The theater in Silliman is bustling with activity. I grab a seat quickly to avoid sitting on the floor. As I look around, I see several familiar faces dispersed in the audience. It’s striking to see all of my Asian-American friends at once, each with their own friends. Cultural events like this one always make me realize how large we can be as a group, especially at Yale. As I wait for the hosts to finish their announcements, I’m both excited for and hesitant about the screening.
I’ve been looking forward to the premiere of “Fresh Off The Boat” ever since ABC announced its production early last year. Network television rarely depicts Asians who aren’t typecast as competitive nerds, antisocial geeks, Tiger moms or Kung Fu masters. Growing up, I didn’t even feel uncomfortable about these stereotypes because I felt so removed from these characters. I never expected to identify with or even remotely relate to the Asians on screen, much less be exposed to a story about my own upbringing in America.
But as the show began, I immediately connected with the main character, Eddie Huang. Like Eddie, a Taiwanese-American middle school boy, I also had to uproot because of my father’s entrepreneurial pursuits. Eddie finishing his after-school homework in the restaurant almost exactly reflected my own childhood days, studying in the back of a one-hour photo shop and a teriyaki bowl restaurant. I too remember begging my mother to buy me Lunchables, feeling isolated in my white community and turning to hip hop music for inspiration.
As I saw a narrative that transcended the typical immigrant struggles I was used to seeing, I felt a kind of high that you get from being part of the same inside joke. I got the Huang family.
But I can also see why the show has received so much criticism. Eddie Huang, the producer and author of the original book, recently criticized the network’s distortion of his memoir in an article on Vulture. The show gives off the impression of a typical mainstream production: The scenes feel contrived, the storyline clichéd, the characters flat. Despite these flaws, my mind was made up. The show forged a powerful connection with me.
For once, I finally knew what it felt like to see my minority narrative broadcasted to the very culture into which I was taught to assimilate. I wanted to go back to all of those times I tried to explain my childhood experiences to non-Asian friends in frustration and show them these episodes. It made me wonder if this was what white people feel when they watch “Friends” or what black people feel when they watch “Scandal.” I wondered if I would have felt more confident in my heritage had I, as a child, seen relatable Asian-Americans or Asian-American stories on screen.
“Fresh Off The Boat” marks an unprecedented moment for Asian-American representation in the media. A powerful solidarity emerged that day in the theater because, as Asian-Americans, we are all affected by one truth: When America makes assumptions about who we are, it is based on our Asian faces.
For a long time, I have passively accepted the fact that I would have to prove to others that I was more than my media representation, but with “Fresh Off The Boat,” I may no longer have to. Next time, when my non-Asian friends ask what it’s like to be me, I just might tell them to watch the show instead.