ABC's Fresh Off the Boat Stirs Controversy: "People Are Both Criticizing It and Praising It as This New Hope"

The cast of Fresh Off the Boat
The cast of Fresh Off the Boat

The term "fresh off the boat," frequently abbreviated as FOB, describes Asian immigrants that have recently come to the U.S. but not yet assimilated into American culture. For Asian Americans born and raised in the U.S., especially in the 1990s — when the new ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat takes place — it was often used as an insult, based on the premise that if assimilation is the No. 1 goal, it was in your best interest to separate yourself from the FOBs, their Nautica jackets, their uncool accents, and anything culturally distinct that you would be horrified if your white friends knew about.

The controversial name of the show comes directly from its source material: celebrity restauranteur Eddie Huang's best-selling 2013 memoir Fresh Off the Boat, which tells his own gritty, second-generation, Taiwanese American story. A lover of hip hop, where the term "fresh" has a positive connotation (think Fresh Prince of Bel Air), Huang uses the term as a source of pride: In the show, 11-year-old Eddie (Hudson Yang), who has recently moved with his family from Washington D.C.'s Chinatown to the very white suburban neighborhood of Orlando, Florida, learns very quickly that while fitting in (bringing Lunchables instead of Chinese food to school) is necessary for short-term survival, the ultimate goal is to learn how to stand up for yourself and, like young Eddie says, eventually “change the game.”

Creator Nahnatchka Khan and the other producers, including Chinese-American Melvin Mar, were attracted to the part of Huang’s memoir when he was in elementary school in the ‘90s. “That was the last time before the Internet exploded,” says Khan. “Kids couldn’t find others [with the same interests] online yet, so you were stuck where you were and had to make it work with the people in your neighborhood and at your school.”

Khan, who was raised in the U.S. by Iranian immigrant parents, related to Eddie’s fish-out-of-water childhood. “The details were different, but the experiences were the same,” she says. “I remember hating Persian food when I was a kid. I just wanted hot dogs like everybody else.”

This “first learn the rules, then push the boundaries” philosophy — driven home by little Eddie with references to Nas and Notorious B.I.G. — is not only true for the onscreen family’s pursuit of the American Dream, but for the real-life Fresh Off the Boat creative team, who find themselves behind the first network sitcom starring an Asian American family in 20 years. (Margaret Cho's 1994 show All American Girl was famously micro-dissected, mishandled and cancelled after one season.)

As a result, it’s already made history and stirred passionate reactions from Asian Americans before it’s even aired. “People are both criticizing it and praising it as this new hope based on the little that they’ve seen,” says Randall Park, who plays Eddie’s father Louis. “But that’s understandable because if I wasn’t in the show, I’d probably be doing the same thing.”

“We always joke, ‘If a white sitcom gets canceled, does anybody hear it?’” says Khan. “There’s another one about five friends in a city trying to find love next season! But if you find something special and different, you really take notice of it.”

They’ve set out to make a show like Everybody Hates Chris or Malcolm in the Middle, which Khan wrote for in the early 2000s. Korean-American Park, who's been making news recently for his portrayal of Kim Jong-un in the  The Interview, was the first person cast. Mar says though they did consider casting a Chinese or Taiwanese actor to play the father, “At the end of the day, funny wins.” The family is rounded out by Constance Wu as Eddie’s hilariously biting mother and Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen as his precocious, less trouble-making younger brothers.

Taking a brash, profanity-laced memoir and turning it into a family-friendly ABC sitcom required its own set of challenges, especially when one of the loudest naysayers is Huang himself — who, despite being one of the show’s producers, penned a recent New York magazine essay detailing his own hesitations about the show. He writes that he's constantly being told that the TV version of his family can’t be an unapologetic BaoHaus (a reference to his own Taiwanese bun shop in Lower East Side New York). It has to be the mainstream-beloved orange chicken. Because say what you want about Panda Express, but its 1,700 locations in 47 states are closer to the geographical coverage needed for a network show to stay on the air.

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That said, what’s lacking in edge in the first few episodes is replaced by extreme likeability — and what’s more, a trust that, in 2015, the average viewer from middle America may not be so confused about noodle lunches anymore. They might just be able to identify with a fresh Taiwanese American kid and laugh along at those silly white people who think Eddie can’t speak English.

Two episodes of Fresh Off the Boat will debut on Wed, February 4, before the show continues in its Tuesday 8 p.m. slot.

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