Asians (That’s Plural) on a TV Show!

For some in the Asian community, last night was long anticipated. How long? 20 YEARS LONG. It has been 20 years since we saw a (short-lived) sitcom centered on an Asian American family. We held our collective breath hoping that the premiere of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat was not a total disaster. I am happy to say that it was not. I laughed. I reminisced. I related. I saw people who resembled me in both appearance and experience on primetime network television. I exhaled. It was somewhat surreal.

I remember my father telling me as a child that I would have to work twice as hard and be twice as smart and do twice as well to be truly successful as a minority in this world. This was probably in response to my complaints about having to do extra workbooks every afternoon at home. I have no doubt he spoke from his immigrant experience, and he definitely put that belief into practice working two jobs for decades until he finally retired from one. While Fresh Off the Boat seemed to have a successful start for the viewing Asian community, I hate to say that my husband and I both wondered if it could last beyond one season. It IS funny, entertaining, and for the Asian folks watching a very welcome oasis in the desert of Asian American representation. But is it twice as good as other shows out there, twice as funny, twice as relatable in order to be truly successful in this world? I hope the show has a first generation father standing over it demanding the writers, actors, and producers work twice as hard.

I want it to be successful. I want my boys to be able to grow up seeing a mostly Asian-casted show on TV. I want them to see themselves as more than a token. Maybe that colors my positive reception of the show’s first episodes as well. SNL has a skit called “How’s He Doing” featuring African American commentators asking if they would still support President Obama if he did or said some horrifically unacceptable thing. As ridiculous as those scenarios can be, the unanimous conclusion for the group is always a resounding YES. If the show fell into the depths of awful television, I might be guilty of still watching and supporting in fear that it will be another 20 years before such a show comes to my TV.

I wonder what the general public thinks of the show. I fear that they will assume that everything that happens in it is exactly what happened in my childhood or in my family now. The thing with little representation is that what little is out there is often perceived to encompass the whole. This is not a burden for those with mass representation. Where there are more, there is usually a wider understanding of the full range of possibilities. That is another reason to support more diverse representation on television, in Hollywood, and in the culture at large. However, where there are only tokens, the brain naturally categorizes it as the only information known so that when another similar token is seen that information automatically pops up.

Coming from a metropolis like Chicago to a smaller city like Albuquerque, I can feel somewhat like a token. In a place with only 2 Asians per 100 people, we often stand out. While a person of the majority culture may have had the experience of being mistaken for someone else in their lives, I have had people thoroughly convinced I was a different Asian woman 3 times in 2 months. In those cases, my guess is that those folks do not know a ton of us. They thought ‘she must be the one lady I met before’ to the point in some cases that I almost felt I had to convince them that I was not. I KNEW I had never met them before. Do I blame them? No. Again, the brain does things to make it easier on our cognitive capacities. Knowing that the possibilities are high that I was that one lady (the other one out of 100), it makes sense. I wish they knew more Asians so that they could realize we are not all the same nor do we all look alike.

As a token show, Fresh Off the Boat will inevitably carry that burden of the Asian community to represent us all. While it presents aspects of Asian and immigrant culture we can relate to, it cannot and should not encompass us all. I did not bring Asian food for lunch to school, but I do remember telling my mom to make spaghetti when friends came over rather than Korean food. While my parents do have accents, they do not sound like the mother Jessica. (I don’t think anyone on God’s green earth sounds like that, but I understand the reasons of including the accents as part of the show.) I remember wanting to be white and being embarrassed by racial slurs in the cafeteria, but my parents would not have confronted the principal nor did they make me study Korean for hours each day. Let me just tell you that there will be many things many Asian Americans can relate to in some way (which is such a great feeling for once!!), but there will also be things that are unique to Eddie Huang (the show is based off of his memoir of the same title) or the network writers and do not translate to us all. I wish the television world knew more Asians so that they may better realize we are not all the same nor do we all sitcom alike. However, I am not holding my breath for that dream of mass representation. I just hope this singular show can last more than a season.

If you missed it this week, you can catch it next week when it airs on its regularly scheduled time slot on ABC: Tuesday’s 8pm EST/7pm CST (7pm for Albuquerque).

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