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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Book: Crazy Rich Asians

"Crazy Rich Asians"

When American-born Rachel Chu agrees to spend the summer in Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, she envisions a humble family home and quality time with the man she hopes to marry. But Nick has failed to provide a few key details. One, that his childhood home looks like a palace. Two, that he grew up riding in more private planes that cans. Three, that he just happens to be the country’s most eligible bachelor.

On Nick’s arm, Rachel may as well have a target on her back the second she steps off the plane, and soon, her relaxed vacation turns into an obstacle course of old money, new money, nosy relatives, and scheming social climbers.

Here’s the thing with the Chinese– No matter where you are, if you were not born and raised in Mainland China, you pretty much get the same upbringing as every other Chinese person in the world. At least, that’s how I see it after reading Crazy Rich Asians, which spoke to my Chinese upbringing although I’ve never been to the US, to Europe–and have only seen Singapore through tourists’ eyes. And this idea is further cemented by the fact that Fresh Off The Boat, a new Chinese-centric sitcom in the US, is nailing all these quirks that the Chinese have.

We are stingy and we love a good bargain–even if we can afford to splurge, or to buy something more expensive. We subscribe to the idea of ‘why spend more when you can get the same for less.’ And yet, when we are looked down upon, we relish pulling the carpet from under the ignorant supremacists who would dare belittle us. Figuratively. Literally pulling the carpet from under someone is not very polite and is looked down upon by society. And this weird characteristic of the Chinese is alive and well in Kevin Kwan’s book.

Crazy Rich Asians sounds like a romance novel, and it is that. But more than the relationship of the two lead characters we are given with, the book focuses more on the romance between our main characters’ race and power. And it is the most engaging and most entertaining love story I have ever read. Most of the characters have some grandiose plan of getting what they want, and the whole sordid affair is so self-aware that, if you’re Chinese, you won’t feel offended. Author Kwan doles out the humor in perfect doses that the observations about Chinese eccentricities never feel like an attack on character. It’s as if Kwan wants to say that ‘we are who we are, so why not just laugh about it?’

Now, don’t get me wrong: the book is far from perfect. I have some issues with pacing, with plot points that are abandoned with… well… careless abandon, and with the ensemble cast of characters that come and go. But at the end of the day, the book delivered what it was supposed to deliver: entertainment.

Crazy Rich Asians is a gem. And now I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next in Kwan’s sequel: China Rich Girlfriend.

In the meantime, let’s see what other people have said about this book:
The New York Times
Pop Matters
Books Etc.

Movie: Thy Womb

"Thy Womb"

Shaleha Sarail hails from a water-village in Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi. A woman of mature years, experiencing a 3rd miscarriage, Shaleha agonizes that she can’t bear a child. Though an adoptive parent to her nephew, she still feels that her husband Bangas-An desires to be a father. To fulfill her husband’s only wish and to be blessed by Allah as having a child is a tangible proof of divine grace, Shaleha decides to march to a different drummer. Her resolve is to find a new partner for her husband. Night and day, she and her husband sail island, floating-village, and nearby communities in search of a fertile woman.

This was an absolutely beautiful film; and I think it would’ve been more beautiful had it been shorter.

Out of the four entries I’ve already seen, this one has the most cohesive story, and has actors actually acting. Unfortunately, it’s also the most boring. Not because of the story nor the acting–it’s because with an hour and a half of running time, it still runs too long.

The main premise of the story has to do with Shaleha, a midwife who cannot bear a child, and her quest to find a new wife for her husband who can give what she cannot: a child. The entirety of the film revolves around this journey, of Shaleha looking for that woman–and then the negotiations that goes along with it. It’s all very fascinating. And if the film had just focused on that, on the culture and the events that had pushed Shaleha into realizing what she must do, I think I would have been able to say that this film is the best one I’ve seen of the festival.

Unfortunately, the film dragged. Everything felt longer than what was necessary. Thy Womb saps the energy of viewers much as a fetus saps the energy from a mother-to-be.

I am not proud to admit that I fell asleep sometime between Shaleha deciding to find a wife for her husband, and the wedding of Ayesha, who I initially thought was marrying Bangas-An.

Also, I do have a bone to pick with stunt casting. Lovi Poe, who is billed higher than principal actor Bembol Roco, appears in two scenes. Three if you want to argue that the introduction and her first conversation with Bangas-An are two separate scenes. And yet she’s on the poster, back to back with Nora Aunor–who carries the whole movie. I understand that the film title refers to Lovi’s character, it is her womb that couple Shaleha and Bangas-An desire–but if that’s the argument, then might as well have her womb be part of the poster–and not Lovi Poe herself!

I know stunt casting isn’t new in the entertainment industry of the Philippines–but this is supposedly an art film. I was mistaken in thinking Thy Womb was above doing such gimmicks.

Book: Ang Tatlong Sumpa

"Ang Tatlong Sumpa"

Hey, it’s my first time to review a children’s book! I mean, it’s sort of a children’s book. It’s in comic book form–but it has more words in it than a regular children’s book…

Why do I keep writing “children’s book?”

Anyway.

Ang Tatlong Sumpa (which translates to, The Three Curses) is the story of a mouse deer and his quest to stop a greedy monarch from destroying the forest. To do so, he must use all his wits and get help from his forest friends. It’s a simple story really.

What I think make the story works for me is partly nostalgia. Author (and Artist) Borg Sinaban infuses his writing style with the tropes of old Filipino legends and epics. For one thing, there’s the altruistic main character who will do his best to save the forest just to protect his friends’ home. Another staple in legends is the old woman (or man, sometimes) that the hero will help on his way to wherever he was going in the first place. And, of course, the belief in the diwata–deities or goddesses (not elves) who help guide human life in Filipino culture.

In a time where children’s books are forced to be more modern, to connect with their target market, it’s refreshing to see a comic book that is not afraid to go back to basics: to a forest setting, to a simple villain– To a character who most kids today don’t even know.

I kind of regret not buying more than two copies now. It would’ve made a great Christmas gift to my nephews and nieces.