Jessica Huang was surprised to learn that two of her sons -- Emery and Evan -- were participating in the school play.
"You are? Why? You're not gonna become actors," she responded with characteristic bluntness. "You think they're gonna put two Chinese boys on TV? Maybe if there's a nerdy friend or a magical thing where someone wanders into a Chinatown, but no."
Huang (played by Constance Wu) may be a fictional mom on ABC's "Fresh Off the Boat," but her reaction to news of her sons' casting in a grade-school play perfectly encapsulates why we're hurting for a TV show like this one. Because though the show is set in the '90s, those words ring true in 2015 -- the notable exception being "FOB" itself.
If you haven't been watching "Fresh Off the Boat" -- the sitcom based loosely on chef/restaurateur/MTV fam Eddie Huang's memoir of the same title -- stop what you're doing, find a way to watch it on-demand, and catch up in time to tune in to the season finale on April 21. Not only is "FOB" a straight-up expertly written family sitcom with an excellent cast, it's the first TV show to center around an Asian American family in 20 years. (Twenty. Years.)
Despite how far the show's narrative has strayed from its source material -- a fact Huang has lamented time and time again since even before the pilot hit airwaves -- "FOB" shines a much-needed spotlight on contemporary Asian American stories and actors, a topic the show broached on Tuesday night's episode.
I'm an Asian American (half-Filipino and half-Caucasian), but as a kid, I had a difficult time identifying with the "Asian" part. My entire life, I've lived very far geographically from my Filipino family, and growing up, as far as I could tell, I was leading a pretty typical American life. I got a new lunch box every year, usually plastered with pictures of whatever the most popular cartoon was at the time. And unlike most other children of immigrant parents, that lunch box was stocked with Capri-Suns and Handi-Snacks and Lunchables and Gushers.
We spoke English at home (unless my parents were talking to each other about where they hid my Christmas presents), and as long as I got my homework done, I was allowed to watch aaaaaall the TV. And that's probably where much of the root of that identity disconnect lies: my concept of what it meant to be "American" was based on the other (mostly white) kids at school and the (mostly white) characters I saw on TV.
By virtue of that, whatever "Asian" was felt like something completely separate, even ancient. "Asian" felt like a Chinese legend about a young girl who joined the army to save her ailing father and her country in the process. "Asian" felt like a World War II era story about a Japanese girl sold into servitude by her parents. "Asian" felt like a beautiful but distant flurry of swords and subtitles.
"Fresh Off the Boat" is none of the above. It tells the story of Asian protagonists but through the relatable 20th-century experiences Eddie (Hudson Yang) and his family have growing up Asian in America in the '90s. What's more, the show's Asian-ness isn't so caricatured that it isolates non-Asian viewers, nor is it held so at arm's length that it becomes the butt of the joke (which isn't something that can be said for many of the most prominent contemporary Asian characters of the last 30-some-odd years; e.g. Long Duk Dong, Data, Jackie Chan in Rush Hour, Ken Jeong's Mr. Chow).
Unlike Eddie and his brothers, Emery and Evan, played respectively by Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen, both Jessica and Louis Huang (Randall Park) have accents -- as two characters who recently immigrated to America from Taiwan absolutely would. But the humor of these characters is never in something as low-hanging as how they speak; it's in their well-written zingers and both Wu and Park's impeccable comedic timing.
While Park has been making a name for himself in the comedy sphere for years (having played President Kim Jong-Un in James Franco and Seth Rogen's controversial "The Interview", along with nabbing recurring roles on "Veep" and "The Mindy Project"), "FOB" has been something of a star-maker for Wu, thanks to her deft portrayal of the strong and unapologetically practical Jessica Huang. As an Asian American woman, I'm grateful to be able to watch her performance.
The “Dribbling Tiger, Bounce Pass Dragon” episode also paid homage to "FOB"'s immediate Asian American sitcom predecessor: Margaret Cho's "All-American Girl". At the end of season one's episode 12, the Huang family is seen watching a clip of the show, as Emery turns to his mom and says, "So, no Asians on TV, huh?"
Remember how I said I got to watch "aaaaaall the TV"? Well, that included countless re-airings of Margaret Cho's stand-up, which my mom would watch with me. I loved Cho, for one, because she does a side-splitting impression of her mom, but mostly because my mom loved her. And I like to think my mom loved her because after the culture shock that followed her move to the United States -- halfway around the globe from where she and her brothers and sisters grew up -- she was finally seeing someone on American TV who looked like her and was telling stories she found 100 percent relatable.
After "All-American Girl" went off the air in 1995 and Cho subsequently shrank from the spotlight, there was a real drought of not only contemporary Asian American stories (off the top of my head, I can only think of "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle", "The Mindy Project," and one or two episodes of "Glee"), but even supporting roles and actors to play them. How many Asian American actors can you name? Ken Jeong, John Cho, Kal Penn, George Takei, Pat Morita, Aziz Ansari, Harry Shum Jr., Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan ... then it gets fuzzy.
What about actresses? Lucy Liu, Brenda Song, Mindy Kaling, Arden Cho, Jenna Ushkowitz, Jamie Chung. ... There's Olivia Munn, Vanessa Hudgens, and Shay Mitchell who are all half-Asian (Mitchell's actually Canadian). And then there are a bunch of actors and actresses who I bet you didn't even know were part-Asian at all: Darren Criss, Mark-Paul Gosselar (oh yeah, Zack Morris is a quarter-Indonesian), Sonja Sohn, Rob Schneider, and Fred Armisen. You can probably push yourself to list around 15 people before having to hit Google or phone a friend, which is really a pretty small number considering the enormity of the film and TV industry.
Is it because there's no market for an Asian American audience? Unlikely, since Asian Youtubers like Wong Fu Productions, CommunityChannel and FungBrosComedy have racked up 1 to 2 million subscribers by writing, producing and starring in their own videos (CommunityChannel's most popular video has accumulated upwards of 35 million views at press time). A more likely explanation is the added scarcity of Asian Americans behind the camera and the lack of people on the decision-making and influencing sides of Hollywood advocating for these stories to be told. Though not impossible, it's hard to aspire to something if you don't have any role models.
The more we see Asian Americans on our screens, the more Asian Americans we'll see in years to come. Correspondingly, the more diverse stories we, as human beings, are exposed to, the better we all understand each other. To quote Kerry Washington's powerful acceptance speech at this year's GLAAD Media Awards, "We must see each other, all of us, and we must see ourselves, all of us. And we have to continue to be bold and break new ground until that is just how it is. Until we are no longer 'first's and exceptions and rare and unique. In the real world, being an 'Other' is the norm. In the real world, the only norm is uniqueness. And our media must reflect that."
No group of people should have to rely on one story to represent them, and while yes, "Fresh Off the Boat" is only one Asian American story, its continued success is integral to unlocking more.