I grew up with a lot of family around me. Once I was done with school for the day, I’d rush home, drop my bag, grab a snack, lay on the couch and hang out with loved ones for half an hour or so.
I’d check in on the Winslows and their super smart neighbor, see the Seavers and that homeless kid they take in, and bump into the Banks, their hilarious nephew and his DJ friend. Each equipped with their honorary kin, these tight-knit clans in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles would watch over me until my own parents came home from work. And even though these TV families are simply collections of fictional characters, the afternoons I spent in their living rooms became formative cornerstones of my childhood.
Back then, it didn’t really matter — to me, or much of Hollywood — that the “all-American families” on these, or any, sitcoms didn’t look like me. I was already used to being different since I’m Chinese: I was the only kid in my class with straight black hair, different-shaped eyes, a flatter nose and two distinct New Year’s Day celebrations.
I never tried to learn “my” language and knew better than to bring leftovers to school. I internalized a definition of my Asian American identity: though I innately feel I am the latter, I get constant external reminders that I’m also the former — and, for some reason, the two are mutually exclusive.
That all started to change for me about three years ago, when the first primetime sitcom about an Asian American family since ABC’s “All American Girl” (a short-lived show I wish I knew about when I was younger) debuted on ABC. Entitled “Fresh Off the Boat” — a title reclaiming a derogatory descriptor, no less — it centers on the Huangs, a Taiwanese family who, in 1995, has just relocated from Washington, D.C.‘s Chinatown to Orlando, a suburban region with little-to-no Asian population.
Loosely based on the memoir of culinary mogul Eddie Huang, the first season introduces an American-enamoured father opening a Western-themed steakhouse, the pragmatic mother who demands excellence “way before all that Tiger Mom stuff,” and the self-proclaimed black sheep of the clan: 11-year-old Eddie, their hip-hop-loving, not-so-straight-A oldest son of three. The family also includes two high-achieving younger brothers, and their Mandarin-speaking grandmother.
At first glance, these “Fresh Off the Boat” character descriptions seem like an amalgamation of cliches (and even Huang himself initially feared it would be “a reverse-yellowface show with universal white stories played out by Chinamen”). But for more than four seasons now, the series has unapologetically explored what it means to have a hyphenated identity: to play mahjong and read “Garfield” comics, to speak Chinese to your relative while cooking instant macaroni and cheese, to run a local business as a U.S. immigrant, to feel somewhat out of place when visiting your “home” country.
Every character is fully Taiwanese and fully American simultaneously — a concurrent combination that, as a child, I didn’t think was possible. No racial group is a monolith, and when we get down to brass tacks, my household doesn’t really have too much in common with the Huangs onscreen. However, with each subsequent episode, viewers got to know this Asian family better, while I began to see that my family is, in fact, exactly what an “all-American” family can look like.
“Fresh Off the Boat” also considers ubiquitous sitcom tropes through a wide, Asian American lens. When Randall Park’s Louis and Constance Wu’s Jessica argue from two extreme views, Lucille Soong’s Grandma Jenny stress their vital yin-and-yang balance. And when Hudson Yang’s Eddie tries alcohol for the first time, his heartbeat speeds and his face grows flushed — yep, he’s got Asian glow.
First kisses, sibling schemes, squabbling neighbors, fighting friends, and simply loving your own flesh and blood — they’re all plots I’ve previously watched on “Family Matters” and “Growing Pains” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” but never before with actors of Asian descent. To insist on doing so with its normalizing nonchalance is actually, in itself, groundbreaking.
Earlier this year, “Fresh Off the Boat” was sold into syndication for the first time, meaning that reruns will air on a different network than the one on which it originally aired. To a viewer, this might not mean much in the streaming era, since all previous episodes are currently available on Hulu. But as a child who was raised on syndicated family sitcoms, it still feels like a milestone of sorts to me. It categorically puts the ’90s-set series alongside the many shows it’s referenced in its episodes (its Season 5 premiere, which aired last week, includes a “Full House”-style opening credits sequence and a guest appearance by “Family Matters” star Jaleel White).
Maybe in the future, another sitcom will admiringly reference “Fresh Off the Boat” as pop culture canon. And if the syndication deals do continue, then I hope it means that other kids, while waiting to spend quality time with their parents, can be comforted by afternoons spent in Orlando, in the cul-de-sac of the Huangs.