TV & Movies

Fresh off the Boat Paved the Way For Asian Representation—and Changed How I See Myself

The show, which airs its final episode in February, made me feel seen as an East Asian woman

fresh off the boat finale: the cast of Fresh off the Boat are pictured in a still from the show

(Photo: Getty Images)

I was six years old when Disney’s Mulan came out. The first time I watched the film, I was in awe: Here was a character who was honourable, courageous and willing to do anything for her family. But most of all, I loved the film because its lead character looked like me. When the VHS came out, I watched it 36 more times that year, and its status as my favourite film was cemented. After all, it was one of the few Asian representations in media I had growing up.

That is, until Fresh off the Boat came into my life in 2015. 

The ABC sitcom, loosely based on the life of chef and food personality Eddie Huang (who is also an executive producer on the show), was the first U.S. television sitcom featuring an Asian-American family to air on network primetime since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl in 1994. As I was only two at that time, I was not old enough to appreciate Cho’s work. That’s why, at the age of 23, watching Fresh off the Boat was revelatory for me. 

The show follows a Taiwanese-American family who move from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Fla., to open a restaurant. Following the move, the family struggle with the cultural differences that separate them from their white neighbours.

For me, what makes FOTB great is the fact that it reminds me so much of my own family. In the 1980s, my parents emigrated from Hong Kong to Toronto for work opportunities, and growing up in an immigrant household was not always easy. Going to a school where I was one of only three Chinese kids in my class made me realize that my home life was not like everyone else’s. 

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I thought my parents were strict. They enrolled me in Chinese school and math class on the weekends, and I had English and French tutoring every Wednesday evening. Meanwhile, my peers would get to enjoy their weekends and school nights by watching TV, playing sports or hanging out at the mall. 

The predominantly white families I saw on TV reinforced the fact that my life was not like everyone else’s. It’s the reason I always rooted for the secondary Asian characters I saw in mainstream media, even if they were portrayed as “nerdy” or “uncool.” The truth is, I had no idea how much I craved Asian representation in media until I saw FOTB. And, thankfully, the show arrived when I needed it most. 

In 2015, I had just moved to Saskatchewan for my very first journalism job at a major broadcasting company. Living in a province with very few Asian people, I was lonely and experiencing culture shock. It was hard to find a place to shop for Chinese groceries and find friends to eat dim sum with. But, most of all, I missed my mother’s cooking, hearing Cantonese at my local mall and spending time with my family. 

I had no car so often stayed at home watching TV. One of my regular shows was FOTB, and I quickly became attached to it because it reminded me of my life in Toronto. Even now that I’m back in my home city, I feel connected to the characters. 

Like my mother, the matriarch, Jessica Huang (Constance Wu), rules the home with her no-nonsense, pragmatic approach to parenting and pushes her kids to do their best. She loves her children fiercely, even if her tough-love approach to parenting seems strict. In many ways, this character reminds me of my own mother. Louis Huang (Randall Park) shares some similarities with my father. Mild-mannered, gentle and hard-working, Louis will do anything for his family, much like my dad, who always made time for me and my sister, even after a long day of work. 

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Meanwhile, I found myself identifying with the main protagonist, Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang), a hip-hop loving teen who eschews his Taiwanese heritage. Like Eddie, I religiously watched music videos after school and fantasized about the day I’d become rich and famous like the stars I saw on TV. Since no one I idolized looked like me, I too, tried to act less Chinese.

The sitcom touches on a lot of little details of life that I can relate to. In season three, Eddie and his brother Evan (Ian Chen) discover that the “dish rack” at their house is actually a dishwasher. My family, who does the same thing, doesn’t use the dishwasher because they believe it wastes water. To this day, I continue to wash all my dishes by hand. 

In another episode, Eddie discovers he has “Asian flush,” a condition many East Asians describe being plagued by that causes red splotches to develop on the face and body after drinking alcohol. As someone who is also inflicted by this reaction from drinking alcohol, seeing it mentioned as a storyline on TV made me feel that I was not alone. 

The show has also taken on serious topics like the microaggressions that minority groups face regularly in their daily intereactions. In the first season, Eddie is made fun of for bringing Chinese noodles to school, because the dish looks like “worms.” He then begs his mother to buy him “white people lunch,” aka Lunchables. When I saw that, I instantly related to the character because I too asked my mother not to pack me Asian food for lunch when I was in school because I was afraid I would be made fun of.  While this seems like a small issue in the grand scheme, this situation is a struggle many children of immigrants face—they’re teased for their food that’s deemed “smelly” and “gross.”

There were also more serious scenes that touched on outright racism. In one instance, Eddie gets into a fight at school after a kid calls him a “chink.” Watching that scene, I felt sad and could relate—during my elementary school days, I too was called a “chink” as a joke. 

Ultimately, the show also taught me the importance of being proud of one’s identity. Matriarch Jessica constantly reminds her children to be proud of their Taiwanese heritage. My mother, a Chinese-school teacher, also raised me and my sister to be in touch with our roots. At home, we would speak Cantonese to each other, celebrate the Lunar New Year and eat moon cake during the Mid-Autumn Festival. I didn’t always embrace these traditions, but having lived in places where there are very few Asians, I now fiercely hold onto them. 

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FOTB is set to air its series finale on February 21 after six seasons, and I’m going to miss it—not only because it is groundbreaking but because it made me feel seen as an East Asian woman. 

It paved the way for shows like Kim’s Convenience and films like Crazy Rich Asians, Always Be My Maybe and The Farewell. And we probably wouldn’t have the upcoming Shang-chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel’s first superhero movie with an Asian protagonist (played by Canadian Simu Liu) if not for FOTB.

Fresh off the Boat helped show Asians that we can be anything we want to be—whether it’s a superhero, romantic lead or a “crazy rich Asian”—and this gives me optimism for the future.

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