I sometimes have trouble writing reviews of autobiographies. Especially when the author is still very much alive and active and online. I feel like I can’t be honest. I don’t have that problem with writing about Eddie Huang’s “Fresh Off the Boat” though because he seems like the kind of guy who appreciates honesty over careful wording.
There were times when this book was incomprehensible to me. I’m not up on basketball or hip-hop so I was grateful for the footnotes that show up occasionally. I could’ve used more footnotes.
“Fresh Off the Boat” is the mostly funny, sometimes scary story of Eddie Huang. He’s the US-born son of immigrants from Taiwan. It doesn’t pull punches about his physical and emotional abuse (from his parents and his classmates), his drug use and drug dealing, and his lifelong affair with food.
Huang has the ability to taste food and break it down into its individual parts — to figure out what’s causing each flavor and to see how it works together. This leads him to experiment with recipes and cooking techniques, and to spend a lot of time skipping classes or breaking curfews to go out and sample local foods.
It’s not as simple as “Boy meets food. Boy loves food. Boy becomes chef/restaurateur” though. To get to the celebrity chef/successful business owner, Huang has to go through a lot of trouble — trouble with his parents, his friends, his family, the law, his schools. Huang manages to get through things that might drive a lesser person to just giving up. He graduates college and moves on to law school. He gets a law degree while dealing drugs and creating and selling streetwear. And then he decides (after getting laid off during the economic collapse) he’s going to open a restaurant.
Strangely his father, already a successful restaurateur in Florida, isn’t supportive. Huang goes ahead anyhow and makes it big.
Huang’s writing style is conversational. It reads like you’re overhearing someone bragging at a party. There’s lots of slang, swearing, and in-jokes. You might not get all the in-jokes, but you can get the idea.
Huang must hate the TV sitcom version of his life. His true feelings about not fitting in, his fight (mostly with himself) to figure out his identity and place in the world, and the sometimes scary family he grew up in have been sanitized and Disney-fied. If the funny parents/precocious kids/30-minute formula is what you’re looking for, you won’t find it in this book. If you want the truth about a guy who made a lot of mistakes and learned things the hard way and never gave up, read the book.
(sidenote: One of the negative reviews of this book said “I did not buy this book to read about an alienated, angry, maladjusted Asian Bart Simpson who thinks he’s Tupac. I picked this book up to read about what inspired someone to become a great chef”. This person missed the entire point. The alienated, angry, maladjusted kid is what inspired him to become a great chef.)