It’s been a long journey since Eddie Huang was the kid in elementary school being ridiculed and ostracized by classmates who thought his food was laced with shark poop.
Huang is the author of the memoir “Fresh Off the Boat.” Tonight, the ABC comedy based on it premieres — a nationally televised triumph that grew out of the torment Huang faced as the son of Taiwanese Chinese immigrants growing up in America.
When he was in elementary school, Huang brought seaweed to school for show-and-tell, and it went terribly wrong. The kids in his class reasoned that since seaweed came from the sea, it must have been covered in shark poop, and therefore Huang was an icky, gross shark-poop eating weirdo.
There was a lesson Huang gleaned: It wasn’t just about the twisted, creative cruelty of children.
“I can’t win with you guys,” Huang remembered thinking, he said in an interview with NPR. “I just don’t know how to be white.”
For years, Huang ran away from his family’s legacy as purveyors of pork buns. Mostly, he revealed in a discussion with the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, he was running away from his father, who had been abusive when Huang was a child (they have a great relationship now). Huang, now the proprietor behind the wildly successful New York restaurant BaoHaus, tried his hand at stand-up comedy, at lawyering, and television show hosting, but ultimately found his niche as a uniquely American restaurateur steeped and cured in hip hop.
And then he wrote a searing, incredibly well-received memoir. It was new, it was biting, and it was a story about being a first-generation American that hadn’t been told before.
“I just felt that no one was telling our story this way,” Huang said. “There was ‘The Woman Warrior.’ There’s the ‘Joy Luck Club.’ There’s things like that, but I couldn’t relate to any of that. I was just this character. … Why I wrote the book was you know, you play ‘Streetfighter,’ and I unlocked a character writing that book. Like, now you have to play this character in the game. I felt like before I did it, nobody knew that character existed.”
So much of the air in conversations about race is sucked into a binary vacuum of black and white, which is one reason why Huang’s story is so important.
“I rarely see conversations about race where it’s an Asian person that’s speaking,” Huang told Coates. “I think, for me, my experience in America growing up, it was black and white. Especially in the 80’s. Especially in the 90’s. It was not a brown, yellow, black, white, purple situation. It was black and white.”
“Fresh off the Boat” is entering a television landscape where the presence of shows like “Black-ish” and “Empire” aren’t the only ones going gangbusters. “Cristela” and “Jane the Virgin” are, too. Diversity is the buzzword du jour in the entertainment industry, even if it’s not clear how to achieve it.
For Huang, that showed in the adaptation of his memoir for network television. Huang consults, but is not a writer on the show. In a article for New York magazine, he recently aired his concerns.
I didn’t understand how network television, the one-size fits-all antithesis to Fresh Off the Boat, was going to house the voice of a futuristic chinkstronaut. I began to regret ever selling the book, because Fresh Off the Boat was a very specific narrative about SPECIFIC moments in my life, such as kneeling in a driveway holding buckets of rice overhead or seeing pink nipples for the first time. The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane. But who is that show written for?
“I don’t think we fully understand the culture of immigrants,” Huang told Coates. “I think we consume the culture of immigrants. We try to be politically correct and legislate to protect the culture of immigrants but do we truly understand it? Do we really live amongst each other? I don’t think we’re at that phase yet. Obama being elected is fantastic, but I think a lot of people were eager to see America as post-racial and I don’t see that, nor do I see the globe as post-racial.”
There’s a tension between the Eddie Huang avatar you’ll see tonight on television and the Eddie Huang that exists in the world. The real Eddie Huang, for instance, knows that the legendary MC Ol’ Dirty Bastard predates the concept of “making it rain,” while the show blithely collapses both into the same place in time and space under the banner of hip hop. But it’s visibility — and visibility matters when the last show featuring an Asian family on network television, “All-American Girl,” starring Margaret Cho, aired in 1994 and lasted one season. Said writer Junot Diaz, who is Dominican:
There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?” And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors.
Like Diaz, Huang’s made a new mirror. He may think the reflection’s a bit smudged, but he’s counting on the show’s audience to provide the Windex — and hold executives at ABC accountable for the images they’re presenting and ultimately make them more realistic. He wrote the piece in New York magazine, he said, to invite criticism to make the show better.
“They’re not on a mission to not represent us,” Huang told NPR. “They just don’t know how.”
To get an idea of what Huang is like — versus the version of him and his family that’s being presented tonight on ABC — check out his considerably less-filtered show “Huang’s World.” The first part of the first episode is embedded below. They’re all available on Vice’s YouTube food channel, Munchies.
Or you can listen to his podcast with Elena Bergeron of TriangleOffense.com, “Monosodium Glutamate”: