Asian America let out a collective sigh of relief last week after the double-episode premiere of Fresh Off the Boat aired on ABC. The title alone had been enough to cause worry: Would this be another vehicle for tired stereotypes and lazy jokes?
My two sons, 15 and 13, spent the evening with me (and my computer, as #FreshOfftheBoat trended nationwide) to watch the first primetime sitcom in more than two decades featuring an Asian American family.
The show isn’t perfect. Critics note the actors’ accents, the depiction of the “Tiger Mother” against the emasculated Asian male, and the use of the word “chink” in the pilot. Despite these concerns, we see an Asian American cast addressing everyday experiences specific to minority families in the US. Given the absence of such stories from mainstream entertainment, how could this perspective be a trope?
While most new network shows, especially those premiering mid-season, fall below the radar, Fresh Off the Boat has been scrutinized by the media and by Asian American viewers. As The Atlantic wrote, while the Asian American community represents great diversity, we’re all looking for aspects of the show that’ll resonate with us:
It needs to be universal enough to avoid alienating non-Asian-Americans, but specific enough to avoid feeling like a neutered and defanged version of the multivalent, complicated Asian American "experience." It also has to be really funny. But not offensive.
Away from the grown-up analysis, I could tell from my teenage sons that the show had achieved that. Our viewing was peppered with their comments, abbreviated stories, and laughter as they watched 11-year-old Eddie Huang and his family move from Washington D.C.’s Chinatown to Orlando in the ‘90s to live out a version of the American Dream.
Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, my sons have never worn tear-away pants or gold chains to emulate rap culture, as the lead character does. (The show is inspired by the childhood of real-life Eddie Huang, a Taiwanese American who went on to become a restaurateur.) Still, these Midwest-born boys recalled stories of awkward school lunches of seaweed soup, racial slurs, and the realization that they were the only or one of few Asian Americans in school.
They had never seen those issues covered on television from their vantage point. Despite the critical failure of Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, the last network sitcom to feature an Asian American family, I remember watching the pilot in the ‘90s with similar amazement. I had never thought of my family passing as an all-American family, and there in the kitchen of that television family was something that made sense to me: an electric rice cooker.
My children consume a lot of media, and when I asked them why they had enjoyed the show so much their response surprised even me: “The Asians. They are like us.” For a country that often claims it has overcome race, their response reveals another truth. We are comfortable with whiteness, and uncomfortable and sometimes unwilling to acknowledge the difficulties in navigating racial differences, prejudice, and injustice.
Neither colorblind nor post-racial, our Anglo-dominant culture allows for variety based on levels of assimilation. Hollywood and mainstream media is an easy target: This year there were no nominations for an Academy Award for a single actor of color with headlines declaring the Oscars haven’t been this white in 19 years.
But as Christians we must be careful not to dismiss the push for diversity in the face of increased whiteness in media as a trend irrelevant to the life of the church. Hollywood and mainstream media is taking notice of the buying power of Christians with recent films aimed at us such as Exodus: Gods and Kings, God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is For Real, and Left Behind. Pushback on the casting of white actors to lead Exodus revealed that many Christians were more concerned with biblical accuracy to story only when it comes to the narrative rather than racial or ethnic accuracy in a story involving slavery, power, and God’s revelation.
Christian media is not exempt from scrutiny in its efforts (or lack thereof) to reflect the diversity of the kingdom of God. Take a look at who writes Bible study curriculum or leads influential churches; the images in Sunday school materials and videos we show to children; the bylines in Christian magazines and bookcovers. Yes, there are exceptions. Not all churches use materials only written by white Christians. Not all churches use images of Jesus or Mary or Joseph with blond hair and blue eyes. However, many do, and as a Christian it is difficult to see that Christian media and culture is not all that different from mainstream media and culture. We just tend to use spiritual, biblical phrasing.
We even use the Bible to remind people that race doesn’t matter: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-28, TNIV).
But that passage is not meant to erase race or ethnicity any more than it removes gender. Christians have not been quick enough to use these verses to free slaves or grant equal status to all human beings, but we have misused it to tell people our race does not matter. It does. As people created imago Dei, in God’s image, our gender, race, and ethnicity reflect our Triune God.
No one person or gender or race has the full image, but brought together in Christ what a full picture that is. Paul is writing to the Galatians a reminder of how only Christ can unify people who have different perspectives, different experiences, and different power dynamics. Christ does not erase the differences. He brings people with differences too great for culture to overcome and brings healing and unity in a way no one else can.
And so I am excited about Fresh Off the Boat if for no other reason than it has created another opportunity for people to engage and to see another part of imago Dei. When part of God’s whole image is erased and invisible from our experience, we miss out and have an imperfect, incomplete experience of unity.
It may just be a television show, but it is a step that allows a new narrative and perspective to be told and to be shared. It is another part of the whole. You may not understand some of the humor. You might feel like you need permission to laugh. You might not understand some of the things you see or hear. But I hope you will opt in.
Kathy Khang is a writer and speaker, tackling everyday life and faith through the lens of a Christian, Asian American, married mother of three. Kathy blogs at www.morethanservingtea.wordpress.com and tweets as @mskathykhang.
Fresh Off the Boat airs on ABC Tuesday nights, 8/7c.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more