Eddie Huang makes waves with ABC’s new show Fresh Off The Boat
Eddie Huang is remixing the American dream. The celebrity chef has turned his 2013 best-selling manifesto into ABC’s new series Fresh Off The Boat, the first show in over two decades to spotlight an Asian-American family since Margaret Cho’s 1994 All American Girl. On the small screen, Lil’ Eddie (played by Hudson Yang) is in search for self while growing up in Orlando with his Taiwanese family. From coping with cafeteria drama over smelly lunches to an intense mom constantly on report card-watch, F.O.B. resonates with a demographic that is rarely heard or seen. Before opening night (Feb. 4), the self-proclaimed Chinkstronaut told VIBE the network version won’t mirror the pages. “It’s never going to be the book,” he says of Fresh Off The Boat. “The show is incredible but you have to understand the show has a different purpose than the book. We do it for a reason, to get people excited and curious about Asian America. ABC’s a huge platform so inevitably the things I wrote in the book are going to be not just family-friendly, but dominant culture-friendly. It’s like Mary Poppins. The book is the medicine and the show is the sugar. Hopefully, together, America will accept and listen to this story.” While Huang’s tale during the two-episode premiere resonated on Twitter (the hashtag #FreshOffTheBoat trended for four hours), it’s the immigrant experience in America he’s trying to make real-er. “I just try to explain this immigrant experience, how we’re psychologically homeless in a way. I’m not trying to appropriate the word ‘homeless.’ We don’t have a brick and mortar presence, so to speak. We have a lot of cultural things in our mind, but you can’t say ‘This is my home’ or ‘That is my home,’ so you’re in the middle. You’re neither.” Even as a little boy well-versed in hip-hop and sports lexicon, Eddie lived on his own terms, often challenging his parents, teachers and societal norms. Still, it was his fiery personality and unique perspective on life that made him a standout success. Besides running Baohaus, he has clocked in time as producer and host of Vice’s Huang’s World, is a former TED fellow, an ex-lawyer and founder of the now-defunct Hoodman clothing label. Here, Eddie lets it rip on racism, growing up in ‘Murica, ABC’s new show and more.—Adelle Platon (@adelleplaton)
Cast of Fresh Off The Boat (Photo Credit: ABC)
When were you first aware that you were Asian? Eddie Huang: (Laughs) That’s a really good question. It’s very funny because people usually ask me, ‘When did you realize you had a relationship to black culture?’ Especially with Asian people, they find it very interesting how I grew up on and am very informed by black culture just as much as I am Asian, American and other American culture. But the first time I figured [I was Asian] was when I was five-years-old in the grocery store. I would bruise fruit and my mom would slap me. I always saw the other white kids, who could literally walk by the apples and oranges and throw them on the floor and their parents are like ‘Go away. It’s fine.’ But I would see black parents hit their kids in the produce section and I was like, ‘I must have something in common with these people because their moms are doing the same thing to us.’ I saw it as I grew up with Middle Eastern and Indian kids and I think experiences like that made me realize I was different like a lot of people, but specifically Chinese. I actually don’t remember not being aware of it. Would you say those experiences in school or the supermarket made you realize there’s a difference among races? Yeah, absolutely. The grocery store was one of the first places I realized there was a lot of differences between races. As a kid, you notice a lot of these little mundane things that parents may gloss over and forget. Most of my writing comes from these childhood experiences, looking at things where I didn’t really understand how the world worked but I could see examples. As I grew up, I started to piece things together. When was your first experience with racism and how did you cope with it? Kids would always do the ‘Ching Chong Eddie Huang’ thing just because my last name rhymes with ‘ching chong.’ There was always kids pulling their eyes back but the first moment I really dealt with racism that forced me to say something was my first year in Orlando in third grade. My mom would pack me Chinese lunch and it always smelled crazy. Every time I opened it, people would laugh and they’d give me a hard time. I had one Italian friend, Chris Nostro, who’s still my friend and then this black kid, Edgar. That was it. Everyone else was like white Baptist and super funky so no one really hung out or wanted to eat lunch with me. I went home and I was like, ‘Mom, we need white food. I can’t keep bringing this shit to school everyday.’ And my mom was like, ‘Why? Your food is good. You love this food. You eat it at home.’ I was like, ‘I know but no one else gets it, Mom, and everyday, I get made fun of and have to explain it and fight and I’m sick of it.’ She was like, ‘Fine. I’ll take you to the white grocery store. What do they eat?’ I’m like, ‘Lunchables, sandwiches. They eat cold shit,’ and she was laughing. She was like, ‘They bring cold food?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s cold shit. Everybody eats cold shit because it doesn’t smell.’ This is the one passage in the book that I wrote where I literally cried writing it. When I wrote it, I was 29, 30-years-old and now, I’m like I can’t believe I asked my mom to put away her food, our culture and basically yield to dominant culture and eat this shitty cold sandwich situation. I was like I must’ve been really ashamed of who I am to ask my mom to do that. For my mom as an adult to hear her kid say that must’ve really hurt and she hid it from me. She made fun of me but she still ended up taking me and I remember it meant a lot because I was like my mom has got my back. Even though she really loves being Chinese and this food that she spent so much time and energy making, she’s okay letting it go, as long as I’m happy. We went through the aisle and I found this Kid Cuisine thing and there was a penguin on it with chicken tenders, mash potatoes, peas and carrots. I was like, ‘Mom, I got to get this. This is super cool, there’s a penguin and kids will want to hang out with me so get me this thing.’ We bought a few of them and she goes, ‘I want you to eat hot food’ because Chinese people try not to eat cold food and drink cold liquids because it fucks up your body temperature. So she was like, ‘Bring this to school and put it in the microwave and you’ll have hot food everyday.’ I was like, ‘Okay cool.’ I got in line and as I’m getting towards the end, about to put my food in the microwave, this one kid behind me, Edgar, who just happened to be the black kid, pulls me down by the back of my t-shirt neck, throws me to the ground and goes, ‘Chinks get to the back.’ I knew what the word meant and I was fucking pissed. I knew what it meant but I didn’t know what to do, but I freaked out because I knew my dad had told me if anyone calls you this, you fight back. I threw his arm in the microwave, and closed the microwave door on it. I didn’t break anything but it was pretty dramatic. He fell out and started crying and screaming on the floor. I just stood over him, took my lunch and I remember putting it back in and just heating it like nothing happened. That situation really changed me. You started owning who you were. Yeah, definitely. From that moment, I owned who I was. I remember my dad took me out to eat that night and he was like, ‘I’m proud of you for sticking up for yourself. I’m upset that this happened to you but you have to be proud of who you are. You have to stick up for yourself because America is going to chew you up.’ My parents are really fucking cool because a lot of other parents, even my cousins’ parents, would never condone their kids fighting. My parents were like, ‘We’re here. America is supposed to be fair.’ One of the things I really liked about my parents was they weren’t unrealistic and when things were not fair or equal, my parents had no problem saying something about it. When did you realize what your “American dream” was? I remember distinctly that it wasn’t always perfect with my parents because I saw a lot of issues with America. But then I also saw a lot of issues with the way East Asian parents brought up their kids. There’s a lot of domestic violence. I don’t want to get into it because it’s so complicated, but overall, I feel like I understand why parents hit their kids and I think sometimes, it’s warranted but other times, it goes too far. There was a lot of times when [social workers] came to my house and my mom and dad got to a level that was not healthy to be around. There were times where my mom put all of us in a van and drove the van through bushes and into the side of the garage to scare my dad because my dad wasn’t paying attention to my mom. I was like, ‘This is psycho. You may have an issue with Pops but you can’t drive a car full of kids into bushes and a garage, even though you know you’re not going to hurt us.’ It mentally fucked me up. What would your advice be to the little Eddie Huangs in school right now, still searching for their identity? I would just say what ‘Pac said: keep your head up man. I know his song was towards women, but whether it’s women, gays, immigrants, whatever, you have to keep your head up and you have to know your life is worth something. You may not agree or understand now but your life is worth something and worth you trying to figure it out. It doesn’t fall in your lap. You have to go figure it out, dig for it, excavate it and uncover it. I would just tell kids I meet when I speak on the road and in colleges that are really stressed and don’t know where their place is in this world that it’s natural. You have to own that, you have to accept that and you have to know what your purpose is. Not in anyone else’s context, but your own.