“Fresh Off the Boat” is finally here, and even though I’ve been privileged to watch it develop for months, seeing it actually air on TV has been a mind-bending, time-twisting experience — one that I, that many of us, have been waiting a lifetime to arrive.
Because even the rise of the Internet hasn’t changed the unique role of television as a validator of social inclusion. The images and ideas and, yes, people that are represented on primetime are a part of our cultural fabric — they are weekly guests in homes across America, sparking conversation, demanding engagement.
And for Asian Americans, we who struggle with a history of being seen as eternal foreigners, this absence from the small screen is like another Exclusion Act, condemning us to be forever in the dark, outside looking in.
This is me, that time, 31 years ago: Sitting in the dark in a theater crowded with fellow adolescents, watching “Sixteen Candles,” a movie my friends swore was going to be hilarious. It stars a pouty redheaded girl and it’s about how she’s being ignored on her 16th birthday because her soon-to-be-married older sister is getting all the attention.
I don’t really get why she’s upset; the day she’s having is pretty much every day of my life. And then, without warning, he pops up — pops down — on-screen, his buttoned-up bowl-cut appearance punctuated by the resounding clang of a gong: “Whatsa happening, hot stuff?” The audience roars at his chopstick accent and manic antics, at his ridiculous name, Long Duk Dong. I sink down in my seat, ears hot, eyes stinging. My friends don’t notice. They’re too busy laughing.
This is me, that time, 21 years ago: Sitting in the dark again, this time facing a small screen, my body tense with anticipation for a show that my Asian American peers and I hope will be an antidote to a decade of Long Duk Dongs, of Hollywood images that marginalize us, make us comic relief and cannon fodder for heroes of another color. The catch: I’m not watching this show as a viewer but as a reviewer, as newly minted TV critic.
I’ve told my editor that I’m uncomfortable writing about the show, that I thought I was too close to the material and to its star, brilliant, bawdy comic Margaret Cho. The advice I got was to do my job — to treat it as I would any other show. Twenty-two minutes later, my eyes are dry from lack of blinking, and I know I can’t write the review I want to write: the one that says this show is The One or even watchable.
The Cho I know isn’t the character parked on the sofa here, delivering gags that were already stale in the happier days of “Happy Days.” I file a bitter essay, acid with disappointment. When she sees it, Cho tells me this crushing critique by one of the few Asian Americans with a regular gig writing about TV will be used to kill the show. “All- American Girl” is canceled after 19 episodes. Cho and I don’t talk for years.
This is me, that time, 11 years ago: A white executive with cable giant Comcast is explaining to me how its new channel, the first national network dedicated to Asian Americans, will change everything. AZN will offer original content about Asian Americans, by us, for us, as well as prime fare imported from Asia. Cartoons! he says. And music videos! “AZN will be everything Asian!”
I ignore the soft sound of metallic percussion. When the channel launches, I write that it might be a game-changer — if it lives up to its promise. Ten months later, unable to attract advertisers, the channel lays off all but a handful of staffers and kills its plans to produce original content. The game remains the same.
This is me, that time, last year — once more sitting in the dark. On the monitor before me, as I huddle in my hoodie against the glacial cold of the Fox Studios soundstage, a family tableau plays out — immigrant parents, three young boys, moving into a new neighborhood hundreds of miles away from home.
Their surroundings are alien, and the locals are bizarre, but the family itself is all too familiar: They could be my own family, as we made our move from urban Brooklyn to the Staten Island suburbs, 41 years ago. In fact, they are my family — or at least the eldest kid is, because the 10-year-old playing young Eddie Huang is my son, Hudson Yang, plucked out of anonymity to star in “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first Asian American family sitcom on network prime time in two decades.
And Hudson is an eye-opener. He’s cocky, swaggering, vulnerable, real. Though he’s delivering invented laugh-lines, there’s an authenticity in his performance that comes from a kind of confidence I myself have never been able to summon, and I know exactly where it comes from: He’s never heard that ringing in his ears — the sound of a cartoon gong.
The same can be said for his on-screen siblings, Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen, playing the two younger members of the Huang brood, Emery and Evan. They live in a changed world from the one in which I grew up, and whether they know it or not, they’re changing it an order of magnitude further by doing what they’re doing: Putting a set of characters on-screen that a generation of young Asian Americans will laugh with, live with and recognize as reflections of themselves.
It’s been a wild and rocky journey to get here. Hudson, with almost no experience, was cast in the final hours of the hunt for young Eddie, after a search that scoured major cities across North America. The series was the last pickup of the season, announced the day before ABC’s upfronts. The show was then scheduled for midyear and programmed in a scary slot: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, leading off a night against meat-grinder competition. There have been social media kerfuffles, bizarre moments with the media and controversy seemingly at every turn.
But here we are, this time, now — with “Fresh Off the Boat” poised to premiere. Realizing to ourselves that this amazing, funny, subversive, totally unexpected show exists at all is nothing short of miraculous. And that if America embraces it, the ringing in our ears won’t be a gong; it will be an alarm bell, telling the world that our time has finally arrived.
Yang is a New York-based writer for the Wall Street Journal. He is also a former TV critic for the Village Voice.