I’ll be honest everyone– I actually read this book a couple weeks ago, and have simply been mulling over what to write ever since. Finally, I figured I’d jump right in, and see if I can make this thought sound coherent.
Despite being loosely based off the text, ABC’s Fresh off the Boat is nothing like the book of the same name by restauranteur Eddie Huang. In the show, Constance Wu, a beautiful actress and thoughtful commentator on the state of Asians in American pop culture, contributes to a comedy about Asian-American life in common suburbs. Viewers laugh along, similarly to how one would with Modern Family or Blackish, this time with jokes tailored to immigrant life.
It’s had rave reviews, but Eddie Huang regrets ever becoming involved with it. After reading the first couple chapters of his memoir Fresh off the Boat, the reasons become immediately clear. While he’s a colorful and oftentimes funny narrator (particularly if you listen to the audiobook), there’s very little hilarity in Huang’s story. Frankly, Huang seems unhappy or disgruntled throughout the majority of his life. Between learning how to deal with casual (or not so casual) racism because of his Taiwanese heritage, struggling through school, dealing drugs, getting arrested, or dealing with parental abuse, the few uplifting moments seem isolated to food, football, and hip-hop music.
In Huang’s own words, their father would hit with “whatever he could get his hands on that would walk the line between really hurting and disabling us.” He contrasted his father with his mother who “would never black out on us or get flagrantly creative.” She had control, I suppose. After his mother throws a steel brush at his younger brother’s head, resulting in cuts on his face, Child Protective Services attempts to intervene. The boys end up in the principals office, where they fabricate stories to cover for their mother, who had finally gone too far.
Eventually, Huang has a heartbreaking epiphany:
“I didn’t want my mom to get in trouble, I didn’t want to be a foster kid, but after a few hours, I gave up. I quit worrying. I realized the truth: they fucking deserved it.”
Huang’s commentary on his abuse is perhaps the most poignant part of the book. His upbringing, particularly the negative aspects, becomes the cause for much of what happens throughout his life.
Through reflection, Huang realizes that his father, a Taiwanese gangster of sorts, never quite learned how to be a father. His rough and tumble nature (to say the least) is reflective of an inability to relate to his children on a deeper level; of an inability to love, rather than critique; of an inability to make his boy into a man without subjecting him to the cruelties of his own adolescence. As a child, his father would ridicule him for being chubby, telling him that his rolls moved when he walked, or that no one with a face like his would ever be on television.
As a man, it wasn’t much better. Looking for approval after having his restaurant Baohaus (GO THERE IMMEDIATELY!) written up in The New York Times, his father remained unimpressed (eventually, they called him after finding him in a Chinese newspaper).
I speak mostly from the outside looking in– I’m blessed with two parents who love and respect the woman I’ve become, and can’t speak to the level of abuse Huang sustained. But there are universalities in Huang’s writing for people from immigrant backgrounds. Discussing this within my book club, we spoke about the difficulties of impressing our families. Like Huang, I’ve come home with silver, only to be asked “why not gold?” Or to have graduated with an M.A., only to have a relative ask why I didn’t just get a PhD. From a female perspective, none of these accomplishments mean anything if one is unmarried and/or childless.
Even for those of us unencumbered by the trauma of Huang’s childhood, there are serious questions to be asked about our parents, and the roles they’ve played in shaping who we are today– for better and for worse. They’re the reason I cringe when people put their dirty hands on white walls, but they can also be the reason we’re ashamed of our bodies, too afraid to change careers, or incapable of trusting significant others.
Fresh off the Boat is a reminder that we can’t choose our families, but more importantly, we also can’t choose the residue they leave behind. It’s worth noting that despite all of the abuse Huang recollects, his parents are still the first people he thanks in the acknowledgements. But that is an entirely different discussion about forgiveness and acceptance that could make up a separate post. Read it if you like informally-written memoirs with unconventional voices, or if you’re looking for variation in Asian American stories.
I’ve jam packed a lot into this post, and am eager to hear your thoughts (even though I won’t be able to comment back until after work!). Have any of you read and watched Fresh Off the Boat? Have any comparisons for me? Am I the only person who hates when people put their hands on the wall? Leave it in the comments, as usual!