California Forum

If TV sitcom doesn’t portray real Asian American family, blame class, not race

Constance Wu, from left, Forrest Wheeler, Hudson Yang and Ian Chen appear in a scene from the new comedy series “Fresh Off the Boat.”
Constance Wu, from left, Forrest Wheeler, Hudson Yang and Ian Chen appear in a scene from the new comedy series “Fresh Off the Boat.” ABC

Nearly anyone who’s been in an Asian American house will get the smallest delight from at least one scene in the new TV sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat.” The family is eating from the red plastic Chinese bowls that many of us know and love.

It’s trivial, but if this family on ABC has the right bowls, what else could it get right about real-life Asian Americans?

That’s the thing about watching shows depicting your subculture: You want to see if they match your experience, which I’d guess is the way some Mexican Americans watch “Greetings from Tucson” or scientists watch “The Big Bang Theory.”

“Fresh Off the Boat” follows the Huangs, a Taiwanese American family moving to Orlando in the 1990s. My first impression is that the Huangs are nothing like my Vietnamese American clan in Sacramento. It’s hard to ignore the stark differences, especially in terms of language and class.

For starters, the Huangs display clear badges of middle-class status, even though they’re supposed to be poor because Dad’s restaurant is losing money. The house is spotless and filled with fruit bowls, everyone’s clothes are clean cut and Mom befriends other stay-at-home moms in her new, white, suburban neighborhood.

I was raised by a grandmotherly sitter because both my parents worked seven days a week. So, a stay-at-home mom is a luxury my family didn’t have. We wore hand-me-downs and squeezed into a cluttered house with mismatching furniture. We played with the neighborhood children, but our parents didn’t integrate into the community nearly as much as Mr. and Mrs. Huang.

Part of the reason is language. We spoke Vietnamese at home. My parents don’t speak English well, whereas the Huangs do. It’s odd to hear Asian immigrants say idioms like, “We have to make the best of it” or “Don’t make waves,” as Mrs. Huang does. But I guess this is unavoidable in trying to attract American TV viewers.

This is a key difference from “Everybody Hates Chris,” another memoir-style portrayal of a poor, ethnic family. TV shows starring blacks don’t have the same language barrier that is a challenge for shows like “Fresh Off the Boat.”

But black and Asian American groups do share a struggle with what President Barack Obama calls “acting white.” People aren’t black enough if they enunciate and get good grades. Asian Americans are bananas (yellow outside, white inside) if they know nothing about Asian food or languages.

What we don’t realize, though, is that we often refer to race when we’re really talking about class. The Huangs do things that seem to be “acting white,” like giving the son a sex talk or reading novels. Some of these actions don’t become common until upwardly mobile families reach the financial comfort that gives them money and time to pack lunches for their children or go to parent-teacher conferences, as the Huangs do.

So if “Fresh Off the Boat” feels foreign to me, it isn’t that the sitcom presents an incorrect view of Asian Americans but that I came from a different background – class-wise and otherwise. The Asian American experience runs the gamut, from those who adopt white names to those who don’t, from those who visit their ancestors’ countries to those who can’t point to them on a map.

It matters how “freshly” your forebears got off the boat, whether in the 1870s to build railroads, or in the 1970s to escape a communist war. These help decide whether your parents will be in the subcategory that forces the violin on you, or the one that feeds you with food stamps.

It’s unfair, of course, to expect a TV show to capture all these experiences. Instead, Asian Americans may take small pleasures here and there when we can relate to the Huangs. And even when we can’t, many of us still hope that “Fresh Off the Boat” will make Asian faces mainstream enough that later sitcoms won’t be ethnic TV but just entertainment. And if you watch the third episode, by the way, there’s a great karaoke zinger that just about anyone can appreciate.

Lien Hoang is a Sacramento native and freelance journalist living in Vietnam, where she writes about Southeast Asia.