This article was originally published in the Guardian US.
One day, when Eddie Huang entered the writers’ room of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, the family-friendly sitcom based on his memoir of the same name, the writers were sharing a joke about Huang’s grandfather castrating a pig with a stick.
The incident never happened. The writers insisted it was funny. Huang insisted it was “savage”, the equivalent of telling a dog-eating joke. A compromise was eventually made with a lesser joke about hot buns, volunteered by a Vietnamese American writer, a fact not lost on Huang. But the tone of the relationship was already defined: Huang, the self-defined “big-dick Asian”, would not be kept down.
As New York’s culinary enfant terrible, the perfecter of the Taiwanese gua bao, a hip-hop aficionado, a former weed dealer, a lawyer, and a TED fellow – until he got booted out for, he claimed, skipping a conference to go on a podcast with a porn star – Huang has made a career out of being confrontational. Especially against network executives, who have spent most of a publicity tour for the show attempting to cover up his outspokenness – with little success.
Speaking via Skype from Los Angeles, where Huang lives most of the time when not travelling for his Vice web series, Huang’s World, or cooking for his restaurant,Baohaus, in New York, Huang appears both pleased with and wary of the TV show, which is based on his family’s move from Washington DC to the mostly white suburbs of Orlando, Florida, during the 90s.
“We’re all proud of our own work, but it didn’t need to be this hard, and it also should be more progressive as a show. You know, we need to push the boundaries,” he says, referring to his recent op-ed in New York magazine, in which he called out the network for wanting to make, in his words, a “universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai panwritten by a Persian-American [Nahnatchka Khan] who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane.” A recent TCA (Television Critics Association) panel, where one of the first questions was about whether chopsticks would feature in the show, highlighted the cast’s frustrations on set.
In his autobiography, described by the New York Times as “a surprisingly sophisticated memoir about race and assimilation in America”, Huang portrayed his childhood as one of being torn between his “fresh off the boat” Taiwanese parents and the overt racism within the white American community. He eventually found solace in African American culture and hip-hop, whose embrace of its own marginalisation provided Huang with the inspiration to create his “dick-swinging” identity.
As a result, the memoir is filled with bawdy and foul-mouthed anecdotes about swiping CDs, selling pornography to classmates, getting into brawls over racial taunts, and pestering his mother for the latest Michael Jordan basketball shoes, while simultaneously highlighting his growing interest in food such as xiang wei(soup dumplings), and the writings of Tupac, Lao Tzu, Jonathan Swift andMichael Ondaatje.
The show, on the other hand, is a network comedy, and often laugh-out-loud funny. In the pilot, one of Huang’s real-life experiences takes a comical, yet pointed, turn in which, after being told their son threw an African American classmate across the room in response to being called a “chink”, Huang’s parents (played by Constance Wu and Randall Park) threaten to sue the principal, “because it’s the American way, right?” Immediately afterward, they offer him discount coupons for their newly opened Cattleman’s Ranch restaurant – an embarrassing gesture that will bring groans of recognition from many of immigrant backgrounds.
In both the show and the memoir, the “chink” incident is a turning point, symbolising the banding together of the family as they stand up for themselves in their new home. But in the show, the anger behind the action, as well as the darker aspects of the memoir, including domestic violence and Huang’s struggles with the law, are largely ignored. (Huang was incarcerated twice before the age of 25: for attacking a classmate and for carrying a concealed weapon.)
It’s therefore understandable that he’s unhappy with a lot of the changes. While Huang’s father, Louis (played by Park, who recently starred as Kim Jong Un in The Interview), was a gangster in his native Taiwan, Huang describes the show’s version of his father as “what white people think about Asian American dads: goofy, inept, emasculated, kind of a bitch”.
In the writers’ room, Huang says, he was largely kept to the periphery. This meant that often the jokes would come from writers who, although culturally diverse, could not provide the authenticity of experience associated with an east Asian background. Hence the pig castration joke. After all, “the only person who could come up with a joke and turn it around was another east Asian person,” Huang says. “Because they know how it feels.”
As the first television show to feature an Asian American family since Margaret Cho’s ill-received All-American Girl over 20 years ago (Cho is a mentor for Huang; “I look up to Margaret a lot”), Fresh Off the Boat has already prompted discussion about representation of Asians in the media. For Huang, however, who recognizes the show as “historic” and whose success could lead to support of more Asian American projects in the future, it is merely the beginning of a wider conversation about Asian Americans and race. “I want people to realise that this is a starting point, and this is something we need to continually work on,” he says.
Huang’s aim is to do shows from an Asian American perspective without being reduced to the use of stereotypes. “What I’m fighting for is specificity, and being like, ‘Yo, keep it like my story.’ That matters to me. You’re a real fucking person.”
In addition to Fresh Off The Boat, Huang, 32, still has a lot to do. As well as wanting to write feature films, he’s looking forward to continuing work on his Vice show, which follows him travelling and eating around the world. He’s also working on a second book, a memoir about time spent in China.
But he says he’ll always be telling the truth. “I don’t want race, gender, sexual orientation or lifestyle or culture ever to limit anyone’s ability to experience life their own way,” he says. “Because it sucks to wake up and have parts of the world cut off to you.”
Especially when it comes to the network, which remains supportive but circumspect. “I think they just ran into some kids for once who were like, number one, you can’t pay me enough to do what you want me to do, and secondly, it probably isn’t financially beneficial for me to listen to you,” he says.
“I’m not, like, a good-looking dude. I’m like 5’7’’, chubby and Asian. The only reason I’m on TV is because I tell the truth.”