In his new memoir, “Fresh Off the Boat” (Spiegel & Grau, $26), Eddie Huang describes life as a first-generation American determined to hold onto his Taiwanese culture.
The 30-year-old chef and proprietor of Baohaus, a New York City hangout serving Taiwanese street food, reveals the crucial role food played in not only determining Huang’s career but also in establishing his relationship with his family, his community and American and Taiwanese cultures.
A self-proclaimed weirdo, Huang graduated from law school and also worked as a stand-up comedian and pot dealer. He has hosted “Cheap Eats” on the Cooking Channel, appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s “The Layover” and hosts his own series on Vice TV, also called “Fresh Off the Boat."
Just a few minutes after Huang landed in Los Angeles, we caught up with him to discuss his Taiwanese family’s hysterical antics, his struggle as a kid making his way through American culture and his anchor through it all: food.
Huang will be reading and signing at Book Soup at 7 tonight.
What inspired you to write a memoir?
I’ve wanted to write this book since I was 18. The day I was leaving home to go to college, I just sat in my neighborhood in Orlando -- we lived by the lake and I thought, "Yo, I gotta write this story about what it’s like to grow up in an American suburb as an Asian American and as pretty much one of only three families of color." One of them being [baseball player] Barry Larkin, who lived down the street from me.
It really was such a weird thing to grow up in the mid-'90s, in a city like Orlando that was kind of like a modern gold rush town. My mom came over here when she was 17, my dad came over here in his mid-20s after he served in the Taiwanese military -- and we kind of all figured out America together. It’s just so funny for people like us to come to America and end up in tiny, weird, suburban towns that we have no connection to. And then you have to develop your own identity to create your own place in America.
I wanted to write the book because I just felt really alone a lot of the time. Growing up, my biggest role models were people I hadn’t met before or were dead -- like Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Charles Barkley and Tupac. I wanted to write this book because maybe there’s a kid in Wisconsin or Phoenix or Tucson who feels the same way I did and there’s nothing that really speaks to him or her.
What role did Taiwanese culture play in piquing your interest in food?
In my book, I mention tons of moments where I was made fun of for the food I ate. Growing up as an '80s baby in America, every kid at every turn wanted to make fun of me for eating dog. It’s only recently that most Americans will say, "That’s an ignorant and stupid joke." I remember that food was very stigmatic and it was one of the first times that I learned, "Hey, these kids keep making fun of me for bringing my stinky lunch to school, but I really like it. It’s delicious to me. I think they’re wrong." Over time, that’s what made me hang onto my culture from home because I started to see that these kids were picking on me just because I was different. It wasn’t because there was anything objectively wrong with me -- it was entirely just majority rules and I saw the mob mentality of children.
When you’re a kid here, everybody just wants to be the same, everybody just wants to be cool, you just want to have friends, you want to have video games, you want to be invited to people’s houses -- but I think in those early years, it’s important to recognize the value of being an immigrant here and of having that duality of the outside American world and the world inside your home. I really benefited from having that because the world is so interconnected now -- from Internet to cable to digital media. I would hate to be someone who only knows one culture; it’s a real advantage to have that duality.
As you stepped more into the world of food and made a career out of it, how did your parents react?
Because of Confucian ideals and Asian American values, my parents were very ignorant to the fact that I could do more positive things for myself, my family and my community through food than I could through the law or medicine or accounting. When I decided to give up being an attorney to open a restaurant, my parents could not understand it for the life of them. They would not talk to me for three to six months. Even after I got my New York Times review and even after the restaurant started doing well, my mom would keep saying, "Well, keep your Bar license active." It wasn’t until recently that she said, "You know, I don’t think Eddie’s going to be an attorney."
They didn’t see the vision that I had about how I would be able to represent myself -- how I would be able to represent Taiwanese Americans like myself, people of color like myself, or just anyone who feels different or ostracized.
Has your relationship with food given you a deeper appreciation for Taiwanese culture?
Well, food has always been the thing that I could relate to as a kid. I speak Chinese fluently at a fifth-grade level -- I’ve lived in Taiwan and China for months at a time and I’m totally fine getting around. But in America, you try to maintain your culture here and what do you have? You have Chinese school on Sundays, your parents have the satellite television they watch, and you have karaoke -- you have funny little things! But the thing that you can really enjoy with other Americans is food. There are only a very few Americans who want to go to the arcade and play "Dance Dance Revolution" with you, you know? Food is that thing that you’re able to share with other people and it’s a part of your culture that you can show off. I was always very proud of Taiwanese cuisine and Chinese food.
You’ve worked as an attorney, as a stand-up comedian and in street fashion -- you’ve worn so many different hats. At this particular juncture, how do you define your identity?
It’s a good question. But I don’t define my identity through my occupation. I define my identity through my values and the things that I support. I define myself and my identity based on: What are my values? What are the things that I want to accomplish? And who do I want to be? It’s not a question of what you’re destined to do, it’s not what you’re genetic makeup is. You have a choice in this world. And that’s a big element in the book. Race determines how you look physically and race also determines a lot of the cultures that you’re going to be exposed to -- a lot of the socioeconomic situations that you’re born into..... There are a lot of situations and a lot of things I’ve done that people never thought I could do. Out of sheer will and resourcefulness I forced my way into a lot of things.
What do you think was the source of this perseverance?
My mom and dad would always tell me things like, "Don’t play football. You’re not built to play football. The other kids are bigger than you. You’re not meant for this game." My favorite chapter in the book is the chapter where I say, "You know what? I want to play football. I’m going to show these people.’....
When people would tell me that I wasn’t a very good writer and that I was stilted, I became determined to go to the library every day, read certain books and try to become a better writer.
Who in food inspires you today?
I am actually inspired by hearing from people who aren’t “foodies” or part of the industry. I like to hear about people's relationship to food who don’t fetishize it. I’m also inspired to meet cooks like the ones we meet on the Vice show who aren’t plugged into dominant culture and the upper-middle class food world.