In modern television, we now see more of a presence of minority sitcoms. It has not always been this way, however, and we have rarely been exposed to sitcoms centered on Asian Americans. In 1994, the sitcom All American Girl aired on television featuring comedian Margaret Cho. This sitcom focused on Margaret Kim (Margaret Cho) and her wild lifestyle and high expectations from her Korean immigrant family. All American Girl failed to be a successful sitcom and went off the air very quickly. One criticism of the series is that it promoted negative stereotypes of Korean-Americans and lost track of the theme and material for the show by trying too hard to appeal to a mainstream audience (Critical Media Project). Margaret Cho was pushed to act “more Asian” or was told she was not acting “Asian enough.” The sitcom was cancelled after less than a year, and another Asian American sitcom did not appear until almost two decades later.
Fresh Off the Boat debuted in 2015 on the ABC network as the first Asian-American sitcom on television since the short-lived All American Girl. The new sitcom is centered around the Huang family, which consists of the Taiwanese born grandmother, the father and mother, and three, first-generation, American sons. The series is set in the 1990s, and the Huang family has just moved from Washington, D.C to Orlando, Florida to pursue the American dream. This sitcom has been paramount in demonstrating positive ways minority characters can adjust to a new environment. The show applies humor in an appropriate manner, most often by the Huangs’s amusement and bafflement at the frivolous and thoughtless tendencies of their White, American neighbors. Fresh Off the Boat is not the first sitcom featuring an Asian-American family, but it is the first sitcom to provide humor in a way that builds community morale and appreciation for diversity rather than reinforcing negative and false stereotypes of minority races.
The sitcom is successful in balancing the aspects of a traditional family sitcom while still being authentic regarding the heritage and experiences of Asian-American families. By including three generations of the Huang family in the household featured on the sitcom, viewers get a unusual experience allowing them to relate to the Huang family. The Huangs face obstacles for a few reasons: they live in an American suburb, they are outwardly in touch with their Asian heritage, and they also are coping with living among three generations in one household. Grandma Huang (Lucille Soong) is most in tune to the Asian heritage and speaks very little English. Louis Huang (Randall Park) and Jessica Huang (Constance Wu) have recently opened a new steakhouse restaurant in Orlando. The eldest son, Eddie (Hudson Yang), is a die-hard fan of the world of hip-hop, rap, and basketball. This complex combination of family members with various expertise levels in American culture is comical and provides an authentic representation of immigrant families. Rather than drawing humor from the failures and struggles the Huang family faces, the sitcom provides humor in an appropriate manner and includes scenes that provide a chance for the viewer to relate to and respect the Huang family and some of the obscure challenges it faces as a transplanted minority family in a White, suburban community. The sitcom depicts Asian Americans in a positive light, which contributes to the significance it has in modern society and reinforces why it is important to continue to air minority sitcoms on television.
Grandma Huang is not an American citizen, speaks Mandarin Chinese primarily and very little English, and she is most rooted in tradition. Grandma stays home most days and may be able to escape speaking English this way, but she is not able to escape all the influences of American life. The power of American consumerism and materialism of the 1990s can permeate even the family member most in touch to her heritage. The episode “Driving Miss Jenny” is focused on Grandma Huang and her newly motorized wheelchair. This episode centers around the frustration and challenges her son faces while coping with his mother aging, as she struggles to maintain her independence and not be confined to the home all day. The writers use this scene to allude to the extent that American consumer culture influences everyone during this time – from wealthy to poor and everyone in between. Grandma Huang is content most often with the traditional way of doing things, such as remaining in an old-fashioned wheelchair. She is hesitant and doubtful of most things attributable to American culture, which makes it significant when she participates in aspects of American culture.
This character seems negative at first, due to her traditional tendencies, but she functions to affirm positive messages by going against stereotypes and proving to the boys and their parents that they are more like their American counterparts than it seems. Grandma Huang wants more freedom, independence, and mobility, and the motorized wheelchair allows her to do that. Grandma Huang is influenced by American culture as well, and it provides viewers with a vision that even the most different of people are similar in many ways. The fact that a woman who speaks Mandarin Chinese and understands very little English finds joy in a motorized wheelchair creates a parallel to suburban housewives who enjoy the other inventions of the 1990s that make life easier and a bit more enjoyable.
Another opportunity to relate to “others” and find humor in the show is present in this scene because the native-born American and the immigrant alike enjoy the new and innovative products of the 1990s. Grandma Huang is a marginal character and is often not needed in many scenes of the show. Yet, Grandma serves as a strong contrast to the children of the family, proving that those most distant from American life and culture and those most in tune with it can cohabitate, appreciate differences, and get along with one another. This aspect of the show allows viewers to appreciate the complex family structure present in the Huang household and it also provides another outlet for humor as we watch Grandma Huang get exposed to and adapt to the unfamiliar American culture.
Father and Mother Huang
The parents of the Huang family offer more humor to the series due to their differences in accepting and becoming a part of American culture. Louis embraces the new American culture and all that comes with it while his wife Jessica is very hesitant and doubtful at first, but eventually comes to slowly accept American culture. A research report by Qin Zhang outlines the common perceptions Americans hold about the Chinese and Chinese Americans, “Asian Americans are respected for their competence, diligence, intelligence, and success but disliked for being categorized as cold, nerdy, unsociable, and foreign. The negative feelings of resentment, intimidation, and hostility could even be aggravated when they are perceived as excessively competent yet unsociable.”
In the episode “No Thanks-Giving,” Jessica and Louis decide to abandon their family on Thanksgiving to keep their restaurant open and capitalize upon the holiday. When Jessica has to tell her extended family they will not be in attendance for Thanksgiving dinner, she reports back to her husband about how her family received the news, “My mom congratulated me on choosing work over her, and Connie stole the moment by saying her psychic predicted it all.” This scene is a perfect example of the competition, diligence, and drive for success informing the perception majority viewers have of most Asian Americans. Instead of portraying Asian Americans as cold and unsociable by showing the family as prioritizing work over the family, the show contradicts the stereotype by using it in what turns out to be a positive manner that critiques American society. Even though the family does choose to work over the holiday, the Huangs ultimately celebrate together on the special day and become closer and more grateful for each other than before. Jessica and Louis reflect upon their achievements and success and talk to their kids about how proud they are of them. Thanksgiving is still at time to bond, create memories, and enjoy family time together, demonstrating that Asian Americans open their hearts up and share their love freely with the people who matter the most to them.
In “Citizen Jessica,” there is a scene that demonstrates the problems Chinese Americans face. In this episode, Jessica is forced to confront the fact that she is not a legal American citizen, only a temporary resident. She tells her husband, “It’s not that I don’t want to be a citizen. The process is just so hard.” At the end of the episode, after discovering all the benefits a citizen has, she tells her family, “I decided I am going to apply for citizenship. I am not going to let the process intimidate me. Bring on the interrogation. I’m ready. I want to be able to vote and to be on Wheel of Fortune one day.” Not only is this situation faced by Chinese Americans, but it is faced by many other minorities and immigrants as well. Creating an episode centered on the struggle of not being an American-born citizen allows viewers a chance to empathize with the struggles of the minority population and hopefully become more accepting and supporting of all people.
An article by Marianne Sison provides research evidence why viewing scenes like this is so important, “By learning about the experience of ‘the other’, we can communicate across, between and within cultures to promote human empowerment and sustainable social change.” Before Fresh Off the Boat aired in 2015, there was no show that celebrated the culture and heritage of Chinese Americans. By including real events that occurred in the 1990s, problems that all parents face when raising kids, and the obstacles the family encounters as a Chinese-American family that has moved to a new neighborhood, Fresh Off the Boat is successful and necessary to create a culturally inclusive environment that provides viewers with the chance to relate to and support each other. Before viewing “Citizen Jessica,” I never knew how daunting the process was to become an American citizen. Being exposed to the problems that others deal with that I will never encounter allows me to have a more open mind for empathizing with others and understanding their experiences.
On the show, Louis Huang is depicted as more freely accepting of the American culture and way of life. This would normally present a problem to Louis and Jessica’s relationship because they hold radically different views of American society, but they work together, compromise, and reach solutions to parent their children effectively and to make decisions leading their family to success. Most modern sitcoms focus on parents fighting and the negative repercussions it has on the family. Fresh Off the Boat, however, uses the commonplace problem of disagreements among parents to show that it is important and very easy to compromise with your partner, and this is an essential part of making a marriage successful, whether it is marriage of two American-born citizens or two Asian citizens living in an American community.
The children of the Huang family are the most comedic element of the show. Eddie Huang is the most Americanized of the family and wants nothing to do with his Asian heritage. Evan Huang (Ian Chen), on the other hand, identifies more with the Asian culture portrayed in the lives of his mother and Grandma Huang. The middle son, Emery (Forrest Wheeler), is a mix between the two, like his father, Louis. The children are a great illustration that inclusion is possible, no matter how involved people become in the “others” culture or how open they are to changing their way of life. An open mind and acceptance for everyone despite their differences, for better or worse, is all that is needed to create an inclusive community for all people. The Huang children are very different, but they all have open minds and are accepting of all people, proving that it doesn’t matter if they agree or disagree with others to maintain respect for all people and a successfully inclusive environment is easily attainable.
Eddie Huang is arguably the most interesting and complex character of the show. Fresh Off the Boat is based on the memoir written by the real-life Eddie Huang, who grew up in Orlando after his Taiwanese father immigrated to America because he believed it was “the land of opportunity” (NY Times). This memoir is a story about race and assimilation in America and the experience Eddie had as a kid from a minority race. An important aspect of Eddie’s life is his love for hip hop and sports. In an episode from the third season, Eddie decides to take the rest of the year “off” in eighth grade because he believes only high school grades matter, a perfect example of Eddie participating in American culture and disrupting the traditional values of his Asian-American family. Jessica explains her frustration to her husband when deciding how to deal with Eddie, “See that’s the problem he thinks he can just sit back and everything is just going to be handed to him so he doesn’t appreciate anything. I was so careful and so strict with him.” This scene demonstrates the power of the American culture permeating the strong heritage of the Huang family. Jessica decides to punish Eddie by taking away his bed saying, “Recommit yourself to school and hard work and you get your bed back.”
This scene is significant for two main reasons. First, it demonstrates the hardships that minorities face when confronted with American culture. Second, it demonstrates the strength of the Huang parents in parenting their child in alignment with traditional Chinese beliefs and convictions. This scene reinforces the overarching message of the sitcom. While trying to achieve the American dream, many obstacles and problems may come and try to stop immigrants from succeeding. The Huang family can succeed, however, and achieve the dream of all its members because they adapt to their new American environment while remaining in touch with their Chinese heritage. Throughout the series, Eddie learns how to adapt his love for things of American culture such as music, sports, and popular culture, to accommodate his Asian background better and give him a unique personality and character to achieve success as a minority child.
Evan Huang is very intelligent and mature for his age, and in the episode “This Is Us,” Evan makes it known to his mother that he wants to attend a private school. He says, “I want bigger challenges Mommy,” and Jessica responds, “I don’t need to pay people to push you to succeed, I can do that myself,” demonstrating her refusal to conform to the norms of American families. When Jessica finally agrees to allow Evan attend private school, Evan speaks a line demonstrating the importance in Chinese heritage of intelligence and schooling over all other aspects of life, even family. Evan says in pure joy and excitement, “Goodbye Mommy! Tell the family I’ll see them in six months,” thinking that the private school is a boarding school when, in fact, it is not. Evan’s excitement over his education deviates from the American social norms and represents how the family has not lost its Chinese heritage and background even after living in a stereotypical White, American suburban neighborhood during the 1990s.
When interviewing for admission into the school, Evan is asked about his family and answers, “They’re all good eggs. We rent a house in North Orlando. My parents run a steakhouse. We’re just your typical American family who’s overcome incredible odds to achieve big dreams.” This one line from the episode is paramount to the themes and messages the show aims to portray. An Asian-American family can both maintain its unique culture and heritage and embrace the new culture of the environment in which it lives while succeeding and maintaining happiness during this process. Evan Huang is very young, but he is smart enough to realize that while his family is different from many others in the community that is no reason his family should be excluded, treated differently, or not respected. The demonstration of inclusion for minorities that we see in Fresh Off the Boat is just one of the many positive aspects of the show, and it is enough to substantiate its success and the demonstrate the need for the show to continue in the future.
Emery Huang is unlike either Eddie or Evan exactly but represents a moderate mix of his two brothers. I believe the show is so successful because of its family structure and the many personalities present. The Huang children are the best example of this. The fact that Louis and Jessica can appropriately and effectively parent three children, each completely different, is another perfect demonstration that inclusion is possible in American society, which leads to great successes for everyone.
As mentioned earlier, the sitcom Fresh Off the Boat was created from the memoir of Eddie Huang. The show is set in the 1990s and functions as a nostalgia piece as Eddie looks back on his childhood and the experiences he had growing up. The sitcom is successful operating from this premise because it allows viewers to understand and see the struggles Eddie confronted as a kid and how he used them to grow as a person while becoming stronger in his values and beliefs. “It’s a book about fitting in by not fitting in at all” (NY Times). Eddie is different from his peers in appearance and the heritage of his family, yet Eddie is also different from his family because he is actively participating in and is much more attracted to the American culture that his parents often resent and don’t understand.
Eddie’s parents achieved the “American dream” by moving to Orlando, running successful businesses, and parenting and raising three successful, driven, and open-minded children. Just as Eddie’s parents achieved their dream, Eddie does as well. In his memoir, Eddie ends up attending law school and later opens and runs a very successful restaurant. Without having the show take place in the 1990s, the audience would not be able to see Eddie develop into a young man and become strong-minded and determined to achieve the American dream for himself. Eddie’s childhood years helped to shape his character and beliefs that led him to success today. Showcasing his childhood years on a sitcom proves successful as well. These years of assimilating into the culture of “others” was challenging for the Huang family but very rewarding as well. The attitudes, motivations, and support the members of the Huang family provide to each other proves why their assimilation story is successful. Having a sitcom display this rough, but very touching, journey allows viewers to relate to members of the Huang family and open their minds to becoming more accepting of other people and the hard journey they embark upon when moving to a foreign environment.
ABC Network and the writers of Fresh Off the Boat have created a sitcom that encourages viewers to respect a minority group due to the success and strength against all the adversity demonstrated by the characters. This show has the potential for a greater impact on society because it is so different from past depictions of Asian Americans on television, and it provides an opportunity for viewers to relate to the Huang family and, more broadly, to relate to the Asian-American culture and people. The ability of the Huang family to stay true to its roots and remain intact as a strong family support system allows it to succeed to a greater degree than they thought possible when measured against all the uncertainties and troubles they face along the way. Fresh Off the Boat exposes the strengths of the Chinese culture and heritage and shows that minority races succeed and reach great accomplishment despite all the challenges and obstacles that get in the way. The sitcom is successful because it incorporates humor for entertainment, while still addressing the serious social and political issues faced by all Americans and problems faced solely by minorities in America. Fresh Off the Boat is insightful and thought provoking and proves that minority sitcoms can be successful in creating diversity in a positive manner. I think this sitcom is pivotal in showcasing how our society has evolved to create sitcoms that shed a positive light on diversity and addresses modern and relevant problems with realistic situations. Fresh Off the Boat is on track to break the 100-episode mark, and I believe this is significant in proving how influential and valuable the sitcom is for creating a space that fosters a more open-minded and inclusive society.
Samantha Ostmann is a junior at Wake Forest University from Charlotte, NC. She is an accounting major.
Garner, Dwight. “‘Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir,’ by Eddie Huang.” NY Times. The New York Times Company, Jan. 2013. Web. July 2017. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/25/books/fresh-off-the-boat-a-memoir-by-eddie-huang.html>.
“Margaret Cho – All American Girl.” Critical Media Project Icon. USC Annenberg, n.d. Web. 24 July 2017. <http://www.criticalmediaproject.org/cml/media/margaret-cho-all-american-girl/>.
Sison, Marianne D. “Communicating Across, within and Between, Cultures: Toward Inclusion and Social Change.” Public Relations Review 43.1 (2017): 130-32. Communication & Mass Media CompleteTM. Web. 24 June 2017.
Zhang, Qin. “The Mitigating Effects of Intergroup Contact on Negative Stereotypes, Perceived Threats, and Harmful Discriminatory Behavior Toward Asian Americans.” Communication Research Reports 33.1 (2016): 1-8. Communication & Mass Media CompleteTM. Web. 24 June 2017.