[Author’s note: wrote this last night. This morning, NYMag put out Eddie Huang’s evisceration and reclamation of the sitcom version of his book.]
I’m old enough to remember when it was novel to see Asian Americans on tv. Not on tv shows, but in commercials. I would get all excited and point out the computer geek or family seeking a bank to my college friends. I was happy to even see stereotypical representations in sitcoms because it was so rare. Part of why Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle remains a favorite, highly rewatchable film of mine is because it showed Asian American teens transcending the model minority, and yet, still seeking the American Dream. I was a teen, trying to find my identity, and the extraordinary thing is that the movie that I still find to be emblematic of Asian American suburbia is written by two Jewish boys from Jersey. It was really what they saw in their friends. The white lights of that burger joint are to Harold and Kumar what the green lights that beckoned Nick Gatsby across the bay were. There is something profoundly American about seeking a burger, with its all-American patty resting under a square of slightly limp American cheese.
Now I have higher expectations and I no longer blink at seeing Asian Americans on tv. I cheer shows like The Mindy Project for being fully fleshed out and written and run by a kickass Asian American woman. (So much better than the awkwardness of Outsourced.) Before the Mindy Project, before Blackish, Shonda Rhimes portrayed Asian American doctor Christina Yang in a relationship with Preston Burke, an African American attending. It was radical, and remains radical, and I thank Shondaland for great, diverse, and powerful programming on Thursdays, even as I have outgrown Grey’s Anatomy.
We are in an extraordinary time. I feel blessed to be able to watch shows that focus on diverse lives like Jane the Virgin, Blackish, Cristela, How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, Mindy Project, Key & Peele, and the too short-lived Selfie. Big Hero 6 was one of the great movies of the year and featured animated Asian American leads. As a child, I never had the expectation that I would see so many faces that reflect the diversity of this country on the small screen. And yes, there is still long way to go.
In February, I and many other Asian Americans look forward to Fresh Off the Boat, which will feature a predominantly Asian American cast. It’s based on Taiwanese American chef and journalist Eddie Huang’s book which is hilarious and true. I literally couldn’t stop laughing while reading about his family life, about the shorties, about his parents, and even about his life detour from law to food. He writes about hope, his identification with black America, his parents hitting him, and he leaves it all out on the floor. It is blunt, hard-hitting, real, and wicked funny. The migration of the Huangs are a story that deserves to be told.
And yet I have some anxiety about how it will be received. Over the holidays, my family member said, “I hope it will be as good as Blackish.”
I said, “I think that’s too high a standard. Blackish is my favorite new show. It’s funny, incisive and so smart and sophisticated about race. I hope it’s at least as good as Modern Family.”
Tonight, I rewatched Margaret Cho’s The Notorious C.H.O. (2001), in which she has a sketch where she talks about how she always knew she wanted to be a comedian but she had limited expectations for her potential roles. She looked forward to playing a hooker or an extra on M.A.S.H. The truth is, Cho made history in 1994 with All-American Girl, the first ever Asian American sitcom that I could have watched. It failed.
Cho was simultaneously told that her face was too round (she dieted and it led to kidney failure), that she was “too Asian” and “not Asian enough.”
Talk about giving someone a complex and setting them up to fail.
Since the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act which lifted quotas and restrictions on immigrants from Asia to the U.S., it has taken decades for Asian American culture to seep into the mainstream, beyond the food, beyond the fold.
It has been twenty long and mostly silent years since the last Asian American sitcom aired. I hope this one lasts for twenty years and mines the comedy gold that is Asian American family life and culture.