“Yo, there’s this new comedian Eddie. My parents don’t like him because he swears a lot. But you should hear the shit he says! Racism, janky food, fucking white people, he takes ‘em on. He keeps it mad real. He’s funny as shit ’cause he’s been through some shit! And he’s about to BLOW. UP. He does stand-up, television- he’s everywhere!”
“I heard of him. Eddie Murphy is the man!”
“That dude who is Donkey from Shrek?! Naw, I’m talking about a real comedian. Eddie HUANG, man.”
Thirty-five years ago we’d be talking about a different Eddie as the new hilarious and raw comic with a smart mouth and street-cred. But that was before Murphy gave up the social satire, and one-liners that punched you in the dick with truth, for fat suits and fuck you money.
In honor of Eddie Huang’s new show, Fresh Off the Boat, getting a release date (Feb 4) I’m reviewing his book that started it all.
Because he’s the Eddie we need now.
Huang is a chef, a writer, a Juris Doctor, and a thug. He wears his expulsion from a TED fellowship like a badge of honor and has a massive banana chip on his shoulder for anyone he thinks is “Uncle Channing” by kowtowing to the model minority Asian stereotype.
He’s not even sure he wants you to watch his sitcom fearing it will be “a reverse-yellowface show with universal white stories played out by Chinamen.” Hyper-awareness of your racial location at all times is your life as a minority in America, and the entertainment industry only exacerbates that feeling with its need to please the demographics. Torn between keeping it real and keeping it on the air, Huang even reached out to Margaret Cho to commiserate on the pride and burden of having his vision of what it is to be Asian in America writ large on broadcast television.
“They have no idea what they’re doing, but they’ll have opinions about everything you’re doing.” Cho warns him.
Huang grouses back, “Why does anyone even sign up for this Hollywood High School bullshit? It’s not like there aren’t other ways to tell stories.”
“Because you CAN do it. You’ve been irreverent everywhere you’ve gone, just don’t change now. You go to Hollywood and you go be the same person you’ve been the whole time. I believe in you, and to be honest, we need this.”
We do need this. We need Huang’s sanitized version of his life on ABC and we need Huang’s actual life-story, which is much darker, funnier and cutting in his book. One is family-friendly and one is an exploration of how families actually work. Both are American stories.
Huang’s memoir is not a fish out of water story. It’s a story about what happens when you take a Magikarp out of water, boil its cartoon skin off in broth, crush its bones for stock, and find magic in using every rendered part to make something delicious. Huang examines himself like an ingredient list. Where is he sourced from? Who prepped him? And if you marinate in something long enough, what is the result when you start to take on a flavor that isn’t yours?
Food is the way that Huang uses to reconcile his identity, but only after years of frustration trying to make his mark in model minority ways. He was in the gifted program at school, he went to law school, and he made the pilgrimage back to Taiwan to pay respects to living and dead ancestors.
Huang found much more satisfaction in his search for identity when it was reactionary: beating the shit out of racist classmates, repping the Wu-Tang Clan and Biggie to the consternation of his teachers and naming his stand-up comedy set “Rotten Banana”. But none of these activist thrashings registered on the larger consciousness of America. He wasn’t any closer to seeing his true identity reflecting just because he smashed every warped mirror he could find.
But people loved his food. He learned cooking from his mom who delighted in stinky ingredients, austerity and corporal punishment. Huang found he could sneak Asian culture through America’s side-door with broth and bao. In his baos lived a brand new thing that was thousands of years old. He opened a restaurant so he could serve them on his terms and delighted in his mainstream success almost as much as throwing unappreciative white people out of his shop.
Huang knows that with mainstream success comes risk and loss. He knows he can seduce you with humor, but he’s wary of a “Buckwheat” moment where you’re loved for your willingness to embody the stereotype. Asian peasant food, like baos and ramen, are gaining prestige in America precisely because the land of the plenty is waking up to the delights of cultures that have created something delicious from almost nothing. David Chang, another brilliant cantankerous Asian chef/writer, is publicly grappling with how his success in making people eat traditional noodle soup is unmooring the dish from the pain and struggle and identity of those who created it.
Pain is key to the book narrative of Fresh Off the Boat. You won’t see Randall Park whipping welts into his television son with a rubber alligator or Constance Wu screaming that her son is a piece of shit in public over a substandard report card. But the crucible of pain and limitation that the Huangs faced together, and take out on each other, is what honed Eddie’s wit and swagger.
Huang is one of a few young Asian artists who are busting out of the model minority using popular culture, shock and humor. There is a paucity of pop-culture Asian entertainers in the mainstream who want to make a living off of carving up identity politics. We’ve got Margaret Cho, The Fung Brothers, David Choe and Asa Akira. (Yes, those last two are a graffiti artist and a porn star.)
Because that shit wears you out. Is it ok to do “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” or are Black elder statesmen going to come after your act? Do you really want to generate racial catch phrases for white kids to scream coast to coast out of context? (“Fuck yo’ couch!” “DONKEY TEETH!” “I love Black people, but I hate Niggi@s!”) Can you stand to be Long Duck Dong even after the joke has worn out its welcome?
If you watch Fresh Off the Boat (and you should, Constance Wu has impeccable comedic timing) and love the humor and point of view, you should read Fresh Off the Boat to see the hard truths that made the shiny product. Eddie is going to give you the Haungxtables on TV, but his book says why you can born in the nation’s capital, raised in its armpit, and still have an epic journey Coming to America.