Progress can feel both glacially slow and lightning quick at the same time. In 2015, when ABC premiered Fresh Off the Boat, it was the first network show with an Asian American cast since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl premiered in 1994. Now six seasons later, the longest running sitcom about an Asian American family in television history will come to an end in February after 116 episodes.
ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke said of the show: “We couldn’t be prouder of this game-changing show and the impact it has had on our cultural landscape.” It was an impact that deserves its due.
I grew up in Southern California, infatuated with Hollywood. That was fitting, considering my mom named me after actor Cary Grant. She and I bonded over movies and TV. For an immigrant who came to this country with little family and no friends, movies often provided a respite for my mom’s transition to a new world despite the language barrier. It was a joy she loved sharing with me. That’s the power of film. But for all the content we consumed, we rarely had the chance to watch vivid, complex characters who looked like us.
When I was in kindergarten, Top Gun came out and my friend and I were on the jungle gym pretending to be Maverick and Iceman. I distinctly remember not even considering being Maverick because I thought there was no way I could possibly be the most important person in a story. Even if it was my own. I didn’t look the part. People like me never looked the part. Maybe, just maybe, I could be the main character’s friend.
I remember acting out imaginary movies in my house, pretending to be the blond, white hero, because that seemed like a better reality. I didn’t see any American-born Asian man without a heavy accent living his best life on-screen. It’s so clichéd and I roll my eyes as I write this — but that’s why representation matters. It’s not an affront to the status quo, it’s just a minority voice that says, “I also exist.”
In Netflix’s new film, Dolemite is My Name, the Lady Reed character (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) says: “I’m so grateful for you putting me in this movie because I ain’t never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen.” It’s a common sentiment among minorities. Randall Park, one of the stars of Fresh Off the Boat, posted on Instagram about the show’s cancellation: “When I first started in this business … I would’ve been completely happy to be a funny neighbor or snarky co-worker. At the time, those were the kinds of roles that were available for folks like me.”
Actor Ken Jeong recently tweeted: “If it wasn’t for #FreshOffTheBoat there would be no #DrKen or #CrazyRichAsians.” Fresh Off the Boat set the course for what could be for Asian American representation, while Crazy Rich Asians, the highest grossing romcom in the last decade, sprinted away with the baton. Since Crazy Rich Asians, which stars Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu, studios are suddenly interested in Asian American stories, including Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe with Randall Park and comedian Ali Wong, a former writer on Fresh Off the Boat.
By no means is Fresh Off the Boat a perfect show. Loosely based on chef/author/long-suffering Knicks fan Eddie Huang’s memoir, the show’s ratings have been in steady decline and even Wu voiced frustration when the show was last renewed. But I will always remember the first episode of its third season, which encapsulated the first-generation immigrant experience in a way I’d never seen before. In the Coming to America episode, the Huang family visits Taiwan, where they emigrated from. While there, they realize they’ve changed and Taiwan is no longer the comforting home it once was. But when they are in America, they have no family, stick out as the only Asian Americans in their white suburban neighborhood and never truly fit in because of their appearance and traditions. At this point, the father character (Park) says: “We are Patrick Swayze in Ghost — stuck between two worlds, part of both, belonging to neither.”
That episode explained and made relatable in one sentence a tough experience to describe: the in-betweenness of immigrant life. That’s not just applicable to Asians, but to everyone — Latino, African, European, etc. How do you connect to your root country if you’ve never been there? How do you wholly embrace America, when America doesn’t always embrace you back? Where do I belong if I’m always proving or defending my right to be here?
Like any content featuring minorities, Fresh Off the Boat doesn’t represent the entire Asian American diaspora, but I sure could relate to a helluva lot of it. It helped usher Asian American faces into the limelight, share some of our culture and dispel stereotypes. And it just might help some little Asian kids struggling with their identity to believe they don’t have to be Iceman in their own life story. They, too, can be Maverick.