Putting ABC’s ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ in Context with Black History Month

Updated Feb 10, 2015

The biggest thing to hit Asian America last week was the airing of “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first sitcom in twenty years to feature an Asian American family.

“Fresh Off the Boat” (ABC, Tuesdays, 8 p.m. EST) is about what happens when an Asian family leaves D.C.’s Chinatown and re-locates to suburban Orlando.

Of course, stereotypes are on parade for laughs. One of the biggest is when young Eddie Huang gets a reaction from his new school mates when he brings leftover Asian food—“Asian Lunch”—to the cafeteria. When he gets home, Eddie declares to his mom that, for proper socialization, he must bring “White Lunch.”

Juxtaposing the family’s Asian-ness with the yearning to belong to the dominant culture does provide for some poignant moments.

For example, when an African-American child becomes new kid Eddie’s friend, at first, it looks like a natural friendship. Both are on the outs trying to be friends with the popular white kids.

But when Eddie’s love for ‘90s rap music gets him an invite to sit with the white kids, it sparks jealously from the black student.

What ensues is the first episode’s big dramatic moment.

It’s all about who is low man on the totem pole now.

“You’re the one at the bottom now,” says the black kid to Eddie.

“No I’m not,” Eddie says.

And then the black kid delivers the show stopping line: “Yes, you are. It’s my turn, chink.”

Eddie scrunches his face, an implied fight ensues, and Eddie is sent to the office for discipline. The family stands up to the principal. But we don’t see the black student again. The next episode, Eddie bonds closer with his white friends.

Initially, I applauded the scene because Eddie stands up to the epithet.

But I find it strange because the real life Eddie Huang who wrote the memoir of same name that inspired the show is an Asian American who is all about the full embrace of black culture. The hip-hop background music is no mistake. It’s really the blackest Chinese American show on TV.

Alas, the show is merely inspired by Huang’s memoir, and not a faithful rendering. If it were, Eddie would have it out with the black kid, win respect, and then be each other’s best friend.

I know the TV show’s modern Orlando may be a tad different from the South in general. But historically, blacks and Chinese have gotten along quite well, going back to 1870 when the first Chinese Americans showed up to the Mississippi Delta. Recruited to be replacement labor after the Civil War, Chinese Americans arrived as neither black nor white. And while the experiment in the fields didn’t really work, the Chinese did set up grocery stores along the state’s main thoroughfares. Initially serving black populations, the stores soon attracted white customers as well. Serving the entire population, the Mississippi Delta Chinese rooted in, to where the 2010 Census puts them at nearly 4,500. That’s just one percent of the state overall, but the Chinese community has grown by more than 44 percent since 2000, according to the University of Mississippi’s Center for Population Studies.

So history shows “Fresh Off the Boat” isn’t all that fresh. Indeed, it begs for context. The “Chink” scene may have worked as a sitcom climax. But in the South, black and Chinese Americans have mixed, and quite well, for a long, long time.

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race, culture and politics for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (www.aaldef.org/blog) Like him at www.facebook.com/emilguillermo.media ; twitter@emilamok