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Sitcom should inspire Asian-Americans to reclaim voice

Laissez Fair: The Invisible Backhand

If any activity is sacred to our generation, it’s watching TV. I don’t know a single college student who doesn’t manage to squeeze in an episode of her favorite series on a busy day, whether it’s winter break or finals week. In an age where sometimes our most intimate experiences are with our Netflix accounts, I’m optimistic about the potential of ABC’s new series, Fresh Off the Boat, to bring an overdue issue to light.

As the first show to primarily feature an Asian-American family in twenty years, Fresh Off the Boat reclaims the slur, “FOB,” a phrase once used to describe any immigrants who haven’t assimilated into the mainstream. The series is adapted from a memoir of the same title by Eddie Huang, a Taiwanese-American restaurant owner based in New York. Huang narrates his childhood moving from Chinatown in Washington D.C. to a white, suburban neighborhood in Orlando.

In the show, Eddie and his family’s attempts to fit in are endearingly and painfully relatable, allowing Asian-Americans to finally see themselves on screen. The most poignant moment for me was when Eddie came home from school demanding “white people food” for lunch because the other kids made fun of his Chinese noodles.

Growing up, I had watched my Chinese classmates consciously and subconsciously embrace the protection of “white people” norms, from wearing Abercrombie sweatpants to introducing themselves with pronounceable names like Jennifer and Kevin. I didn’t blame them — it was a smart survival strategy, and one that we all adopted to some extent. For ten-year-old me, it was slowly drifting away from my mother when she started scanning a million coupons at the supermarket. I would pretend to browse magazines in a different aisle, hoping to avoid any association with the stereotype of cheap Asians. Except when complaining about strict parents, many of my peers and I rarely acknowledged our race, much less used it to form a sense of unity.

In my view, assimilation has gone from a blessing to a curse. Blending in, which is usually desirable, is also just a step away from pretending that your ethnicity doesn’t exist. If Asian-Americans don’t acknowledge race, then we can’t point out racial discrimination when it happens. Affirmative action, racism in media and political representation: these are issues that affect Asians as a group, and they can’t be solved if we don’t even identify as a group. If we ever want to be truly represented and acknowledged by our media, government and society, we first need to face the fact that we’re Asian, not white. Then, we need to dedicate the same time and effort to examine the complicated identities that have historically been given to other minorities.

Fresh Off the Boat is just the start of reclaiming the Asian-American identity – the real power lies within each person to tell his or her unique story. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve watched many of my peers start to embrace their different upbringings, often with the same self-deprecating humor in the show. I think part of it comes from learning the value of being multicultural, but also from realizing that mother was in fact always right. From making you wear that ugly puffy jacket to feeding you weird Chinese soup when you got sick from not wearing that jacket, mom did a lot of uncool things that were ultimately for your best interest.

As young Asian-American adults, many of us joke about being the same loving, strict parents to our children, knowing we’ll never be able to match our parents’ grit. We shamelessly make a beeline for the biggest bargains – because hey, money is hard-earned, and now we appreciate how much our parents sacrificed for us. It’s not that our experience was better than anyone else’s, but that acknowledging our differences has finally made it clear why our values have been shaped this way. The Asian-American experience isn’t just Asian plus American, but something else entirely, something yet to be defined. We have grown up straddling two worlds and balancing a barrage of conflicting identities, and I think we should be the ones who choose which to keep.

Lin Lan is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in Economics. Her column “Laissez Fair: The Invisible Backhand,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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