Monday, February 16, 2015

Fresh Off the Boat, and Being Your Own Self

We are four episodes in with the historic television show, Fresh Off the Boat. Among the many reviews and essays that revolved around the show, the best read in TK's mind was this piece by Clarissa Wei:
I grew up resenting my parents for all of the above because it was far different from the childhoods I saw and devoured on television. I thought my parents were crazy; that my mom was neurotic and my dad was overly obsessed with American symbolism. And while I had a vague sense that other Asian-American families had similar experiences, I had no idea just how similar the experiences were. There were no reference points.

. . .

Yes, every Asian-American childhood is different, and Fresh Off the Boat is only based off of one Asian-American family. But I relate to it far more than any other television show I have ever seen in my life. For once I have something to identity with. 
Asian-American kids desperately need shows like Fresh Off the Boat as reference points. The small details matter. Watching Jessica eat an apple off of her knife, seeing Louis hire white actors for a commercial, seeing Eddie being taunted for eating noodles in school, and watching the Huang family encounter casually racist remarks by folks in the community — all this was like watching a montage of my own childhood.
"Fresh Off The Boat" Made Me Realize My Parents Aren’t Crazy [XO Jane]

This observation dovetails into a topic that TK has been mulling over for some time: growing up as an Asian American. This topic is interesting partly because it is an experience that TK has never fully had, because he immigrated to the U.S. as a 16 year old. Yet sooner or later, TK and TKWife will have their very own TKDaughter or TKSon, which adds urgency to this topic.

Having spent a lot of time studying and listening to stories of many different Asian Americans, one conclusion I made is: it is critical for an Asian American child to grow up feeling normal. Children may not be able to verbalize everything they sense, but they nonetheless keenly sense whether they are different from other children, and whether their family is different from other family. If everyone a child sees is different from her, she ends up defining herself through the difference rather than through who she is.

Of course, this is not always the case. Even under adverse situations, certain people with extra special mental strength manage to imbue their own agency in their identity. (One such example could be Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank. Growing up in rural Iowa where he belonged to one of  two Asian families in the town, Kim graduated his high school as the valedictorian, class president and the quarterback for the football team.) But with most children, being surrounded completely by people who are different from them is a difficult challenge in the course of identity formation. It is hard not to let the difference define you. You become the shadow, rather than the thing itself.

Although TK cannot exactly prove this empirically, he is certain that this is the ultimate cause of the subtle difference in attitude between the Asian Americans in/from the West Coast versus Asian Americans elsewhere. There is no good way to characterize a large group of people in a very fine-tuned manner, so I will state it crudely:  West Coast Asians, on the whole, exhibit significantly less angst about their Asian-ness. Having been surrounded by enough Asians throughout their lives, they never had the need to justify their Asian-ness. Not so with Asian Americans from elsewhere, like young Eddie Huang from Orlando. There is a reason why Huang so loudly proclaims his ethnic identity, while Roy Choi--a chef like Huang, but from Los Angeles--quietly, but confidently, mixes Korean and Mexican.

West Coast Asian Americans certainly live as racial minority in America. But in their day-to-day lives, they do not constantly experience that minority-ness. The minority experience is an unending, tiresome struggle to justify one's being. And there is only one way to prevent this struggle from being the essence of your identity: around a child, there needs to be a critical mass of Asian American families that serve as a reliable sample of the humanity, such that the child's family is not the only example of what being an Asian means. Without the critical mass that demonstrates Asian Americans' essential humanity, the Asian American identity will always be a kind of an add-on that is grafted onto what is "normal," i.e. white. 

As Wei's essay ably shows, it is difficult for a child not to be shamed by the difference. Some children respond to this by pretending that the add-on does not exist; some respond by feeling excess shame or excess pride on this add-on. (Thus creating the three archetypes: "twinkie," "self-loather" and "AZN Pride".) But as long as the Asian American identity is considered an add-on rather than an integrated part of normalcy, an Asian American child is never at ease.

(I cannot even begin the grasp the experience of Asian American adoptees, most of whom experience the difference within the family, as they are growing up. I have quite a distance to cover, and I am not far enough along my journey to talk about that topic just yet.)

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  1. As a formerly self loathing Korean American born and raised in the suburbs of Boston, it was quite a culture shock when I moved to LA. Other Asians didn't seem to get my self deprecating humor or neuroses. They seemed to have little of the racial identity issues that my East Coast friends and I had. The first LA party I ever went to had probably about 30 Korean and Chinese American kids, all from up and down the West Coast. I was amazed at how...normal they were. Some of the guys were jocks, most were bros of varying degrees. A lot of them were involved with the entertainment industry. That party crystallized for me the point TK makes in this article -- they were comfortable in their own shoes, because they had always been surrounded by their own.

  2. I feel like "West Coast Asians" really only applies to SF Bay Area and LA Asian Americans. I originally hail from the Pacific Northwest and where there are some of us up there, when I was in high school, I could count all of them in my school on my two hands. Vancouver, BC, is probably the only exception, but then we're talking about Asian Candians. And, yeah, as a result, I definitely had some major identity issues that didn't start to resolve until college. Also, I think NYC/Northern New Jersey might also bear a similarity to the SF Bay/LA Asian Americans as many Asian Americans I met from that area seemed to have gone to schools and lived in neighborhoods with a high concentration of Asian Americans too.

  3. I agree with the assessment that the Asian folks from the West are more comfortable in their own skin, compared to Asian folks from other parts of the U.S. I was born and raised in Philadelphia and I used to be a real bully back in high school, which I now realize was due to my insecurities of ever being perceived as a "typical" Asian kid. Like Eddie Huang I embraced rap culture (Straight Outta Compton changed my life) and did everything I could do to not gain the reputation of being good at the violin, spends all day Sunday in Church, gets good grades, well-behaved, etc. I grew up in a time where normal was defined by Molly Ringwald movies, and the only Asian characters portrayed were wusses and where "white was right"... perhaps born a decade too late, to benefit from a time where Bruce Lee was one of the coolest people in America and white kids used to hang his poster in their bedrooms.

    I think my childhood experiences only made me stronger/adaptable as an adult, but realize I would have carried a lot less resistance to be viewed as a "typical" Asian kid, and just be comfortable being myself, if I grew up around many other Asian/Korean kids. The whole state of Pennsylvania itself is a pretty racist state, so that didn't help the situation either, finding myself always getting into fights for being called a chink or being told to go back to China. The racial differences really hit home when as an adult my brother moved to the Bay Area for work. On our first phone conversation after his move I remember him saying to me "even the parking attendants out here are Asian!".

    Huang's book is great, but I think the TV show is a travesty (only after watching the first two episodes, to be completely honest). True it's nice because it is the ONLY TV show in the U.S. that is about Asian folks, but it's like having a Panda Express be your only Asian food alternative in your area. Sometimes its not any better than if it wasn't there. Rather than celebrating having ONE show that features an Asian family (the first one in 20 yrs, mind you) the bigger commentary should be about why there aren't more shows (other than Walking Dead and Hawaii 5.0) that doesn't feature meaningful Asian characters. Hopefully things with FOB will turn around, and I just hope the ABC executives have the patience, or the show generates the ratings, to give it time to happen.

    By the way, below is a link to a good Op-Ed written by Huang right before the pilot aired. The best part are the reader comments. Real haters out there, and I think a lot has to do with the reader's perspective, which could have very well been shaped by where they grew up (ie Orlando vs. LA).

    1. Funny you mention not being impressed after watching the first two episodes. I downloaded all four episodes and watched them all in one shot. However, I almost stopped after watching the first two ... because I just wasn't at all impressed and was thinking this show doesn't have an ice cube's chance in hell of making past the first season. But I didn't have anything else better to do and started watching episode three and then watch episode four. And after watching those last two episodes, I had changed my mind a bit. It actually got better and more engaging.

      The show kind of reminds me of "The Wonder Years." Except instead of it being a white kid growing up in the late sixties, it's an Asian-American kid growing up in the '90s.

      Only time will tell if the show catches on. Its chances are still slim IMO, but if people will just sit down and watch it and get into the story lines and the human struggle aspects that it portrays - it might make it.

  4. Yes, media representation matters so much. It's quite telling that the same people (usually from the dominant group in society) who downplay complaints about lack of representation and say "It's just a movie/TV show!" or "Race shouldn't matter, only the story and characters!" are the same people who blow a fuse because Heimdall is Black or the new Ghostbusters are women or because Hollywood is now "pandering" to women/minorities. Hell, there was even a news on Fox about how "Frozen" could be anti-White male because it didn't have a White guy as the hero:

    The whole accusations against "pandering" is hilarious because whenever I've had debates about the lack of women and minorities in the media, most apologists/defenders will cite The Market as the reason: "It's not racism, just economics!" But now that Hollywood and the media industry are realizing that diversity sells, suddenly the market shouldn't be relied upon anymore? Blatant hypocrisy at its finest.

    1. Yes, definitely. These same people who FREAK OUT when they learn that a black actor has been cast as the Human Torch are totally okay when Hollywood decides to whitewash roles that otherwise would have gone to minority actors, because of "economics/the market," of course.

      However, with TV networks now making more of an effort to represent different demographics onscreen, I think I may have gotten a little greedy. In the past, I would have been like, "black spider man, sure," but after seeing Scandal and more roles written as minority characters, I'm just not that interested in supporting cross-racial casting anymore. Having roles written as minority characters is just so much better than casting a minority actor in a white role. It's not just representation onscreen that matters, but also representation in the writer's room and on the production side where the creative decisions are made. In my mind, Olivia Pope is in many ways a black superheroine without the elaborate costumes and superpowers, and it's different than just casting a black actor as Peter Parker. There is a lot of powerful subtext there that would not exist in a role written for someone white. I mean if the Hollywood execs just suddenly decided to cast an Asian actor as Batman, it still feels weird and off, right?

  5. First of all - CONGRATULATIONS!!!! I hope you will have a healthy and wonderful baby that, I believe, will grow up into a wonderful adult someday sooner than you'll know. ^_- (eheheh, sounds like I'm some kind of experienced mom. Nope. I'm an aunt. Second-hand parenting isn't quite the same thing as actual parenting, anyway.... still, congratulations)

    Now, being a European living in Korea, although my boyfriend and I don't plan to have children yet (at least not before I graduate university and start earning money), sometimes the same thought strikes my head every now and then. If we someday have children, they will be different no matter what country we end up living in.

    Wish you the best of luck! To you, your wife and your adorable incomming children.

  6. TK, I think this post hits the nail on the head as to why I was able to relate to Wesley Yang's Paper Tiger article and you were not. It was rough growing up on the East Coast in the early 80s as an immigrant. Even now, it is very visible who holds the power on Wall Street where I work -- old, white men.

    We are the only Asian family at our country club. While I am fine bringing my family to golf outings and dinner, I am always aware of not bringing too many of my Asian friends at once lest these white people get paranoid about Asians taking over the club. I have always been proud of my Korean heritage even when racial slurs were thrown at me but there is this awareness now of how I may be perceived by being Asian. Once, a Jewish law firm partner made a jab at me for eating Chinese food for breakfast. I retorted back, "what do you think Chinese people eat for breakfast?" He said touché and walked away. You get a lot of that on the East Coast.


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