For many Asian Americans, a new television show featuring a Chinese-American family is a breakthrough moment they’ve waited decades for.
“This is really the first that people are seeing an Asian-American family from the inside out,” said Joz Wang, editor in chief of 8Asians.com. “In many ways, this certainly is the first chance for mainstream American audiences to see what it’s like, not just for an Asian-American family and how they try to navigate a new life in Orlando, but also you know, this is a story that I think translates well to immigrant families, what it’s like for anybody who’s moved some place where they don’t know the language and the culture.”
Fresh Off the Boat offers the kind of three-dimensional characters that Wang wishes had been around when she was growing up.
“I would not see myself, literally see someone who looks like me, unless it was imported television,” Wang said. “I felt very marginalized and almost dismissed as a part of the American landscape.”
Even today, fewer than five out of every 100 characters portrayed in popular Hollywood films are Asian American. That state of invisibility in U.S. popular culture can send a distressing subliminal message to young people.
“When young Asian American children don’t see themselves, it really sends the message that they are not part of this society,” said Eliza Noh, an Asian-American studies professor at California State University, Fullerton. “It tells them that they are unimportant…that they don’t matter.”
For the most part, the few Asian actors who appear on screen are either playing roles that weren’t necessarily written for Asian Americans–thus leaving their Asian-American identity and experience unexplored–or they’re caricatures.
“They’re usually portrayed in an extremely stereotypical fashion, if they’re portrayed at all,” said Noh. “They’re either bad guys, gangsters or they’re nerds so, for the most part, they’re invisible.”
In the United States, Asian Americans are often referred to as the “model minority”. They’re seen as affluent, successful, and hardworking, which fosters the impression that Asian Americans don’t require public assistance. However, the community is diverse and that perception can be damaging to those who live below the poverty line and need both socio-economical and educational help.
“One of the things that the model minority myth does, is it pits one minority against another, or multiple minorities against the other,” Wang said. “What people forget is that we often have shared experiences as immigrants, we have shared experiences as minorities and in a lot of ways we have more in common than are different between us and so this kind of stereotype is kind of dangerous.”
Fresh Off the Boat has the potential to show America’s immigrant communities how much they have in common. The first few episodes of the comedy program have drawn healthy audiences and ABC-TV, the American network that airs the show, has just approved the development of another program, Dr. Ken, featuring an Asian American in the main role.
It’s a step toward inclusiveness that Noh believes is good not just for Asian Americans, but for the broader community as well.
“If we can work together instead of treating certain segments of the population as if they’re foreigners, that’s a huge part of society that you’re not cooperating with,” Noh said. “Any functional society, if you want to reduce conflict, you have to have cooperation and acceptance.”