Book: Fresh Off the Boat

"Fresh Off The Boat"

Assimilating ain’t easy. Eddie Huang was raised by a wild family of FOB (‘fresh off the boat’) immigrants–his father a cocksure restaurateur with a dark past back in Taiwan, his mother a fierce protector and constant threat. This is the story of a Chinese-American kid in a could-be-anywhere cul-de-sac blazing his way through America’s deviant subcultures, trying to find himself, ten thousand miles from his legacy and anchored only by his conflicted love for his family and his passion for food. Funny, moving, and stylistically inventive, Fresh Off the Boat is more than a radical re-imagining of the immigrant memoir–it’s the exhilarating story of every American outsider who finds his destiny in the margins.

Confession: I picked Fresh Off the Boat up because I am loving the ABC family-friendly version of the book that’s currently airing on television.

I had never actually seen the book before, and only found out about its existence after all the hoopla surrounding the TV show prior to airing. And even then, I couldn’t find a copy of the book. I had to have a copy transferred from one branch of my favorite bookstore to the one I always frequent–just so I could read it. I’m not a fan of e-book reading. Hence the trouble of acquiring a copy. You can buy the book off Amazon or other e-book sellers for way cheaper. And buy it, you should. Because the book is an unapologetic look at what it’s like to grow up as something that a majority of the population around you isn’t: a different race.

One of the reasons why I loved the series Fresh Off the Boat was the fact that I could relate to what TV Eddie’s family was going through. The family may be Chinese, and most of what they’re doing are very Chinese, but the story they’re telling is universal for all minorities: we just want to be treated normally regardless of the size of our eyes, or the color of our skin. Sure, I’m Chinese too, but if you read the comments online from the show’s viewers, you can see that the love isn’t coming from just Asian viewers.

The book isn’t that.

Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat is universal in which you can understand what he’s going through not because he’s Chinese–but because he’s different. Different. He doesn’t stand out, he sticks out. And that is something not just immigrants can relate to. Sure, Eddie had a different upbringing, he had a different set of culture and tradition to explore growing up, but at the end of each chapter–Eddie is a human being who makes mistakes, who gets wronged, who learns. You know who else does that? Everyone else.

While Eddie’s internal struggles can speak to everyone though, his external ones can be alienating. This is where race comes in: how his parents show love, how he is treated by his peers, and everything else. This colors who Eddie becomes more than his DNA. He is a “yellow man” because this is how he is perceived, and because this is what people want him to be. But Eddie isn’t just a “yellow man.”

In the series, the character of Eddie’s mom is frustrated at Eddie for wanting to embrace American culture because he likes hip hop music and baggy jeans. He gets called out for wanting to be like everyone else. That isn’t the Eddie we meet in the book. Eddie is proud of his culture. Hip hop isn’t his way of embracing America, but a way to relate to what is happening to him in America. And the Jessica Huang we meet in the book is far from being the lovable stickler that the television series is painting her to be.

Confession #2: After reading the book, I did find myself comparing the television series to the source material. And I agree with author Eddie Huang’s assessment that the show lacks teeth and is a watered down version of the experiences Eddie had. But, at the same time, I don’t think half of the show’s viewers now would enjoy watching the book’s stories brought to life. It’s too real. And it’s too specific.

The show is about an Asian-American family who is trying to stay afloat in a land where the line between standing out and sticking out is always in favor of the “white.” The book is about Eddie. Chinese-American Eddie. As it should be. It’s his memoir. But while I felt for Eddie while reading his memoir, I couldn’t relate to many of the things he was going through. Eddie’s life isn’t a television show that can be resolved with a lesson at the end of each day. It’s his life. It’s messy, it’s chaotic, and it is what life should be. But it is not my life.

As Dong from the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt once said, “your experiences are not universal.” And it’s not just true for the white man. It’s true for all of us.

But we learn through what other people have gone through.

The book is different from the television series I am currently enjoying, and that is perfectly fine. Because the television is bringing new people, more people, to Eddie’s world. Hopefully, like me, they would want to know more too. And then they’ll see, just like me, that the book Eddie Huang wrote about his life is just as entertaining as the television series derived from it. And that it is sharing a more important story, if not as universal.

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