Celebrity chef keeps TV series based on memoir true to life
Eddie Huang fought to make the sitcom based on his memoir of growing up in a Taiwanese immigrant family, more true to the Asian-American experience
Minutes before Eddie Huang was to face the American Television Critics Association for the first time recently, he was getting briefed on what not to say.
"ABC's press people were like, 'Don't talk about race. Don't talk about immigration. Stay positive'," the TV personality, chef and restaurateur recalls. "They gave us this huge, really uncomfortable, 10-minute speech about how certain people on the show had not been positive and that everybody was working really hard."
The problem was that Huang was there to talk about his new ABC show, Fresh Off the Boat, which is based on life as a first-generation American in his family of Taiwanese immigrants. The other problem was that Huang had just written an unflinching, controversial essay in New York magazine about getting his story on network TV. ("The network's approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan [a stir-fried dish of chicken and vegetables] written by a Persian-American [Nahnatchka Khan], who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane," wrote Huang.)
In the article, which was written in a conversational, experimental way, Huang is critical, conflicted and even resentful of the process to get the show on the air. "Producers of Fresh Off the Boat want me to say 'America is great' or they'll replace me," was a Tweet that he repeated in the article.
"I was like, 'Listen, me telling the truth - me being clear-eyed about this show and about the process - is not me being 'not positive'," Huang says. "That's being real. That's being honest. You're telling me to be positive if I have to lie to be positive."
Nevertheless, Huang was ready to be positive. After all, Fresh Off the Boat is the first network TV show to feature a predominantly Asian-American cast in 20 years. It's a labour of love for everyone involved in the show, but especially for Huang, who provides the voice-over for the show and is an executive producer. They recognise that the show, which focuses on the Huang family's move to Orlando when he was 11 and their struggle to fit in, carries the hopes of many Asian-Americans who want to see their stories told in popular culture by people who actually look like them.
The first question at the TCA news conference: "I love Asian culture. And I was just talking about chopsticks, and I just love all that. Will I get to see that, or will it be more Americanised?"
Huang's response: "It's more about chopsticks."
"Wait till Episode 5, it's all about chopsticks," Khan adds.
And it was off to the races for what some reporters called the most awkward and contentious conference of the entire press tour.
"TCA was very uncomfortable," Huang says. "It was really good timing that the New York magazine article came out before TCA so that I got to say how I felt, unadulterated, before anybody else did."
Of course, that's been 32-year-old Huang's strategy for quite some time, as he has opened his Taiwanese bun shop, Baohaus, in Manhattan; hosted his food travelogue, Huang's World for Vice; and written the book Fresh Off the Boat, which inspired the ABC show.
He says that it's important for minorities to avoid being reactive because it puts them in a secondary position to those in the dominant culture.
"Obviously, there are times when you're forced to respond to things," he says. "But for the most part, I really try to clear my head and think, 'Am I doing this because somebody told me I couldn't or am I doing this because I really believe it?' Being reactionary can be really self-destructive at times."
It is much more constructive to push for your own vision, Huang has found. "In general, bad things happen because people don't push hard enough," he says. "They don't want to start a debate. They don't want confrontation. If they feel like it's not just their responsibility and they can blame other people, then things get really bad. When people take responsibility and realise, 'If I don't change it, nobody will,' things get good."
Fresh Off the Boat is a prime example, he says. Despite all the battles over the show, the story of Huang as a hip hop-loving 11-year-old and how he and his family deal with moving to the mostly white area of Orlando manages to be specific with its details while being more universal with its worries about trying to fit in.
It was important to Huang for that dynamic to remain intact. "These are all cultures - whether it's Asian culture or hip-hop culture, street culture - that matter to a lot of people and really never get represented in the right way," he says. "I'm just trying to do it as real as possible."
For Huang, it's important that the portrayal of Asian-Americans is right. "There are a lot of people - especially some white Americans - that look at Asians like we're scabs," he says.
"There are people that say really racist things about black people to me, thinking I'm going to be on their side, and I'm like, 'Dude, I'm the wrong one to say that to'.
"They also try to compliment me by backhandedly insulting the rest of Asian-Americans by saying, 'You're an outlier. You're so different.' And I'm like, 'Not really, man. If you go to China, you go to Taiwan, you go to Korea, you'll probably meet a lot of people like me because we get to be whole people there. It's here where you've imposed these views on us. You've imposed these stereotypes and people now live up to them'."
Jeff Chang, executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University and author of the recent book Who We Be: The Colorization of America, says Fresh Off the Boat could be an important show, especially to young Asian-Americans. "Having images of yourself that are recognisable, that feel authentic and real to you, is really key towards those critical periods of identity formation," Chang says. He adds that many young minorities feel "adrift in this sea of self-discovery" when there are no examples in culture for them to latch onto.
"All we've had, for the most part, have been very polarising types of stereotypes. We're still very much in the Bruce Lee/Dragon Lady sort of mode here for Asian-American representation. For the vast majority of us who don't fit squarely into either category, it's a daily process where we're having to educate everybody around us as to who we really are. Eddie's breakthrough is a breakthrough for all of us in that sense. It shows the range of the kind of people who we are. It renders us a lot more fully human. When you're in the majority, you don't feel the burden of representation."
Asian-Americans are a virtually untapped market for network TV. According to a 2012 Nielsen report, Asian-Americans will number more than 20 million with buying power of more than US$1 trillion by 2017, growing by more than 50 per cent since the turn of the century.
To show its support for Fresh Off the Boat, ABC debuted the show in its Wednesday comedy block on February 4, as both the lead-in and follow-up to Modern Family, before moving to its regular 8pm Tuesday night slot. Huang says that special showing was "probably the thing I'm most excited about", not because it could help build his show's audience, but because it put him in the proximity of one of his heroes, Modern Family's Ed O'Neill.
"I don't even call him Ed O'Neill - I'm like, 'That's Bundy'," Huang says in a reference to O'Neill's character on the 1980s-90s sitcom Married … With Children. "I love Bundy. I'm such a Bundy fan."
And now, his show could shape young minds in the way that Married ... With Children's Al Bundy helped shaped his.
"It's crazy," Huang says. "If I could be as impactful on other kids the way Bundy was on me, that would be incredible. I loved Bundy because he did not care. He did not care that he sold women's shoes. … I thought he was just this incredible hero who was super-ordinary."
In a way, that's how he wants people to see Fresh Off the Boat.
"I think there's a very important conversation that this show is sparking about the process of representing minorities in dominant culture," he says.
"I hope kids - especially young writers - see it and understand that it's not a fact of life that you're going to get swallowed up. It's not a fact of life that you'll be neutered. You can fight this. My brother will say, 'Man, you can't change the world. You can't change the way people think.' I really feel like you can.
"I think this show is a really good example of how you can move the boundaries. You should always try to move the boundaries."