ABC's Fresh Off the Boat gets some mixed reviews from Chinese Americans

Updated: 2014-05-21 10:11

(China Daily USA)

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ABC-TV on May 13 released 11 trailers for its 2014-15 schedule, and one of them, a sitcom depicting a Chinese-American family's efforts to assimilate into US society has stirred public reaction.

To start with, the show's name - Fresh Off the Boat - sparked online criticism with some pop culture critics questioning whether it's politically insensitive. Many from the Chinese-American community, however, regard the ABC show - the first to feature an Asian-American family on a major US TV network in two decades - as a good opportunity for overseas Chinese to refine their image through mainstream US media.

The comedy is adapted from Chinese-American writer and chef Eddie Huang's 2013 best-selling memoir with the same audacious title. It recounts how Eddie, as a 12-year-old who moved from Washington's Chinatown to a suburb in Orlando, Florida, survived cultural shocks and prejudices against him and his restaurateur father and tiger mother.

Assimilating is not easy. Young Eddie tried everything mainstream America threw his way, from white Jesus to macaroni and cheese, said the Kirkus Reviews in naming Huang's memoir one of the best books of the year. It said it was the story of a Chinese-American boy in a could-be-anywhere cul-de-sac blazing his way through America's deviant subcultures, trying to find himself far from his legacy amid his conflicted love for his family.

It is important for Asian Americans to tell our stories, said Huang in an earlier interview with BuzzFeed Entertainment. "America definitely gave us the best opportunity, and that's why we're here, but we fought. We had to fight for these things."

"Fresh off the boat" is a controversial term used to describe newly-arrived immigrants who have not yet assimilated into their host nation's language, culture and social norms. It's considered offensive and politically incorrect by many ethnic Asian groups. It implies the stereotypical new immigrants' behavior such as speaking broken English, poor driving skills and being low-skilled.

The comedy might backfire on ABC, which in 1994 had aired the drama All-American Girl, which described the everyday life of a Korean-American family. The show received harsh criticism from Asian-American communities for wrongly presenting Asian values while offering a lazy and inaccurate portrayal of Korean Americans. The show ended up in an early withdrawal.

In addition, the overseas Chinese community still holds ABC accountable for airing offensive remarks of "kill everyone in China" on its Jimmy Kimmel talk show on Oct 16, 2013.

In the show, Kimmel was speaking with a group of children, aged 5 and 6, about how the US government should pay back the $1.3 trillion debt it owes China, "Kill everyone in China," one boy said.

"Kill everyone in China? OK, that's an interesting idea," Kimmel said. He then posed the question: "Should we allow the Chinese to live?"

Since October, ABC and Kimmel have come under a firestorm of criticism from Chinese-American groups, including protests and petition drives. In San Francisco, which has the most concentrated Chinese-American population in the US, Asian Americans organized three large protests from the San Francisco Civic Center to San Jose, which led to official apologies from the ABC network and Kimmel himself.

ABC surely has learned a hard lesson from the Kimmel show incident, said Chunyan Li, assistant professor of accounting at the Pace University. "I believe ABC will cautiously handle the ethnic profiling issue when shooting the comedy Fresh Off the Boat."

"Even if there were something unpleasant to happen down the road, we still can talk to the crew and ABC management and bring our concerns to the table," said Li, a community advocate who took part in TV debate last October, arguing with Caucasian commentators as to whether Kimmel's remarks were acceptable and the Chinese communities were overacting.

Regarding usage of the term fresh off the boat for its title, Li said comedy needs a laughing point but it was only a superficial one. "The deeper message of fighting for our own place is there. Isn't it cool that we can watch our own Asian-American comedy on a mainstream TV network like ABC?" she said.

Echoing Li's comments, a netizen with the alias of Wuyueliuhuo wrote on the renowned online overseas Chinese community, "I like the title 'Fresh Off the Boat'… I don't think the phrase is offensive to new immigrants even though nowadays new immigrants are 'fresh off the plane' instead of 'boat'…not using the phrase doesn't mean the phrase or the common psychic behind the phrase doesn't exist in real life."

Humor grows out of self-confidence and always works better than protest or self-pity, he added, the show is setting itself up to educate about the term fresh off the boat.

According to a poll released on Tuesday by the Entertainment Weekly, about 23.8 percent voted Fresh Off the Boat their favorite ABC trailer.