By Lenika Cruz
There’s something exciting about seeing yourself on screen for the first time—or at least some semblance of yourself. For me, that moment of recognition came in the closing moments of the 1996 film Matilda, when the horrid parents of the film’s young telekinetic star announced they were packing up and “moving to Guam.” Or, as Rhea Perlman crowed, Gwahm. She pronounced it wrong (like ham), but I was floored to hear the name of my home island—a U.S. territory with mostly Asian-Pacific Islander inhabitants—uttered in a movie. For the first decade of my life, I’d been largely fed a hefty televisual diet of Disney movies and Nickelodeon, but this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene was the closest I’d come thus far to feeling—and this is the only real word for it—seen.
Shortly before Matilda’s theatrical release, comedian Margaret Cho had the dual honor and burden of starring in the first-ever Asian-American family sitcom, All-American Girl, which ABC had based very loosely on her far more irreverent and superior stand-up. As television, the show flopped. But as a show on a mainstream network, it set a precedent and revealed just how high the stakes were for a series purporting to capture something essential and honest about a small, but meaningful demographic. “What the All-American Girl did was point out that [Asian Americans] are invisible,” Cho told KoreAmlast year in an interview noting the show’s 20th anniversary. “You don’t understand invisibility until you realize that you’re not invisible anymore.”
Visibility of any kind seems like a small request from a television industry that last year put out 350 new original scripted series and is expected to release hundreds more in 2015. Much of this new material is good, a lot of it is bad, but almost everyone seems to agree there’s no time for the average person to watch it all. It’s at this moment in TV history, and in this over-saturated viewing market, that ABC is debuting Fresh Off the Boat, the much-hyped, second-ever Asian-American family sitcom starring Randall Park, Constance Hu, and 11-year-old newcomer Hudson Yang. And while literal decades have passed since All-American Girl, there’s considerable weight on the shoulders of this new show. It isn’t the very first of its kind, so expectations are higher, maybe even vertiginously so.
As the show’s Iranian-American writer Nahnatchka Khan told L.A. Weekly:
We always joke, ‘If a white sitcom gets canceled, does anybody hear it?’ There’s another one about five friends in a city trying to find love next season! But if you find something special and different, you really take notice of it.
If invisibility was hard—isolating, demoralizing—then visibility is also something of an albatross.
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The history of mainstream visibility for Asian-American lives is so scant that it feels disingenuous to say that Fresh Off the Boat‘s existence was inevitable. All-American Girl followed the first sitcom to ever feature a lead of Asian descent: Mr. T and Tina. All three shows, it turns out, were based on an earlier work that had already proven a success. Mr. T and Tina was a spin-off of the already-popular show Welcome Back, Kotter. All-American Girl was a barely recognizable dilution of Cho’s stand-up.Fresh Off the Boat is based on the memoir of the same name by Eddie Huang, a successful New York restauranteur, Vice host, and hip-hop aficionado. And his memoir made it to the hands of publishers shortly after an excerpt from Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother ran in the Wall Street Journal. Or as Wesley Yang put it in The New York Times: “Chua made Asian Americans matter just long enough for Huang’s proposal to sell as a counternarrative to hers.”
Which is all to say that Asian-American stories aren’t the kinds you simply take a chance on. They’re not wrought romantically, but instead require a good deal more calculation, baby steps, and hints of encouragement than other shows trying to make it to TV. And even so, any attempt to put more than one or two Asian faces on the small screen (especially in a comedy context) for an entire 30-minute segment requires multiple leaps of faith.
Such are the birth pangs of visibility. Cho felt them too: “Nobody had any advice for me. I couldn’t ask anybody, because nobody knew what I was going through … And people didn’t realize that having the first Asian-American family on TV comes with a lot of cultural baggage that needs to be addressed.” This cultural baggage is still there—even with the gift of Cho’s hindsight (she’s been close with Huang since the early stages of Fresh Off the Boat), the success of shows with Asian-American leads like The Mindy Project, The Walking Dead, Parks and Recreation, and the recent failure of Selfie, the first series to feature an Asian-American male romantic lead, as played by John Cho.
The Asian-American community, to be sure, is far from a monolithic phenomenon, but Fresh Off the Boat is, for better or worse and by sheer virtue of its rarity, tasked with the impossible responsibility of resonating with this group, and then some. It needs to be universal enough to avoid alienating non-Asian-Americans, but specific enough to avoid feeling like a neutered and defanged version of the multivalent, complicated Asian-American “experience.” It also has to be really funny. But not offensive. These are all mighty existential concerns that in some way threaten to eclipse the joy of knowing a show like this even exists. In the place of joy, it’s easy to feel anxiety. Because after the mere fact of the show’s existence comes yet another mountain on the horizon—if for some reason Fresh Off the Boatdoesn’t manage to do more than just exist, how long will it be before another show of its kind comes along?
All this worrying aside for a moment, I have high hopes for this show; I have to. The delightful pilot episode, while imperfect, made me laugh (as a viewer) and touched on just enough commonalities to make me smile (as an Asian-American). I’m not Taiwanese-American, like the Huang family in the show, and I don’t expect to ever see a sitcom specifically about a Chamorro-Okinawan-Filipino family from Guam (that would just be narcissism). But Margaret Cho’s words—“You don’t understand invisibility until you realize that you’re not invisible anymore”—have an important corollary: You don’t begin to understand visibility until, you realize you’re finally visible. We don’t quite understand how to deal with this kind of sunlight yet, but Fresh Off the Boat has given us another chance to try.