I finished reading “Fresh off the Boat” last week, the memoir by Baohaus owner Eddie Huang which has now spun off into a (hopefully) popular sitcom, depicting the cultural struggles of Asian American families growing up in random parts of the country. Prior to the show and to reading the book, I peeped Eddie’s column on Vulture about his struggle with the development of the show’s concept and message. After I finished the book, I fully understood his issues with the process, and his subsequent disowning of the show last week makes way more sense now. On the surface, it just looks like someone who didn’t get their vision depicted the way they wanted, and they washed their hands of it and walked away. It’s more than that.
Eddie, I understand.
In a general sense, the show was doomed from the start when it came to conveying Eddie’s story. About the only thing in the show that I can say really matches to the book is the setting, the family names, and the “back of the line, chink!” moment in the pilot*. The show and the book are two completely different stories; Eddie’s book is a narrative about an anti-stereotypical Asian American life that’s being packaged and recorded for the show as a typical Asian American struggle, while keeping cultural issues at arm’s length in order to keep it network-friendly.
You can see the network-friendly pandering without even reading the book; Louis is a gentle, unassuming and soft father, the two brothers are the stereotypical smart boys, Eddie is a black sheep, and I’m still convinced that the focus of the show is Jessica, the exoticized tiger mom, the easier-to-digest AA face for the American audience. In reality, Louis was a crazy strict, psychologically and physically abusive dad who used to be a Taipei gangster, Emory was just as wild as Eddie, and the grandmother was in a wheelchair because she had bound feet. The whole family was dysfunctional, but they made it in real life.
The watering down of the family and Eddie’s stories can be attributed simply to making things family-friendly, but I believe it’s also working to perpetuate the model-minority myth despite Eddie being the outlier. We as Asian Americans can all relate to it in some way, because stereotypes wouldn’t be stereotypes if they weren’t partially observable, but it’s not working hard enough to break any of the characters, even TV Eddie, free of that image. They’re still smart, strict, and foreign.
The biggest reason I understand Eddie’s beef with the show is how serious the themes of the book get, and the fact that there’s no way a sitcom can be the proper stage for his story. [Spoiler Alert] Eddie was and is one crazy dude; he fought everyone that held his race against him, he did drugs, sold drugs, got sent to jail for hitting a kid with his car, lawyered for a year, started a streetwear company, and finally started Bauhaus. His story is as remarkable as it is crazy, and that’s why the book was so popular. He went through some shit, but the last straw for Eddie was that there was domestic violence in his home doled out as discipline, which is unspoken but we all know exists, and the networks refused to touch it. It was an integral part of what shaped him, and it’s never going to be addressed.
I like the show as a sitcom (especially the subtle 90s touches) and the book is an amazing read as well, but don’t expect them to line up; Eddie, I understand.
* Almost matches. In the show, Eddie cusses the dude out. In the book, he beats the shit out of him.