There was a time when I viewed my Indianness as something of a hobby, a sporadically cultivated one at that. I’d attend ballet class for six or seven hours a week, gymnastics every Tuesday and Thursday, biweekly girl scout meetings and then, on birthdays and important Hindu holidays, climb into the car with my family for the long drive to and from the nearest temple. The trips were irregular enough that they still felt fun and exciting, but occasionally also frightening and always foreign. The part of my identity I associated with my heritage was discrete, easily compartmentalized into the moments I spent observing elaborate pujas, tucked behind the folds in my mother’s sari.
It was sheer coincidence that more Indian immigrants, and thus more temples, began to sprout up as I became increasingly aware of how central my skin color is to who I am. At first I resented the more frequent trips to temple the same way I resented the seemingly heightened importance this random biological feature had begun to play in my life. But I began to appreciate them over time.
Recently, I found myself attending temple entirely of my own volition, with a white friend who was raised Lutheran in tow, despite my too-loud insistence that I don’t consider myself a religious, or even spiritual, person. The visit was, like most of the ones I’d taken in recent years, a relatively short one. We made stops at each idol, staying just long enough to take darsan—to be present when the curtain to an altar is pulled back to reveal a freshly bathed and clothed statue of a deity, to stand in their line of sight and to, as a result, receive their blessing.
In May of 2011, Wesley Yang authored a New York cover story about second-generation Asian immigrants struggling to establish their identities in a society that viewed them as a nameless, faceless horde. Yang opens the essay on a hyper-personal note. “Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality.” The feeling is a familiar one to those of us whose decidedly un-Caucasian features lack the comfort of ambiguity. To be a minority in America is to define yourself not primarily, but significantly, through others’ awareness and conception of you.
Yang quotes a variety of Asian-Americans, all of whom bucked stereotype through their career choices—an aspiring poet, a pick-up artist, and a restauranteur named Eddie Huang. The piece outlines Huang’s meandering path to the world of Chinese cuisine and describes his goal of gaining cultural cachet through economic success.
“I’ve realized that food is one of the only places in America where we are the top dogs. … There’s a younger generation that grew up eating Chinese fast food. They respect our food. They may not respect anything else, but they respect our food. … America is about money, and if you can make your culture commodifiable, then you’re relevant. I don’t believe anybody agrees with what I say or supports what I do because they truly want to love Asian people. They like my fucking pork buns, and I don’t get it twisted.”
Four years later, Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat has been adapted for the small screen by ABC. In the show’s debut episode, eleven-year-old Eddie expresses a similar willingness to play to expectations as a means to an end. “I need white people lunch,” he tells his parents. “That gets me a seat at the table. And then, you get to change the rules. Represent. Like Nas says.” Ironically, young Eddie is referring to his desire to distance himself from his Chinese heritage by trading in his mother’s homemade meals for the more socially acceptable Lunchables. His mother, Jessica, bemoans his desire to conform—“You want to fit inside a box? That’s so American! Why are you so American?”—before reluctantly conceding.
Of course, Eddie’s difficulty striking a balance between conformity and individuality is mirrored in his parents’ own struggles. It should come as no surprise to fans of Malcolm in the Middle that Fresh Off the Boat executive producer Melvin Mar cited it as a point of reference for the show. The former used Malcolm’s powerlessness and frustration at the world’s unfairness, feelings most viewers find reminiscent of their own childhoods, to highlight his parents’ perpetual discontentment with their financially precarious and circumscribed lives.
Similarly, Eddie’s own youthful troubles are neatly reflected in his parents’ plot lines. His father hires a white host at his newly opened steakhouse in the hopes of making white customers feel “comfortable.” His mother feels hurt and rejected when the neighborhood women crinkle their shapely noses at her lovingly prepared tofu. The positioning of white Americans—who likely comprise the majority of an ABC sitcom’s audience—as antagonists is made more palatable via a prepubescent protagonist expressing an immensely relatable desire to fit in. It’s a brilliant tactical maneuver, as even Huang, who has been very public about his mixed feelings about the show, concedes. “The feeling of being different is universal because difference makes us universally human in our individual relationships with society. We’re all fucking weirdos.”
Yet if craving a sense of belonging is universal, the pull to make accommodations in the name of advancement is uniquely strong for immigrants and their children. Nowhere is this more observable than in the dominant cultural narrative meant to capture the immigrant experience: a story inevitably told from a white perspective, which climaxes when a community generously opens its arms to a group of foreigners that has, in turn, renounced a slew of Eastern traditions to make room for Western ones. Pop culture almost always draws a false equivalence between this abandonment of xenophobia and assimilation, as though the latter were a moral obligation and not a survival technique.
Fresh Off the Boat is a meaningful departure from this narrative. The stories are told from the viewpoint of the Huang family, a member of which has been present in each of the show’s scenes thus far, and are literally narrated by Huang himself. It is filled with over-the-top displays of faux-tolerance well known to most second-generation immigrants. The first white character we meet adopts a slow and overly enunciated speech pattern when addressing the D.C.-born Eddie, whose English she compliments not moments after offering his mother unnecessary reassurance that she loves her unexpectedly Anglican-sounding name. Anyone who found this portrayal unrealistic might have been swayed upon hearing a reporter at a Television Critics Association panel declare, “I love the Asian culture. And I was just talking about the chopsticks. And I just love all that.” Fresh Off the Boat offers no explicit criticism of such behavior. Instead, the show handles it in the same restrained manner its cast and producers handled the obtuse reporter—by presenting it as self-evidently absurd.
Perhaps most importantly, the Huang family’s differences are not portrayed as flaws. When Eddie returns home proudly boasting a report card full of As, his mother determines that he isn’t sufficiently challenged by his school’s curriculum. While his white peers are rewarded with fancy dinners out and new trampolines for their straight Cs, Eddie watches them longingly from the kitchen table, where his mother is tutoring him for hours each day. A lesser show would have resolved the conflict by having his mom lighten up. Fresh Off the Boat concludes the episode with an earnest talk between father and son, wherein Eddie’s dad assures him that she’s unlikely to ever do just that. She might let Eddie trade in his noodles for turkey, but her high academic standards are non-negotiable.
He does, however, frame this as a blessing. “Well, you know, most moms don’t care enough about their kids to tutor them for two hours a day … Look, I’m not gonna lie, your mom is tough, and she’s never gonna let up on you or any of us. But, it’s because she cares.” Eddie’s perspective on his circumstances changes, but the circumstances themselves do not. The audience undergoes a similar transformation, eventually understanding the Huangs as driven and ambitious, rather than arbitrarily cheap or intense. They fear poverty and view hard, honest work as a way of avoiding it because, unlike their white counterparts, they have never grown accustomed or felt entitled to material comfort. “All you care about is money,” Eddie complains to his mom. “Do me a favor,” she responds, “Go find a homeless man. Ask him if he thinks money matters. You tell me what he says.”
Huang’s initial hesitation about the sitcom came from a concern that network executives, like young Eddie’s fictional father, would be overly sensitive to the needs of their white clientele. He strongly resisted Mar’s request to wistfully narrate the line “America is great” for one episode. The sentiment could easily have been interpreted as an endorsement of that dominant narrative, an abdication of the mainstream’s responsibility to forego judgment rather than instinctively demanding conformity. For the underlying implication of that narrative is that white American culture is superior, and that immigrants unilaterally stand to benefit from the magnanimity of that culture, with its acceptance being their reward for abandoning their own traditions and values. It is the story of a one-sided exchange.
Instead, we as viewers are offered an outsiders’ perspective of a culture that is not just foreign, but objectively strange. Ultimately it amounts to a critique not of Asian, but of Caucasian culture as overly permissive, emotionally self-indulgent, and obnoxiously self-congratulatory. And, more often than not, rather stupid.
In such a world, assimilation is not a get, but a give. It is a painful concession on not just a practical but also a moral level. The most painful aspect being that it doesn’t work. When Eddie does show up to school with a swagger in his step and white-people lunch in his hand, he is told by his lone black classmate that it is he who is “at the bottom now … It’s my turn, chink!” Which is when Eddie embraces another strategy: the angry, defiant nonconformity of the hip hop music he identifies with so strongly. We hear what happens from the school principal, who tells Eddie’s parents that “he kicked him [the name-caller] in the groinal area, shoved pudding in his face, and unleashed a stream of obscenities I can’t repeat because God is listening.”
Or, as Yang put it four years earlier, “Striving to meet others’ expectations may be a necessary cost of assimilation, but I am not going to do it … I’m fine. It’s the rest of you who have a problem. Fuck all y’all.”
When I was a freshman in college, I decided to take a course in Hinduism taught by a white, American scholar of religion who specializes in Indian studies. I hoped to come to clearer terms with what my Hinduism, and ultimately Indianness, meant to me. Not the ridiculous details offered up by white strangers and acquaintances who inexplicably assume I have an interest in their self-contained brushes with Indian culture. (I still struggle to exhibit the same restraint the Huangs do when I’m told unprompted tales about college days dancing bhangra, dinners of chicken tikka masala or Hindu weddings. I certainly offer up nothing close to what these virtual strangers are hoping for—admiration or, worse, gratitude.)
Instead, I wanted to unpack more meaningful aspects of my personhood that I suspected were inextricable from the religion I was raised with. That I value pragmatism over dogma. That I take comfort in routine and ritual. That I appreciate vivid imagery and rich, lyrical language with a near-religious fervor. I suspected that this unpacking could only be done by placing an academic, anthropological distance between me and my culture.
When Huang eventually offered up his qualified enthusiasm for Fresh Off the Boat, it was for similar reasons. He saw an ad for the show while watching a game with a friend. The friend couldn’t contain his enthusiasm, shouting “YOU GOT ASIANS ON TV!” “I had crossed a threshold and become the audience,” Huang explained. “I wasn’t the auteur, the writer, the actor, or the source material. I was the viewer, and I finally understood it.” The shift he describes was seismic, allowing him, for the first time, to simultaneously cast the gaze and be an object of it.
It was in this freshman year class that I was first alerted to the oddly revealing phrasing of “taking darsan,” with the crucial moment of mutual acknowledgement between worshipped and worshipper considered something of a gift to the latter. Because there is tremendous value, transformative power, in simple perception. In not just the act of seeing, but of being seen.