of all the business opportunities membership creates. Inevitably, the tension is between ethnic identity and business opportunities.
The word “yuppification” is a perfect description of what’s going on with the Huang’s. “Yuppies” is an old term describing “young upwardly mobile” types. It’s a perfect word to describe social mobility of the Huang’s though they might not be THAT young. They’re moving from working class into being yuppies. The social mobility of the Huang’s is an interesting study because social mobility means different things to different races.
For many white folks, social mobility just means rising income. For minorities like myself and the Huangs, the racial dimension can’t be dismissed entirely. The initial unintentionally uncomfortable remark by Jessica’s blonde buddy Honey “you guys are just regular all Americans to us.” In such a qualifying statement, the speaker clearly sees us as the “other” because let’s face it, no one would say that to another white immigrant (e.g. Italian, Irish etc.). No “fresh white towels and hand-shake deals” will ever diminish that. In many ways, I can understand Jessica’s trepidation in joining just because of that fact, but joining or not joining doesn’t necessarily change the otherness of being Asian. The solution, I don’t think is in assimilation or ghettoization.
I think many of us who are Asians almost try too hard to assimilate that we just look funny (but not in the slant-eye, dark-hair exotic way). I think it’s important to know that we aren’t whites. We’ll never assimilate no matter how much we intend to. Assimilation is a power game of being submissive to a dominate culture that looks down upon us. Yet, even the assimilated will never been considered “one of them.” How I’m treated at the customs in various white-dominated countries around the world (e.g. Australia, Canada) on a recent business trip speaks volumes. Even in my perfectly pressed Hugo Boss suit with matching pocket square from Michael Kors arriving from business class, I got put in a room with the “Chinese” (mostly mainland Chinese) to have my luggage examined because the Chinese are well known to bring in illegal foodstuff. Never mind I don’t speak with a Chinese accent and I hold a US Passport. My only trespass is something I can’t change: the color of my skin (or maybe they just don’t like my earring. That’s entirely possible). Assimilation has very minimal impact on the dominant culture because let’s face it, people don’t change their prejudices very easily.
There’s the opposite solution of ghettoization, a term to describe how minorities congregate only “with their own kinds.” Jessica in the show puts up a Buddha poster to fit the Asian stereotype so that her kids can get a sense of their Asianess. Louis however says something quite profound, “You know what’s a white thing? Putting up a picture of Buddha.” Bingo! After all, Buddhism came not from China but from India, but Jessica’s action is ahistorical. Her attempt doesn’t take seriously the historical content of her action. As a result, our ghettoization creates an equally funny look about us. Our identity is often just another Asian caricature albeit in Asian orientation this time, if we use representative politics of “what typifies an Asian/Chinese/Japanese etc.” In Eddie Huang’s book, he observes that it’s the American-born Asians that are most eager to be Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese etc. I find it hilarious that many of my ABC (American-born Chinese) friends love to buy those cheap potteries from Chinatown to decorate their houses in order to show their identity. It’s simultaneously kitschy and archaic. Good Chinese pottery doesn’t come from the cheap shop in Chinatown (and yes, I own real and original Chinese classical paintings and I apologize for my snobbishness)! We aren’t caricatures.
The above two extremes of dealing with being a minority makes us equally funny looking in different ways. What can we do? It’s best to see our recent past as something that connects us to REAL history (e.g. what about China that actually connects me to her?) and our own narratives (e.g. how have I experienced my own ethnic identity in multicultural America?). Reading history and traveling may connect us to our ethic origin, in the same way some Italians and Irish go back to their ancestral homes to visit relatives in their motherland. America is a multicultural experiment that makes us all Americans. Whether people think of us as “Americans” means very little. We ARE Americans. Yet, every American has a historical narrative from his or her ancestors that is beyond this young and artificially created multicultural mirage called “America”. These narratives can fit neatly into the tapestry that is this country. It’s best to be a hyphenated American because “American” as it is often constructed by the white majority is an idol with clay feet.
For all Christians, the relative popularity of the Fresh of the Boat can inform many in the faith community. Although I feel that some of the episodes can be written better, I think the show has the merit to call all believers in faith communities to learn to hear others whose cultures are fascinatingly (and often drastically) different from their own. The beauty of the gospel should be able to incorporate these cultures into the saving grace proclaimed. Only then will American Christianity become a true blessing not just to its various members but to the world. Otherwise, we’re still a religious country club with membership fees and perceived privileges. An illusion isn’t the gospel.