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May 2015

Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month
By Megan Cunnington, Faculty Scheduling Administrator

In recent months, much of the discussion surrounding television and media has focused on diversity and how networks can launch and support shows that reach audiences of all backgrounds. The challenge is creating a program that can entertain without pandering and drawing upon stereotypes for plot development and cheap laughs. 

The ABC network currently boasts a number of dramas featuring ethnically diverse casts, including “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.” Its comedy crop is also flourishing with “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first network comedy about an Asian-American family since “All-American Girl” – also an ABC show – premiered in 1994.

Based on the memoir of chef Eddie Huang (who also provides voiceover in each episode), “Fresh Off the Boat” follows a family that moves from Washington, DC to Orlando, FL. There, they struggle to fit in with the homogenous white culture, often with comedic results. In one episode, one of the boys tries to fit in by eating string cheese and other “American” foods, leading his mother to remark, “Evan is not going to school today. His fat friend J.J. gave him string cheese and apparently he is lactose intolerant. His body is rejecting white culture, which make me kind of proud. Good job, Evan” (Vang, 2015).

At its core, the show is about a family struggling to make it, and the young boys trying to fit in at their new school. When Eddie sees a black student, he automatically assumes that they share a common interest in basketball. The black student immediately rejects Eddie as a friend. The show simultaneously reinforces and subverts various racial stereotypes, keeping the premise light-hearted and entertaining without pushing harmful stereotypes onto other groups. When the family’s in-laws visit, Eddie explains that his parents both get perms, which are signs of wealth and success in the Asian-American community. The episode “Success Perm” focuses on how two families compete in order to show who is more successful (Viruet, 2015). So while there are certain aspects of Asian-American interpretations of success, at heart, the episode is a universal story about siblings jockeying for success where the characters ante up their ridiculous antics scene after scene.

While “Fresh Off the Boat” premiered to positive reviews, it hasn’t been completely free of controversy. Its title raised concerns that the show would reinforce negative stereotypes, as the phrase “Fresh Off the Boat” has been considered a derogatory term for Asian-American immigrants, who are often lumped into one general group, despite the diversity of languages, ethnicities, and cultures from the East Asian sub-continent. Huang insisted on keeping the title from his memoir and stated, “The book is very much about how growing up in America, you’re almost shamed into assimilation, and I chose the name ‘Fresh off the Boat’ because as I got older, I really, really started to own who I was… If dominant culture is going to misunderstand it… I can’t control that“ (Sciota, 2014).

Despite his involvement, Huang has spoken out against the show and expressed concern that it does not accurately portray his Taiwanese-Chinese-American experience. As a victim of domestic violence, which he addressed in his memoir, Huang dislikes that the show detracts from his direct experience and instead tries to portray a one-size-fits-all Asian-American experience.

No show is perfect. However, “Fresh Off the Boat” is a step in the right direction in terms of diverse representation in media. It’s refreshing to see a show where various groups are portrayed, sometimes stereotypically but often not, in order to bring humor to people’s lives. As a half-hour sitcom, the show is unlikely to tackle complex issues of domestic abuse when the goal is to entertain and make people laugh. Far from perfect, it succeeds in developing three-dimensional characters and funny situations that, so far, have been able to stay away from racial stereotypes and focus more on representation.

Sciota, G. (2014, June 9). Eddie Huang defends title for new abc sitcom 'fresh off the boat'. shanghaiist. Retrieved from

Vang, N. (2015, April 10). An Asian-American watches ‘Fresh off the Boat’. The Fresno Bee. Retrieved from

Viruet, P. (2015, February 11). Fresh off the boat recap: Rap vs. grunge. Vulture. Retrieved from

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