This post was originally published at Hyphen magazine. The post is written by Hyphen Founding Editor Melissa Hung, who interviews her immigrant mother about her reactions to the show, Fresh Off the Boat.
Watching the premiere of Fresh Off the Boat, many scenes resonated with my own experience of growing up in Texas. Being made fun of for your homemade lunch? Check. People complimenting me on my English even though I’m American-born? Check. Parents not understanding the music I identified with? Check.
But what really carried the show for me was Constance Wu’s portrayal of the mother, Jessica Huang. Walking the world with confidence, skepticism, and a sharp tongue, she is tough on her kids, and her husband too. She reminds me of my own mom, Pearl.
“Eggs are life. You came from my eggs,” Jessica says as she scolds her eldest son, Eddie.
“You do your best not to make waves but I will never be mad at you for standing up for yourself.”
Yup, that’s stuff that Pearl would say.
Which got me thinking, what would my mom think of the show? So I called her. After getting an earful about how I failed to tell her about the show, and patiently (OK, maybe not so patiently) walking her through the process of downloading the pilot from iTunes (now free), I asked her to share her thoughts.
What did you think of the show?
I thought with the title Fresh Off the Boat, it was going to be about the old time Chinese who don’t defend themselves and just want to make peace. But this family – they live in America, their kids are born in America, so they know the American way. Even though they are an Asian family, they are American. I can see myself in that.
Does the mom character remind you of someone?
Oh yes, I did something like that. Your brother was in a pre-school and on the second day, I was called to the principal’s office and they told me to go home and discipline my son and tell him not to run away at recess. At recess, they count the kids before they come back to the classroom and your brother was missing. So they searched for him and didn’t find him, and by the time they get back to the classroom, he was sitting there.
You know what my reaction was? “How many teachers are outside watching the kids? If they are watching the kids, then why did my son go back to the classroom and no one noticed? Luckily, he just walked back to the classroom. What if he had walked out to the parking lot and was missing or kidnapped? Whose fault is that? When I place my son in your school, you are totally responsible for his safety. And now you want me to teach my son not to run away? I want a refund! And I will not bring him back here tomorrow!”
Some people felt the portrayal of the parents threatening to sue Eddie’s school was inaccurate because their own parents would have apologized. As someone who would have done what the Huangs did, why do you think they reacted that way?
Normally when you are called to the principal’s office, and your son did kick a boy in the bottom, of course you need to teach your son to do right. But what made him do that? If that boy didn’t call Eddie a chink, Eddie wouldn’t have done that. That mommy is thinking defense system because she’s been attacked before.
This relates to your brother in middle school. There were two boys teasing him. I tell him, “Next time someone makes fun of you, you hit them in the nose.” Why did I tell him that? Because I was teased before and learned to stand up for myself. I wouldn’t tell someone in high school to do this, because today kids have guns. But for a little kid in 6th grade, you hit back. This mom and dad, they were probably discriminated against before and going through what they’ve gone through, they know how to stand up for their rights.
Let’s talk about the fight that led up to that. There are only two people of color in the school and they are fighting not to be at the bottom of the social ladder. The kids at the school like black music, but not the black kid.
You make a point. They accept black music, but they don’t accept the black person sitting there. That was so sad. It reminds me of Sammy Davis, Jr. He had a show in Las Vegas with Dean Martin. There were three of them doing a show together, but he still has to go through the back entrance. They like his music, but they discriminate against him.
The black child and Eddie don’t want to be at the bottom of the social ladder. Primarily, people are not loners. They need friends. And in that society, in a 99 percent white community, you want to be part of it and accepted. So you will do anything to try to make yourself accepted in a group and be one of them so you can have a social life. Little Eddie is trying to survive.
What else was interesting to you about the show?
What’s interesting is that those people are so ignorant! When Eddie tells the white neighbors, “My parents are from Taiwan, but me and my brothers were born in D.C.”, they still tell him his English is good. Of course his English is good; Eddie and his brothers were born in America. But those people don’t see that. They see your skin is different, they assume you can’t speak English.
We’re seen as perpetual foreigners.
Yes, it still happens now. Did I tell you, I went to the mechanic and he went to find a guy to interpret for me? I feel it’s because he saw my face and assumed I can’t understand. Whatever he saw, he saw the face is not white, and he thought, I better bring an interpreter.
The show frames white suburban culture as weird. Some white people think the show is racist against them.
Not at all! I think those white people are too sensitive. Maybe they see themselves in there, which is why they say it’s racist. But this is how they behave – not everyone – but some of them really behave that way. Like the white ladies. They are friendly, they come over to say hi, but they are being ignorant.
How did the show make you feel?
I feel good! I feel very good! When the mom says, “If you suspend Eddie, I am going to sue every one of you,” and her husband says, “Yes, so fast your head will spin,” I feel so good!
I know that’s your favorite moment, but I meant the whole episode. How did you feel seeing an Asian American family on TV?
I love this show! Little Eddie is so cute and chubby. I was very glad to see a whole show about an Asian American family. They already have shows about black families long time ago, and they even have some Hispanic family shows before. I think it’s about time to have an Asian family show, and also that it’s an Asian family that has their culture but is not scared and hiding. They speak their mind. They live in American society. They are American.