On the new ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” young Eddie is played by Hudson Yang, an amiable 11-year-old with an air of preternatural chill.
In the memoir the show is based on, by rowdy, bawdy chef Eddie Huangbook, the boy is a bit of a rabble-rouser. But on the show, he’s a fast-learning fish out of water with a gift for comic self-presentation.
At home, Hudson is part of a different legacy. His father, Jeff Yang, now a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, was one of the most prominent Asian-American cultural critics of the 1990s and a founder of A. Magazine, a glossy title highlighting influential Asian-Americans that aimed to capture an underdocumented cultural moment and to meaningfully brand Asian-American cool.
Scarfing down some after-school pizza with his father one recent day on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Hudson did not appear to be in the least frazzled about his place at the crossroads of decades of Asian-American cultural politics. He had recently returned to school after three months in California shooting the show’s first season, and he had pre-algebra and the Indian subcontinent on his mind.
“I don’t think the grades are gonna be very good, Daddy,” he said with aw-shucks mischief.
Still, Jeff Yang said, Hudson understands the big picture: “He’s aware of the enterprise, if you will, and how different the enterprise that I was engaged in and grew up on is from the one he lives with.”
It shouldn’t be, but even in 2015, it’s striking to have an Asian-American family at the core of a network sitcom. The last time that happened, it was 1994, and Margaret Cho, then a rising comic, was the star of “All-American Girl,” also on ABC, which focused on a Korean-American family. It did poorly, getting canceled after one season. And not quite wittingly, Yang had a hand in its demise.
At the time, he was the television critic for The Village Voice, where he wrote an anguished but firmly negative review of the show: “The situation is humdrum — 20-something slack-queen clashes symbols with her loving but hopelessly trad family. The writing is awful, larded with stereotypes and dusty gags from ‘Full House’s’ cutting-room floor.”
At the time there were not many Asian-American television critics, and Yang’s piece landed hard. Cho called him up and chewed him out, telling him that the network would use it to argue that “not even the community was behind this show.” (She also addressed the demise in her one-woman stand-up show “I’m the One That I Want.”)
Yang stopped short of regret for what he wrote but noted, “I don’t think anybody thought back then that we’d have 20 years of wandering in the desert.”
So much time has passed that drawing direct comparisons between the two shows isn’t particularly useful. In terms of how they represent the Asian-American experience, they couldn’t be more different in perspective and scope, even down to the titles, a sugarcoated wink as opposed to a repurposed term of insult.
The deeply neutered “All-American Girl,” in effect “apologized for the Asianness of this family,” Yang said, by filtering it through the lens of traditional white sitcom values. On “Fresh Off the Boat,” about an immigrant family of Taiwanese descent making its way in white America with varying degrees of success, it’s the white perspective that’s foreign.
It is also a memoir about falling under the spell of hip-hop at a time when, for an outsider, that could feel like a more or less solitary pursuit.
Both series in their own ways have underscored tensions about how Asian-Americans can be represented in the mainstream. And both arrived with similar stakes: Whether designed to be a universally relatable representation or birthed from one person’s singular vision, it was the only one in sight.
“It freaks me out that if it doesn’t work for some reason, it’ll be another 20-year drought,” said Melvin Mar, one of the executive producers of “Fresh Off the Boat,” who said he had read countless scripts by Asian-Americans in search of one he wanted to produce.
“You have to remember we’re not making a show just for Asian-Americans, we’re making a show through the Asian-American point of view for everybody,” he continued. “We work on the Fox lot, so everything is compared to ‘Modern Family,’ so it became, ‘We want to be the Chinese Steve Levitan!’” (Levitan is a creator of that sitcom.)
But there is a boldness to “Fresh off the Boat” that “Modern Family” has largely let fizzle in recent seasons. As Eddie, Hudson moves with a casual swagger, the sort of kid who’s convinced that he’s older and smoother than he actually is but almost pulls it off. In one episode, he has someone deliver a pack of Skittles to a young white woman he has a crush on. Then he gives her a nod and shouts: “Go on, girl! Taste the rainbow!”
It isn’t lost on Yang that his son is playing the role of the person who is almost single-handedly rewriting — or undermining — the narrative of his own critical work.
“It’s amazing the degree to which Eddie makes me feel like the establishment,” he said. “He lacks that whole desire to defer that Asian culture tends to inculcate in us. In being defiantly Asian-American, he has been redefining what it means to be Asian-American.”
For Huang, who has made sport of radical transparency and whose taste for truth has closed almost as many doors as it opened, this path wasn’t exactly intentional.
“I do have a strategy,” he conceded, “but it was to subvert everything anyone knew about Asian America.”
When he was young, Huang said, A. Magazine and its more upwardly mobile Asian-American aspiration was not on his radar. “My mom would literally drive me to the Blockbuster so I could read The Source,” he said.
In writing his book, he went out of his way “not to just write about being Asian — my experience was bigger than that. We have solidarity as people of color in this country. I never wanted to be a union scab.”
And so his entree into the mainstream came not through assimilation into white mainstream America, but through a side door: an embrace of black culture as a lingua franca of outsiderness. In the pilot, the young Eddie is rejected in the lunchroom until a blond boy sees his Biggie Smalls T-shirt and invites him over, prompting the one black child in the cafeteria to exclaim, “A white dude and an Asian dude bonding over a black dude — this cafeteria’s ridiculous!”
Some moments in the show, like the one in the pilot in which young Eddie is called a racial epithet, are drawn more or less directly from Huang’s memoir. Others, like the above, are fabrications. Huang has been vocal in opposition to some of the differences between the show and his book. But producers and writers were, broadly speaking, true to his story of cross-racial solidarity.
“The new generation of people, I think, are ready for this show,” Hudson said. “My friends are not racist in any way.”
Before joining the cast, Hudson had only one credit, a small part in an independent film. He had originally auditioned for the role of the middle brother, but Huang responded enthusiastically to his tape. “He was a really cool kid, irreverent, and he didn’t care,” he said.
He was cast despite his limited experience, and at the first full table read, Hudson, not acclimated to the professional setting, was visibly restless, worrying executives. But despite the hiccups, his father said, “I had this feeling that I was at the ringside of history in the making.” He likened the experience to attending the first Obama inauguration in 2008.
That this milestone came through someone whose identity battles were very different from his own does not faze Yang. “For those of us in the community covering the community, things always seem to be changing, then we step on that rake that tells us, ‘Not yet, not now,’” he said.
Witnessing Huang’s success, he said, was “something incredibly aspirational, on some level, to those of us who have one foot in and one foot out.”
Huang’s show, his memoir, the way his life has unfolded — “it isn’t even intentionally against” the vision of Asian America that Yang spent so much time building, he said.
“I just wasn’t aware,” Huang added. “I was shamed for a long time for not being Asian enough. Everyone called me ‘rotten banana’; everyone gave me a hard time.”
He wants Hudson to wave his own flag, even if it means gradually erasing traces of the memoirist from a show based on his life.
“I try to tell him, ‘Don’t worry about being me,’” Huang said, adding, “at some point, you have to transcend race and be an individual.”
WHERE TO WATCH
“Fresh Off the Boat” premieres with two episodes at 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. Wednesday on ABC (with “Modern Family” in between). Next week, the show will switch to its regular time slot, 7 p.m. Tuesdays.