Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Fresh Off The Boat vs. Gilmore Girls: Asian American Families

With the long-awaited premiere of Fresh Off The Boat this past week, a lot has been written about the first Asian American family to be on primetime TV since 1994, when Margaret Cho's All-American Girl infamously debuted. But I was way too young, thankfully, to know or care about All-American Girl when it first came out.

Instead, later on, I had another TV Asian American family to try to relate to: Lane Kim and her mother on Gilmore Girls. And as much as I love that show, I have to say how much I've always cringed at how the Kims were portrayed. Mother Kim, pressed to stand as the lone symbol of Asianness, alternates between antagonist and butt of joke. Consequently, Lane's character arc seems to be her quest to ward off everything that is represented as Korean in the show. And when Lane has to travel to Korea, it is treated as an unfathomable horror. Instead, what she wants to do is rock out to Dead Kennedys and touch the heads of blond-haired boys. In other words, she wants to be "American," forever divergent from "Asian," and never the twain shall meet.

Oh the joys of being Asian American. Also, where is Mr. Kim?
Not to say that these feelings are inaccurate, as it is practically a rite of passage for young Asian Americans to, at some point in our lives, feel angry at the fact that our parents need us to translate everything, or that we can't eat certain foods around our "American" friends, or that we have to go to <insert ethnicity> school and <insert ethnicity> church on the weekends. Some of us eventually learn how to reconcile our identities and some of us don't. In Gilmore Girls, there's actually a very rich and complex subplot in the later half of the first season where Lane unexpectedly falls for Henry, a Korean American classmate of Rory's. She dismisses him on-sight at first just because he too is Korean (a classic Asian American move), but to her utmost horror, she finds that she likes him despite the fact that he's what her mother would like. This says a lot about the conflicting identity issues within Lane and makes her a much more layered character.

The only problem is that this storyline is never pursued much further and just peters out, never to be examined again. Soon, it's back to the same old one-sided angle where Asian culture is this constant impediment to becoming American, where rock music and the Lorelai/Rory tag-team are both a figurative and literal refuge from having to be Asian. And it's not as though identity clash is a worthless topic that should not be explored. Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese deals with this exact same issue as well. But at the end of that story, there is a reconciliation where the protagonist finally feels comfortable enough with himself to befriend the Other Asian Kid in school whom he had previously avoided. In contrast, with Gilmore Girls, I don't know if such a comparable event happens. Culminating with her wedding (replete with her oh-so-kooky relatives from Korea), Lane seems to succeed more via escape than through reconciliation.

A painful scene from "American Born Chinese" by Gene Luen Yang

Maybe one will reflexively argue that a show like Gilmore Girls shouldn't bear these burdens: "Lorelai's parents were controlling and Taylor Doose was a nutcase too, so why can't Mrs. Kim be the same?" Sure, except the likes of Mr. and Mrs. Gilmore or Taylor haven't been absent from TV for 2 decades.

In stark contrast to Gilmore Girls, the family in Fresh Off The Boat is tight-knit and loving, despite their peculiarities. At the end of the pilot, the Huangs have expressed the utmost solidarity for each other and they proudly walk off together with the vow that they'll always look out for one another. In his book and in his public talks, Eddie Huang heavily emphasizes that singular moment when he first brought his traditional Chinese lunch to school and the embarrassment he suffered. But instead of adapting himself to become more "American"—like, for example, learning to make a better hamburger or creating some East-West fusion cuisine—he learns to unapologetically embrace his "stinky" lunch. And now, well, the joke's on his bullies because everybody loves that food now.

One may argue that Eddie's love of hip-hop is the same thing as Lane's love of rock. But the key difference is that hip-hop is never presented as the antithesis to Eddie's Asian Americanness. In fact, his parents even sometimes gamely try to adopt some of his lingo. More importantly, the whole reason Eddie becomes enamored with hip-hop is that it's his only means of articulating what it's like to be Asian American, which is to say, to be non-White. In contrast, Lane's passion for rock is pitted against her Asian American identity as an incompatible force, as her way of expressing how she's not like all those other Asians who exist in her world. Whereas Eddie's exuberance for hip-hop is his way of asserting his unique racial identity, Lane's affinity for rock just ends up neatly fitting her in the pre-existing mold of Lorelai.

The Huangs are going to do it their way

Eddie Huang has railed against how ABC has bowdlerized his life story. And yes, I too would like to see the HBO version with the Psycho Gangster Dad from real life. But this family-friendly version of his life story also presents something that I've never seen in American pop culture before: a warm and loving Asian American family. No abusive parents, no maudlin story of having to sell body parts to escape from Asia, no loveless marriage because Asians can't be romantic... This is all the more galling when you consider the fact that Asian Americans are stereotypically thought of as the Model Minority with strong "family values." I guess not in TV-land. It wasn't until Lost that we saw that rare depiction of an Asian couple in a complex relationship. Fresh Off The Boat goes one step further by giving such a couple a family of their own. This is a huge step forward.

And in the end, it is those seemingly incongruous aspects—the Defiantly Asian element wrapped up in a Wholesome Asian family—that are so refreshingly powerful and resonant in Fresh Off The Boat. No longer is your Asian American family something you have to overcome or escape from. Instead, they're the ones who'll have your back as you teach all the fools to appreciate your "stinky" lunch.