After grabbing a syllabus from the top of the pile and passing the stack to my right, I immediately flip to the calendar. Week 4. Week 4 is the one I have to worry about.
I’m sitting in a diversity class in my third year of graduate school. I’m studying clinical psychology, and while cultural competence is supposedly woven into each of our courses, we also have a class specifically dedicated to diversity issues in mental health treatment. The class starts with a few weeks on power and privilege, and then each of the remaining weeks is spent examining clinical issues in various minority populations: African American clients, Native American clients, clients with disabilities, LGBT clients. The fourth week of the course is the one on Asian American clients. This is the week I’m concerned about.
When that class period rolls around, I’m a giant ball of nerves. I’m not presenting, nor do I plan to contribute much to the discussion; I’m anxious simply because I want us to be represented well. It’s so rare that Asian Americans get the spotlight in any arena, so when we finally get our one hour and 50 minutes in the sun, I really don’t want it to suck. This is our only shot, and for many of my classmates, this is the only hour and 50 minutes of their lives that they’ll ever spend hearing about Asian Americans.
The class is guest-lectured by two Asian American women: one an alumna of our program, perhaps 10 years past graduation, and one an advanced student who’s also a TA for the course. The older one speaks first, speaking for a bland 10 minutes. The younger one goes next; she’s at the whiteboard, explaining a concept, when the older one cuts her off mid-sentence.
“You were only supposed to talk for 5 minutes,” the older woman says icily.
The anxiety in the room spikes. We students sneak glances at each other as we hold our breaths. We have never been in a class where one professor has called out another like this.
The younger one quickly finishes her point and defers. The older one continues her unremarkable lecture. My heart sinks.
One shot. And this is how it’s playing out.
Later in the lecture, the older woman states that since Asian cultures tend to be conflict-avoidant, Asian people can run the risk of being aggressive when they first deal with conflict directly because of their lack of experience; only with time and practice do they learn how to be appropriately assertive. I roll my eyes at the irony. This woman has no idea that she’s been the clearest illustration of this phenomenon that anyone could ask for.
When the class period finally ends, I slowly exhale, packing up my things. Asian American week has been a debacle. We had only one chance to be center stage, and this deeply unlikeable professor blew it for us. I am irate at her for handling the class so poorly and embarrassed by how she’s made us look. I walk out of the classroom deflated.
I had the same feelings of trepidation when it came to watching Fresh Off the Boat, the ABC comedy that debuted earlier this year. I put off watching the first two episodes for days, nervous about how the show would portray Asian Americans. Comic and writer Jenny Yang coined a term for this: representational anxiety, or “rep sweats” for short. Rep sweats are common occurrences for minorities of all kinds when one of their own gets the spotlight: You get nervous about how they’ll represent you, about how their performance will reflect on your group as a whole. People from the majority often do not understand this anxiety, because if someone from the majority does something stupid, their stupidity tends to be attributed to themselves and not to the entire group. (For example, when a white person shoots someone, cable news commentators do not speculate about whether white people are inherently violent, as they do after a black person or a Muslim person shoots someone.) As a minority, you generally do not have the luxury of individuality; the mistakes of individual people tend to be attributed to your whole group, which is one of the many drawbacks of being a minority. This is why, for example, I cringed when the Virginia Tech shooter turned out to be Asian American, when the cop who shot Akai Gurley turned out to be Asian American, even when William Hung got so much airtime on American Idol a decade ago. We so rarely get to be in the spotlight that when we are, we don’t want it to be for something terrible.
So when I finally brought myself to watch the show — wrapped in a blanket, curled in the fetal position — I was pleasantly surprised. I laughed. I did not cringe. As the first two episodes went on, I found myself relaxing — though fearing that the other shoe could drop at any moment, I’ve waited until the end of the season to throw in my two cents.
Looking back on the season’s thirteen episodes, the show offers much to like. For one, it’s genuinely funny. As family matriarch Jessica, Constance Wu is a revelation, both on screen and off. Jessica and her husband Louis, played by Randall Park, have accents, but the accents are never the joke. The show skewers suburban white culture — and many, many facets of ‘90s culture — as much as it does Asian immigrant culture. As someone who grew up in a Taiwanese immigrant family in a predominantly white neighborhood and came of age in the thick of the O.J. Simpson trial, Tupac and Biggie, rollerblading, and the advent of grunge and dial-up internet, I find almost all of the show’s jokes to be relatable.
And that leads to the most important point: The show, for me, is immensely validating. I’ve written previously about the importance of seeing people who look like you on TV and in movies; our stories are validated when they’re told and told well. And so many things on the show reflect my experiences: The subtext of conversations between family members. The parents’ irrational superstititions. Being picked to show around new Asian students by teachers who assumed that we’d get along based solely on our appearances. The “success perm” of the fourth episode, which made me laugh out loud — there’s a name for what my mom did to my hair when I was in third grade! I didn’t know that was a thing! While the show is accessible to people of all backgrounds, so many elements of it are specific to Asian American families, and seeing those nuances captured is delightful. Watching them performed, normalized, validated for the first time in my life tickles me — and, more importantly, legitimizes my story.
All of that being said, the show has plenty of room for improvement. The season started and ended strong but seemed to lag in the middle — for me, episodes 6 through 10 lacked the freshness, for lack of a better word, of the others. That the show started to feel like it was retreading old territory in its first season was mildly concerning, as was the reversion to cheap jokes about chicken feet and exaggerated Mandarin in the finale. Randall Park’s accent is touch-and-go at best. I’m a little confused about why the writers have Louis and Jessica doing things that Asian immigrants are generally known to avoid, like kiss in public or encourage interest in the opposite sex. (Is that an attempt to make them more relatable to other groups? To make them a little more white?) I especially don’t love how one of the characters usually articulates the moral of the story at the end of each episode, because in my experience, these lessons are rarely verbalized in Asian American families. We knew that our parents wanted “more than OK” for us because they worked tirelessly and raised us to aim high, but we almost never talked about it explicitly. But maybe that’s simply the consequence of being a half-hour family comedy that, again, needs to be accessible to a wide audience.
I can also understand why Eddie Huang, who narrates the show and whose memoir the show is based on, has expressed such displeasure with how his family’s experiences have been sanitized to appeal to a mass audience. The chipper, optimistic family of the show scarcely resembles the one in his book, which is fraught with tension and abuse. Instead of attempting to illustrate the darker aspects of the real Huang family and their significant conflicts — and seriously subvert some long-standing stereotypes about Asian Americans — the show has consistently played it safe, sticking to problems like incomplete science fair projects and unrequited crushes. The pilot had flashes of promise that the show would be transgressive, even within the confines of a family sitcom — the commentary on the racial hierarchy at Eddie’s school, Eddie being called a chink — but after that first episode, the show seemed to shy away from controversy altogether.
As I write this, I recognize that the criticisms I have for the show are ones I would rarely level at others. My standard for Fresh Off the Boat is higher than the ones I have for other sitcoms because I expect it to reflect parts of my experience. I have something personal at stake here that I don’t have when I watch Parks and Recreation or Friends or 30 Rock. This is the only TV show representing an Asian American family to air in 20 years, so I desperately want the show to do it well. Fresh Off the Boat, perhaps unfairly, carries a burden that most other shows do not.
In the end, I think that it’s possible to hold all of these judgments at the same time; one can be glad that the show exists and grateful for what it accomplishes while wishing that it pushed the envelope farther, which is where I find myself at the end of this season. Though its ratings and reviews have been solid, the show’s fate remains to be seen, as ABC has yet to publicly announce whether it will be renewed for a second season. However, the network has already picked up a pilot about another Asian American family: Dr. Ken, starring Ken Jeong from Community and The Hangover. I’m hopeful about the possibility of seeing not one but two Asian American families on TV — and hopeful that the more I see people in the spotlight who look like me, the less often I’ll get the rep sweats.