'Fresh Off the Boat' Embraces the Humor of Clashing Cultures

The unfamiliar can be frightening, but the Huang family deals with cultural difference by taking the confusing and making it amusing in a highly relatable way.

Fresh Off the Boat: The Complete First Season

Distributor: Fox
Cast: Randall Park, Constance Wu, Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler, Ian Chen, Lucille Soong, Chelsey Crisp
Network: ABC
Release date: 2015-09-29

Fresh Off the Boat assumes for its title an expression that has historically been derogatory and reclaims it for a more positive purpose, turning around the idea that immigrants are unwelcome and ill-equipped because they are unversed in the American way and instead showing how the attempts to navigate and adapt to a new culture without losing a sense of one’s heritage can remind us that “foreignness” is relative. Set in the mid-'90s, this family comedy appeals to a sense of nostalgia similar to The Goldbergs, but the focus is much more on the idea of cultural identity in any era. Although slow to gain momentum, by the end of the first season, Fresh Off the Boat is a decidedly funny show with quick-witted dialogue and poignant commentary on the comical, if uncomfortable, experience of cultural difference and otherness.

Roughly based on the life of chef and food personality Eddie Huang, the series follows the Huangs, a Chinese-American family who move from Washington D.C.’s Chinatown to a white suburban neighborhood in Orlando, Florida to open a cowboy-themed, all-American restaurant and pursue the proverbial American dream. At the core of the series is the struggle to balance the desire to be included, to fit in, with the pride of holding onto a heritage that inherently makes one different, an outsider. Culture shock and cultural clashes are the comedic bread and butter of Fresh Off the Boat, as each of the Huangs copes with assimilation into American culture differently, some with enthusiasm, some with reticence, but all in ways that highlight the humor of trying to understand the unfamiliar and find acceptance despite being different.

The very premise of Fresh Off the Boat necessitates that it grapples with issues of race, and it admirably does so with great gusto, even if it is sometimes over the top. It’s a series that completely embraces stereotypes, but from multiple perspectives, both of one’s own heritage and of the unfamiliar. At first it's kind of jarring to find yourself laughing at bits that capitalize on the cliché of the over-demanding Asian mother who gets upset when her son gets straight A’s because his school must not be challenging him enough, especially when juxtaposed with jokes regarding the strangeness of privileged white people: suburban moms with similar names rollerblading in a crew, in which “the loudest one seems to be their queen”, shopping in a grocery store that resembles a hospital more than it does a market, and eating meals that come inside a box. In a society that has grown to value or perhaps over-value political correctness, the frank treatment of our perceptions of cultural differences and the comical confusion that can result is rather refreshing.

The series centers on young Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang), the self-identified “black sheep” of his family who must therefore deal with feeling like an outsider both among his peers and at home. In a The Wonder Years-style voiceover, the real-world Eddie Huang narrates the everyday events of this average Chinese-American family’s life from his unique perspective. Eddie looks to rap for people to relate to, explaining that “hip hop is your anthem when you’re an outsider.” The boy adopts hip hop culture as his own, and his sometimes awkward attempts at infusing it into his boisterous and bombastic personality do result in some charming humor, such as his ostentatious entrances, assisted by his grandmother (Lucille Soong) in her wheelchair, who serves as a rolling speaker system to announce his entrance whenever he has big news to share with the family. Eddie serves more as an anchor for the rest of the characters’ plots, though, a lens through which the viewers observe the other Huangs and the people in their lives.

Eddie’s younger brothers, Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen), adapt remarkably well to their new lives, easily making friends and enjoying school. They serve as a stark contrast to Eddie’s experience, which is filled with strife and ostracism, but even more, the two boys are simultaneously unbearably and amusingly lovable. Their adorable, affable good-naturedness leads them to produce some of the most sweetly innocent yet surprisingly sophisticated comedic moments. Their attachment to each other and similar outlook on life that’s characterized by a mixture of maturity and thoughtfulness results in an endearing twosome with surprisingly effective comedic timing and delivery for such young performers.

Randall Park (The Interview, Veep) has a solid background in comedy, but his portrayal of the fiercely optimistic and big-hearted patriarch of the Huang family, Louis, is both charming and funny. His comedic ambitions, interests, and exploits help to drive the show forward, if in a more subtle way than his onscreen wife, Jessica, played by Constance Wu to much well-deserved critical acclaim. In many ways, the more soft-spoken yet tenacious Louis, whose enthusiasm for all things American knows seemingly no bounds, is a perfect counterpart to the strong-willed, sharp-tongued, exacting Jessica, not only as a couple, but also as a comedic duo.

Jessica’s unease in her new neighborhood parallels Eddies’ in his new school, yet she still makes a concerted effort to at least try to learn about her white neighbors’ way of life. Her attempt is admirable, and her response of bewilderment and exasperation is both amusing and understandable. When the ladies of the neighborhood get together to debate the finer points of the affairs in Melrose Place, Jessica’s initial reaction is a kind of confused indifference, affirming, "Yes, all those white people sound like they're making lots of mistakes". Ultimately, though, her continued attempts lead her to bond with her new best friend, Honey (Chelsea Crisp), over their mutual love for Stephen King, and eventually, she even discovers the joys of Melrose Place herself.

Jessica’s efforts to feel a sense of belonging do not, however, overrule her dedication to maintaining her family’s heritage, even going to great lengths to reintroduce as many Chinese traditions as possible in the season finalé. Her pride at the possibility of becoming the first Asian-American members at an exclusive country club swiftly transforms into horror in one of Jessica’s characteristic knee-jerk reactions when her neighbor comments on how the Huangs are “just like regular old Americans”. In the end, though, she cannot resist the American things she loves, "Melrose Place, rollerblading, macaroni and cheese. It's so easy. You just add water. It's cheese from water." Jessica’s duality in the form of loyalty to her inherited culture and openness to her new culture reflects the experience of the entire Huang family, who seem to occupy a space between cultures that is decidedly normal for immigrant and first-generation families.

Fresh Off the Boat also hits the nail on the head when it comes to encounters with racism, including assumptions that the Huangs would have “more exotic” first names and that Eddie’s first language wouldn’t be English, and being cast out at school for having homemade and unfamiliar Chinese food instead of lunchables. What’s even more valuable about the show, though, is the fact that, while it gives Asian-Americans a long overdue greater presence in mainstream television, it does so in a way that is distinctly relevant to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. The source of the Huangs’ differences from the people around them is not strictly rooted the fact that they are Chinese, as there are plenty of other reasons for their uncomfortable encounters, misunderstandings, and feelings of otherness than race alone.

Sometimes it seems the use of stereotypes in Fresh Off the Boat may go too far, sometimes for the sake of a joke that consequently falls a bit flat, but taking it too far is more forgivable than shying away from the issues of race and otherness, and what’s more important is that the firm grounding in the reality of feeling like an outsider can resonate with all viewers. In its first season, the show has found its footing as a sharp, smart, and quick-witted series that admirably brings to prime-time television in a direct and bold way a family sitcom that is undoubtedly funny but also represents the struggle to balance loyalty to one’s roots and openness to new cultural experiences that so many immigrant families have grappled with, and it does so in a way that all viewers can empathize with the frustrations of feeling like an outsider, all while laughing at ourselves when we see the admittedly silly and confusing nature of our own culture from an outsider’s perspective.

The DVD extras on Fresh Off the Boat: The Complete First Season are pretty inconsequential, which is a little disappointing given the supposed drama behind the scenes, particularly with regard to the real Eddie Huang’s criticism of the show as watering down his provocative memoir about the Asian-American experience. If only for Wu's impeccable and hilarious performance as Jessica Huang, the season itself is definitely worth a watch, even if it is a somewhat stereotypical representation of Asian-American culture.

The important thing is that it does not discriminate. Fresh Off the Boat embraces stereotypes of all cultures, particularly what’s funny or confusing about them to others, in order to create a decidedly funny and relatable exploration of cultural identity in all its forms.






Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.


Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.


Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.