Controversial TV show portrayals of Asian-Americans spark dialogue

Eddie Huang and his father, Louis, are the lead characters in "Fresh Off the Boat," a comedy that airs Tuesdays at 7 p.m. CT on ABC.

Photo by Jordin Althaus/ABC

Eddie Huang and his father, Louis, are the lead characters in "Fresh Off the Boat," a comedy that airs Tuesdays at 7 p.m. CT on ABC.

Fifteen Northwestern University students recently gathered to watch “Fresh Off the Boat,” ABC’s new sitcom featuring an Asian-American family, and their reaction was mixed.

For some Asian-American students in the multicultural group, the network’s newest sitcom seems revolutionary—the first time they are seeing people who look like them on a major television network—and not as supporting actors, but in lead roles. Others, however, were not impressed.

“The way they portrayed different races in the show was sort of inaccurate,” said Cailyn Shin, a 20-year-old Northwestern junior. “I grew up in a family that I would call Asian-American, but we were no way near as Americanized as the Huang family.”

“Fresh Off the Boat,” which premiered last month and airs Tuesdays at 7 p.m. CT, is the first network TV show to feature an Asian-American family in 20 years, according to Lucy Xing Lu, a DePaul professor who teaches a course on Asian-American media representation. It features the Huangs, a family of five that moves from Chinatown in Washington, D.C., to a cookie-cutter, majority-white suburb of Orlando to start a restaurant and live the American dream. The show is based on author Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same title, which discusses his upbringing in an immigrant family in American society.

The show’s comedy, however, often falls back on Asian-American stereotypes, such as the stingy Asian mom, for laughs. While many Asian-American families value thriftiness as a virtue, the show portrays the mother, Jessica Huang, as an overly cheap woman who will go to open houses for the free air conditioning.

Some at the Northwestern screening cringed.

“We wonder how a white person would absorb this if they grew up in Orlando, or if they’ve never seen many representations of Asian-Americans,” said Stephanie Kong, a 20-year-old Northwestern junior. “I think they still play up archetypes that are typical of Asian-Americans.”

Even before the show’s premiere, the book’s author lamented in an article in New York Magazine how the network turned his memoir into “cornstarch sitcom,” mischaracterizing his life experiences for the general television audience. The show is “an entertaining but domesticated vehicle to sell dominant culture with Kidz Bop, pot shots and the emasculated Asian male,” the author said.

Despite its critics, last week’s episode reached 6 million total viewers, according to TV by the Numbers.

ABC airs several sitcoms that tackle issues about race and gender. “Modern Family,” for example, features the Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker families, with Jay Pritchett and his much younger, Colombian wife, Gloria, as well as Mitchell Pritchett and his partner, Cameron. ABC’s “Black-ish” features the Johnsons, an upwardly black family in the suburbs trying to figure out their sense of cultural identity.

Though among the network’s most popular shows, “Modern Family” has been criticized for depicting the Latina woman stereotypically. Some say “Black-ish” reinforces stereotypes, too.

Portrayals on “Fresh Off the Boat,” however, might be particularly offensive, since Asian-Americans have not held a variety of roles in the media.

Many TV and film roles have featured a funny Chinese male (such as actor Gedde Watanabe’s Long Duk Dong, a bizarre Chinese foreign-exchange student in “Sixteen Candles”) or the Kung Fu sidekick archetype (as with actor Jackie Chan, who has starred in martial-arts movies).

Tatsu Aoki, a professor at Northwestern and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, says “Fresh Off the Boat” is “positively problematic.” Though it raises awareness about immigrant families and Asian-American portrayals in the media, it also takes the risk of furthering stereotypes when few other diverse and more accurate depictions are broadcast.

“Since we don’t have any other dramas about the Asian-American family at this point, [“Fresh Off the Boat”] still represents the funny China-man family,” said Aoki, 57, who teaches Asian Identity in film at both schools.

The DePaul professor, Lu, enjoys the show but says it only “somewhat represents the Asian-American family with some twists and stereotypes.”

For example, the grandmother in the Huang family has very few lines and is relatively uninvolved in family affairs. In many Asian-American families, however, grandparents play a critical role in managing the household and raising the children.

Lu, 58, says she hopes that the show will eventually highlight more distinctive features of the Asian-American family like close cross-generational relationships.

“I know it’s a comedy,” Lu said. “They’re supposed to exaggerate.”

“I hope that the rest of the show will … try to bring a more normal representation of racial groups,” Lu said.

Supporters of the show say it does get some portrayals right, such as its characterizations of some common immigrant experiences.

Day Dary, a 48-year-old immigrant father in Carpentersville, Ill., can relate to the lead character Eddie Huang’s struggles to assimilate into his majority-white school, as well as Eddie’s father. Dary immigrated to the Uptown neighborhood from Laos in 1977. As a child, he was the object of racial slurs like the show’s character Eddie. The sitcom parents Jessica and Louis stand up for Eddie in the principal’s office after he fought a boy who called him a “chink.” Dary has also had to stand up to his 11-year-old son’s teacher and baseball coach.

“I believe this show provides a visual culturally and socially, and it opens dialogue,” Dary said.

Acknowledging that it is still early in its first season, professors Lu and Aoki say they hope the show’s characters will develop and adopt a more bi-cultural identity — one that is Asian and American. In the pilot, Eddie threw out his home-cooked noodles after his Caucasian friends called them “worms,” but maybe later, he will be proud of introducing his culture to his friends. This show may interest others in Asian-American culture and lay down a path for other Asian-American television shows and films to be broadcast.

“I think it’s good to think actively about the show,” Kong said. “We’re not just taking the low-hanging fruit and saying, ‘There are finally Asian-Americans on the show.’”

  • Emme

    Jay Pritchett’s wife is from Colombia.