By Victor J Wang, TAP-NY Advocacy and Technology Chair
If you haven’t heard by now, Fresh Off The Boat is kind of a big deal for the Asian American community. The TAP-NY Advocacy Committee has had a lot of good discussion about what this means for the greater Asian & Pacific Islander American (APIA) demographic. Here are some of my thoughts and takeaways.
Being on screen means influence
Asian Americans are perpetually considered side characters of the greater American experience. We all know the stereotypes of the “model minority” a bit too well – academically and economically driven, while submissive with questionable social skills. And let’s face it – when it comes to entertainment, Asian actors are rarely cast in strong, suave, or fearless leading roles. But with Fresh off the Boat, the first network TV sitcom in 20 years featuring an all Asian cast, that’s changing.
What is perhaps more interesting is how the absence of certain material on screen influences national awareness. What’s not being shown can perpetuate stereotypes because it provides the lack of counterexamples. In psychology, this is known as confirmation bias as humans tend to remember things that reinforces a previous belief. By not being on TV, Asian American counterexamples to the one-dimensional stereotypes of either being quiet, knowing martial arts, or being good at math, do not exist to the broader audience, especially in parts of the US where not many APIA inhabitants reside.
Showcasing Asian culture
Fresh Off The Boat has covered a breadth of attitudes that do take place in Asian American households. Look at all the topics covered in just the first four episodes: the American Dream, public displays of affection, how an emphasis on grades translates into success in life, being frugal and haggling, and “saving face” in front of your other family members. I’m sure I’ve left out a few too.
That’s not to say that there isn’t room to explore certain Asian-related topics in more depth. But hey, portraying characters of Asian descent going through “mundane” (albeit hilarious) walks of life humanizes and adds credibility to the show, in turn appealing to a wider audience and opening the door for tackling more “sensitive” issues later on.
A first step in many directions
The topic of being Asian American has always fallen in an awkward spot in the national dialogue. Even though statistically Asian Americans are a small minority (~5% of the total US population), this representation is much larger in higher education and in industries like medicine and engineering. Unfortunately this has left little room for other “less stable” career paths like those in politics or the arts. Perhaps if Fresh Off The Boat succeeds, it will set an example to encourage other aspiring Asian Americans to pursue their dreams regardless of cultural norms.
Fresh Off The Boat is by no means representative of the entire Asian American narrative but hopefully it’s one perspective of many more to come. It marks an inflection point in the entertainment industry as other Asian American works have been announced (Mulan anyone?) since the pilot in February.
Why you should keep watching
If you are Asian American, watch the show. Whether you love it, hate it, Fresh Off The Boat is an important milestone for the Asian American community – one that “traditional” values tend to overlook. While Confucianism teaches “修身，齊家，治國，平天下” which emphasizes self, family, and country, it leaves out a crucial element: community. In America, it’s all about local community where there is power in groups and the currency is in numbers. This is a chance for the APIA community to come together, to make some noise, and to share a laugh over just how humorous the Asian American experience can be.
If you are not Asian American, you should watch too because the show’s relatability goes beyond race. Being inclusive and assimilating other cultures, speaking up and defending yourself, or just trying to make it while chasing a dream are very American values. So it doesn’t matter what color your skin is, what your sexual orientation is, or who you call God, because all anyone really wants at the end of the day is what Eddie says at the end of Episode 1 – “yeah son, a little bit of respect.”
Many thanks to Alex Shih and Jessica Yeung for editing.
If you are interested in having discussions like this in person or getting involved on the Advocacy Committee, feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org.