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‘Fresh off the Boat’ (Sort of) Speaks to My Immigrant Experience

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ABC’s new comedy “Fresh Off the Boat” premiered last week, with two new episodes airing tonight. My family and I have been looking forward to its debut since the fall, when the trailer made my 15-year-old laugh so hard, he literally fell to the floor, clutching his stomach. (In comparison, “Black-ish” made him muse, “Maybe the actual show will be funnier.”)

Neither my oldest son nor I are Asian. In fact, the closest thing either of us gets to Asian is that we both attend(ed) selective public high schools for the “gifted”; me in San Francisco, him in New York City, where the majority of the student bodies are Asian.

But race wasn’t the commonality either he or I found with “Fresh Off the Boat.” It was, rather, the American immigrant experience, which I know of first-hand, having moved from the Soviet Union with my parents when I was 7, and which my son gets to enjoy second-hand, due to his good fortune in having been born my child.

Eddie, the lead character and narrator of “Fresh of the Boat” (the series is based on chef Eddie Huang’s bestselling memoir), is the American-born son of Taiwanese parents, living in Florida in the 1990s, who just wants to fit in at his new school. And, oh yeah, he also worships black rappers, and African American culture, in general.

To Eddie, fitting in means brings Lunchables to school, not the Chinese food his mother packs him. “I want white people food,” he insists.

I may not have expressed myself in exactly the same terms, but I do remember informing my mother that it seems American children do not eat beef tongue sandwiches, red caviar with thick butter spread on black bread, or kholodets, meat frozen in its own aspic jelly. So, could we, uhm… change up that menu a bit?

My mother did. Though I suspect that she was just as baffled as Eddie’s mom. While Eddie’s TV mother has just picked up her family and moved them from Washington, D.C. to Florida on her husband’s whim, she, at least, already spoke English (albeit with an accent) and has lived in America long enough to love the music of Bonnie Raitt.

My mother, on the other hand, was brand new to all of America, didn’t speak the language or have any idea of what the future might hold for her. The last thing she needed on top of everything else whiny tsuris about what she was packing in my lunch bag.

She could have told me, “No.” She could have told me, “I don’t have time for this, and you’ll eat what I give you to eat.” But, she didn’t. Just like Eddie’s mother, she ventured into a strange, American grocery store, and took strange, American groceries off the shelves, and learned to cook with them. I didn’t appreciate it much at the time, but after watching “Fresh Off the Boat,” I certainly appreciate it now.

But it was the second episode that hit even closer to home. Eddie gets all A’s on his report card. And his mother freaks out. She stomps into the principal’s office and accuses, “Your school is too easy. You need to make it more challenging. Is there extra school?”

As the mom who notoriously often expresses the wish that her children be at the bottom of their classes–otherwise how can I be certain that they’re learning anything, or, more importantly, working hard and not coasting?–I couldn’t help notice the glances my son kept sneaking my way throughout the entire scene.

“I don’t understand these people,” Eddie’s mom laments to her husband. “It’s like success is not important to them.”

Eddie’s next-door neighbor, meanwhile, is rewarded for his straight-C average with dinner at a restaurant and a host of new sports equipment.

“Wait a second!” My son could barely hold it in until the commercial to sputter. “Some people celebrate getting C’s? Can you buy me a basketball hoop for getting C’s?”

“Be quiet or I’ll remember that you still have homework to do instead of watching TV,” my (non-Asian, non-immigrant, African American) husband threatened.

“I already did all my homework.”

“Then you can finish washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen.”

My son refrained from making any more comments while the show was on.

“I liked it,” my husband said once both episodes of “Fresh Off the Boat” were over. “It’s a lot more realistic than ‘Black-ish.’”

Now I was the one who burst out laughing. “I bet there are Asian families all over America right now saying: Why can’t ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ be more realistic? Like ‘Black-ish’! You know that’s exactly what black people are like, while ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ doesn’t reflect my experience at all.”

And that’s the long and short of it. People’s personal experiences are so individualized, it’s ridiculous to think a television show, even if it’s supposedly about people “just like you,” could ever come close to matching it.

Objectively speaking, is “Fresh Off the Boat” funny? It’s about as funny as any other sitcom on ABC. Your mileage will vary, unless the tale of this particular American family happens to hit a nerve of recognition, both good and bad.

My son reported that one day at school, after he’d explained how much emphasis his parents put on working hard, showing respect for your elders, completing household chores, getting no allowance, and being responsible for his younger siblings, a classmate asked him, “Are you sure you’re not Asian?”

Nope. Just another immigrant’s kid, fresh off the boat.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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