Phew, it got renewed. Thank goodness Fresh Off the Boat, only the second Asian American sitcom in US television history, will live on. Why am I so relieved? I’m not Taiwanese American like the main character Eddie (I’m ethnically Korean), nor did I move from a gritty Chinatown to a well-heeled suburb. But I didn’t have that much in common with Mr. Miyagi or Kumiko either, the Japanese-descent coach and paramour of Karate Kid Daniel LaRusso – but, boy, did I identify with both. The simple reason is that, despite some familiar stereotyping, I’d barely seen Asian folks, let alone human-like ones, until the Karate Kid franchise seared my preadolescent eyes. The sad truth is that I could say the same about Asian American family life almost 30 years later, that the trembling glee with which I watched and rewound Karate Kid post-homework matches the rush I feel today when I swipe my iPad for Fresh Off the Boat after a long day’s work.
I’m relieved because nearly a decade after Karate Kid, the first Asian American network sitcom, Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl (1994), was swiftly panned and canceled for failing to compel viewers like myself – effectively an Asian-faced blip on America’s radar. I’m relieved because I’m with Eddie Huang, the brash chef and restaurateur whose memoir is the inspiration for Fresh Off the Boat, when he says about Asian Americans: “Culturally, we are in an ice age … We don’t even have the wheel.”
To trace the source of my anxiety and relief, we must ask, Why did it take nearly 70 years (a television ice age) to get Fresh Off the Boat, and why would a so-called successful minority agonize over its content and fate anyway? The answers aren’t obvious because, frankly, America, we’ve never even had our conversation on race. Yes, we’ve seen the tragic limits of the race conversation for Black America. Need we say more than Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, or Freddie Gray? But at least the conversation’s not a mere idea frozen in time. Moreover, a tête-à-tête requires a back and forth, but on Asian ethnics we’ve mostly had America’s monologue about a “model minority” who has done so well in life that racism’s a non-issue. A model minority therefore gets no seat at the race relations table. Nor did Asian Americans get a spotlight in our more multicultural pop culture after the Civil Rights Movement.
Where did the model minority stereotype and its silencing, disappearing properties come from?: immigration laws that favored educated Asian professionals, academic writing (“model minority” was coined by a fellow sociologist–see Chou and Feagin for this and related issues), and a 1980s’ conservative agenda to dispel the racism argument to gut civil rights enforcement, anti-poverty programs, and affirmative action. Asian American success, conservatives alleged, proved Blacks and Latinos could no longer cry foul. Still today, fact tanks like the Pew Research Center inadvertently bolster model minority myths with controversial reports declaring “The Rise of Asian Americans.”
Make no mistake, there’s a kernel of truth in the model minority stereotype, but it’s a stereotype nonetheless. Asian Americans are a diverse, internally unequal group. Second, the model minority feeds and hides a more pernicious stereotype of the threatening “foreigner;” that is, it pats Asian Americans on the head for being a good kid “like us” but spurns her for being “the foreigner” who outsmarted teacher, then denies her the right to cry racism because, hey, look at all those rich and happy Asians.
Examples include the World War Two mass incarceration of 110,000 Japanese Americans despite the majority holding US citizenship and no evidence of any anti-US activity among this threatening “model minority.” In 1980’s Detroit, two laid-off White US auto workers saw a threatening, model Japan in Chinese American Vincent Chin, murdered him with a baseball bat, yet a night in jail they never spent. More recently, Bill Clinton’s Chinagate scandal prompted the Democratic National Committee to wage a racial witch-hunt of sorts for “foreign” donors within its Asian American constituency. Examples of race-based nativism against other successful Americans abound: Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan, Mirai Nagasu, Korean merchants in the LA unrest, Judge Lance Ito, South Asians since 9/11, Jeremy Lin.
Because the model minority myth implies that race doesn’t matter for Asian Americans at the same time that it feeds stereotypes of threatening competitors, Asian Americans effectively live a paradox of being racially invisible and visible as “forever foreigners.” Chef Huang claims the show completely ignored this struggle. But other millennials and this Gen X-er say yes and no. I was grateful to feel my youthful Karate Kid rush when I saw myself in Eddie, both invisible and clearly foreign at school and reliant on Black American hip hop for an Asian American voice. Dad Louis got my sympathy when he worried that he wasn’t “American” enough for his chophouse, so hire a “White face” he did. When Jessica perceived their vandalized billboard as a “hate crime” against “sneaky Asians,” I said, “Thank you! Finally!” To be sure, I cringed, at times, at Eddie’s brothers for verging on model minority poster children and at Jessica for too much Tiger Mom foreignness and exoticism. But I’m now exhaling relief that I’ll get to see more Asian American life on a box that had rarely shown it because we were a “model minority” of foreigners. So yes, this show is finally our wheel. But we shouldn’t expect one wheel to go everywhere. Until the struggles and diversity of Asian America grab the spotlight, I take comfort in knowing that Fresh Off the Boat has helped start, and will continue, a conversation that America didn’t know it was supposed to have. Let the ice thaw.
Nadia Y. Kim is a sociology professor at Loyola Marymount University and author of Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA.