Like most toddlers and teenagers, my daughters enjoy TV shows. They especially like binge watching shows on Hulu. Being a control freak and the family’s “I.T. guy”, I have enabled password access on the streaming devices around the house (Apple TV, Amazon sticks, etc.) so that the binge watching does not get out of control. Their favorite genre is cooking show. They can name all celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, Bobby Flay, etc. and their respective specialities. They rarely watch other category of TV shows. The only exception is Fresh Off The Boat, a TV sitcom about an immigrant family originally from Taiwan. In fact, they have watched the first three seasons of the show multiple times. Initially, I do not quite understand why they enjoy the show. I suspect it may be due to lack of selection on Hulu. The show’s setting was in the early 90s and the story is centered around the family’s experience with their neighbors and friends in their newly adopted home of Florida. Shaq and Jordan were the biggest basketball stars at the time. Family watched movies at home on their VCRs. The world has changed quite a bit since those innocent times.
Curious about the program, I watched several episodes with them. Fresh Off The Boat has done a good job in highlighting (and exaggerating) some common attributes in Asian families. For example, it is quite common to have a parent-in-law living in the household. Food waste is generally considered very bad table manner. Frugality is a virtue and so on. My daughters find these attributes very funny. In reality, some of these stereotypes may or may not be true. Further, one can find similar characteristics in families of other cultural background.
Perhaps, my daughters enjoy the show because it helps them find their own identities. When they laugh at the jokes, they are laughing at themselves, not a bad way to relax. Despite the increased diversity in the country, it is still uncommon to have a prime time show on a national TV channel with Chinese, or more broadly, Asian stars. One key challenge of parenting children in an immigrant family is that you need to assimilate into the culture of the new country while preserving tradition of your own. It is a balancing act that needs constant calibration. Although the show portraits the experience of Huang’s family twenty years ago, I suspect the challenge remains largely the same today. Poking fun of yourself can be helpful as it may increase your understanding of the seemingly contradictory ideals of American culture and that of your parents’ home country. To understand any culture, one must start with its language. Unfortunately, Chinese is not an easy language and it cannot be any more different than English. Taking my daughters to Chinese class on Sundays can be exhausting for them (and for us) and it is an investment with uncertain payback. The good news is that U.S. (and New York) is probably the best place for an immigrant family as it is probably one of the most diverse countries (and cities) in the world. Yet, it is still a daily challenge for families to deal with and manage these contradictions. It is also a big opportunity. Ideas from different cultures often create new ones and improve understanding. In the last thirty years, technology has eliminated the geographical border of ideas. If people of different background can live happily together in New York city, that could be a microcosm and harbinger of world peace? Globalization has created mega communities such as New York city with people and culture from around the world. It is a grand experiment we have never seen before. Our job as parents is to encourage our children to explore their identities and bridge the difference between different cultures.
Despite the current tone in Washington, I am very optimistic there are still lots of new grounds to be broken for racial relations in America. Yes, tensions are still high in some quarters but tremendous progress was made in the last 50 years. If I keep my count correct, we have at least one governor and one congresswoman of Chinese descent. That is significant progress considering Chinese was barred from immigration to the U.S. only two generations ago.
While Fresh Off The Boat is not a big hit, it is encouraging that the show is entering its fourth season. Hollywood has come a long way in portraying Asians. In the old days, they would have a Caucasian actor playing a Chinese protagonist, which is equally insulting and hilarious. In Fresh Off The Boat, the producer chose an actor of Korean descent to play a Taiwanese father. Like racial relations in the U.S., it is a big improvement but it can still do better. We are eagerly awaiting the first episode of the new season tonight.