Acro Collective Bookshelf : November

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Editor’s Note: Hey friends! I’m pleased to bring you our new feature, Bookshelf. Each month we’ll hear from Acro Collective creators on what they’re reading. For November, our creators delve into a diverse mix of texts. As we all head off into holiday season, remember to set aside some time for yourself—perhaps with one of these good reads? Continue reading “Acro Collective Bookshelf : November”

Acro Collective Greatest Hits: Celebrating 100 Posts!

I don’t know about you, but I can’t believe that this little project has already reached 100 posts! Thank you so much for continuing to grow with us and for supporting this community of thought, discourse, and love.

To celebrate our first major milestone, I highlight some of our most popular and beloved posts, in case you missed them or feel like revisiting the ideas they present. Stick with us! We love having you, and the best is yet to come.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t believe that this little project has already reached 100 posts! Thank you so much for continuing to grow with us and for supporting this community of thought, discourse, and love.

To celebrate our first major milestone, I highlight some of our most popular and beloved posts, in case you missed them or feel like revisiting the ideas they present. Stick with us! We love having you, and the best is yet to come.

Adventures in Mental Unwellness: Grad School Edition

When I applied for grad school, I thought I had things figured out – at least, as “figured out” as one’s future can be in advance. “Follow your passion,” “Do what makes you happy”…while my inner cynic scoffs at these platitudes, there was another, more hopeful part of me to which they rang true.

I didn’t expect grad school to make me happy, per se. Again and again, I had been told before going in that grad school is an emotionally draining and incredibly stressful environment. But when I accepted my offer to UVA’s English doctoral program, I hoped that my love of what I study, at least, would make the difficult experience worth it. After all, I had already been through a minor existential crisis about being an English major once in undergrad, and that had ultimately reaffirmed how much I cared about studying literature.

When I applied for grad school, I thought I had things figured out – at least, as “figured out” as one’s future can be in advance. “Follow your passion,” “Do what makes you happy”…while my inner cynic scoffs at these platitudes, there was another, more hopeful part of me to which they rang true.

I didn’t expect grad school to make me happy, per se. Again and again, I had been told before going in that grad school is an emotionally draining and incredibly stressful environment. But when I accepted my offer to UVA’s English doctoral program, I hoped that my love of what I study, at least, would make the difficult experience worth it. After all, I had already been through a minor existential crisis about being an English major once in undergrad, and that had ultimately reaffirmed how much I cared about studying literature.

Grad school, though, is a whole ‘nother ball game. Of course, I had been mentally preparing myself for this. But it is one thing to know something in the abstract, and quite another to face it head-on. Or, more precisely, to have your worst fears about academia hit you all at once with the speed of a bullet train.

Maybe I’m overstating things a little, but that’s probably as close as I can get to describing what grad school was like for me over the past year.

On my cohort’s first day of orientation, a wise upper year had told us, “Everyone in the program has imposter’s syndrome.” That had been very reassuring at the time, and I’d tried, at particularly difficult moments in my grad school life so far, to recall that statement and to internalize it. And yet my experience of imposter’s syndrome cut much deeper than I had anticipated.

There’s something peculiar about the English graduate program milieu that makes you overanalyze every little interaction you have with anyone else in the department. We are trained to overanalyze what we read, but when I entered the program, it became more and more difficult to disengage from this mode of thinking when I wasn’t studying. I found myself becoming increasingly performative, unconsciously basing my sense of self-worth on the judgment of other people – my professors, my peers, and so on. I think all English grad programs condition their students to think that way – to strive to present or perform better versions of themselves. This is especially true in particularly cutthroat programs that foster competition among their students, but even though there isn’t a toxic sense of competitiveness at UVA (quite the opposite, in fact), I still couldn’t help but measure my achievements and my work unfavorably against that of my colleagues, who, in my view, belonged here that much more than I did.

The more I interacted with fellow members of my first year cohort, the more I questioned my place in the program. They all seemed to be so eloquent and hardworking, but instead of being inspired by their example, I only grew more critical about my own competence. My peers were doing intellectually fulfilling work and networking with all the right people, while I only wanted to watch TV in my spare time. I became more introverted and socially awkward than I’ve ever been, because I was tired of trying to recalibrate my persona to better match up to that of my overachieving colleagues. I could barely make an effort to connect with professors outside of class (even though establishing good relationships with professors had been so emotionally and intellectually fulfilling in undergrad, and was part of what compelled me to apply to grad school in the first place), because I didn’t have a clue about what kind of research I wanted to pursue and didn’t want them to find out I was a hack. Because I was so concerned with struggling to perform a better version of myself, my self-perception became dangerously warped. When colleagues complimented me on a presentation I gave, for example, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were just being nice, because I’d become too unsure about my competence to know whether any of the work I was doing was valuable.

This was only the beginning of the program, and I knew that more challenging work would follow later on. So I expected coursework to be manageable – for my graduate seminars to just be more advanced versions of my undergraduate courses. And that is in fact what they are. But under these particular conditions, coursework became much more difficult than what I had prepared for – I seemed to have become a worse instead of a better reader. Whereas I’d tried my best to be a lively and interested participant in my undergraduate classes, in my new seminars I struggled to utter anything coherent – or anything at all – and wondered if I just couldn’t understand or interpret assigned readings as well as everyone else. Sometimes, in particularly dense texts, words on a page would become meaningless strings of letters to me.

I couldn’t write my essays with the same schematic efficiency with which I was used to tackling them. Essay writing had always stressed me out more than any other type of assessment, but I always tried to be strategic about it: I knew what I needed to do, and how much time I needed, and was able to follow a schedule for the most part, even if the end result wasn’t always satisfactory. Since coming here, however, the strategic game plan I became so accustomed to following had broken down almost completely. This past semester especially, I only found myself staring into the space between knowing what I needed to do for a particular writing assignment and actually doing it. I couldn’t get the words out.

I became terrifyingly ambivalent about departmental social events, because I knew that I would feel too self-conscious to socialize properly if I went, but isolated from potentially fun and generative interactions if I didn’t. I began to sleep too much, or too little. I would deliberately stay up very late, way beyond any legitimate point of wakefulness, because I didn’t really have anything look forward to the next day, other than the work I was avoiding. I’d made myself an emergency pick-me-up YouTube playlist in anticipation of particularly bad days, but on most days when I’ve really needed something to lift my mood, I couldn’t bring myself to even open any of the links. I would just stay in my room, and cry a lot, without being able to discern exactly why I was crying other than because “I was tired.” Sometimes I even struggled to leave my room to do the most basic things, like eating or taking a shower. In short, I became very depressed.

This is not my first encounter with depression. I was clinically diagnosed when I was nineteen. I have been to therapy, and taken antidepressants, though ultimately I’ve found that the most useful thing for me was to do little things on a day-to-day basis to keep my triggering emotions under control. It worked for me in undergrad – for a while, I was “better.” But the thing about depression is that even though it can be treated, there’s no complete cure. It’s like you’re sitting at the bottom of a well, trying to climb closer to the top, and sometimes succeeding. But sometimes you can slip and fall, and discover that what you’d previously assumed to be the bottom of the well is a false bottom, and that you can fall even lower. Grad school revealed a false bottom for me. I thought I’d gotten better, but after I came to grad school, the irreconcilable gap between my desire to be a good student and my inability to do so made my unhealthy thoughts that much more overwhelming and debilitating. I’d hit a new low, and am still trying to crawl my way up.

I haven’t told many people about being depressed, not because I’m ashamed, but because I’m afraid that people will treat me differently. This is a part of who I am, but it doesn’t define me. When I’m not in an especially bad funk, I can turn my self-deprecation into humor, and in making fun of it, make myself feel better about it. I can be fun and sociable. But I kept it mostly to myself, because I didn’t want to deal with the stigma, the damaging stereotypes that people still have of what depression means. I didn’t have the mental wherewithal to tell people that I couldn’t just change my mindset and get better. I was afraid of being handled like a delicate object, of people telling me I should seek help, drop out of school, and so on (especially because variations of all of these things have been said to me before, on occasions when I was feeling particularly vulnerable). Worse yet, I didn’t want to be dismissed as “crazy” – I didn’t want to be more socially isolated than I already felt. But finally, I had to confess – I had to get the words out, even if they end up doing me more harm than good. It isn’t my job to demystify depression to anybody, but I wanted to be honest. I wanted people to understand that, even if my depressive thoughts may overwhelm me without warning, I can make decisions for myself. Even if I may not always succeed at it, I am an adult.

I’m not confident that I’ll get better. But I’m not convinced that leaving grad school would be the right thing to do, either. I think it would be too simplistic to identify grad school as the “cause” of my depression, even if it exacerbated many of my worst symptoms. But what’s to say doing something else would make me “happy”? I’m not ready to give up on grad school just yet. I’m struggling to rekindle my former love of what I study, because there was a time when I was a curious and inquisitive burgeoning literary scholar, and I miss that.

I have new challenges to look forward to next year, and of course, more time to think about if this is what I really want to do. For now, though, I think I’ll stay where I am, because even if it’s not always fun and not always rewarding, coming to terms with my depression in grad school has nonetheless been a productive learning experience. And so, in spite of all the difficult things I’ve been grappling with over the past year, I’d like to keep pursuing this, as though it were an adventure.

Fresh Off the Boat Roundtable: Eps. 11 and 12

Today in our Fresh Off the Boat roundtable, we discuss episodes 11 and 12. “Very Superstitious” (11) deals with Jessica’s superstitions as she continues her real estate career, and the way Louis and Eddie tell white lies that build up to a visit from Child Services. In “Dribbling Tiger, Bounce Pass Dragon,” (12) Louis steps up to coach Eddie’s basketball team and Jessica volunteers to direct the school play. Both parents balance their expectations of teamwork and work ethic with their childhood experiences (or lack thereof) with fun.

 

K: So episode 11, “Very Superstitious,” revolves around Jessica’s superstitions—especially involving the number 4. More broadly, though, it arguably explores the importance of superstition within Asian and Asian-American culture as well. What did you guys think of this representation of superstition, which is sometimes seen as exaggerated, even farcical? Do you think the show’s depiction of superstition comes off as orientalist in some ways, by “othering” the superstitiousness within this Asian-American family?

E: I think this episode highlighted one of the tensions I sense underlying the show’s writing in general: the enjoyment of Asian American audiences when they recognize specifically “Asian” things from their childhoods being represented on TV, versus the danger that representing these things will be exoticizing from a white audience’s point of view. A lot of Asian American audience members have taken to twitter and other platforms saying, “It’s so cool to see X or Y on TV, my childhood was definitely like that” regarding specific Asian things—like the Chinese Learning Center from an earlier episode, for example. But while that was a very real thing for lots of young Chinese-American kids, it also perpetuates the stereotype of Asian-American kids being the studious model minority. So it seems like a difficult balance between the two: pleasing the Asian American audience with what seems familiar, while trying to avoid exoticizing it for a white audience.

But with regard to this particular episode, I feel like there was a slight difference between Jessica’s superstition and, say, Grandma’s—because Jessica was already presented as someone who loves Stephen King, that makes her superstition less of an “all Asians, old traditions” thing in my eyes, and more of an individual quirk. That’s maybe only visible to people watching closely, who have these Asian American tropes in mind, though. I feel like if you approach this episode thinking that Asian-Americans are superstitious already, it’d be easy to read the episode as confirming that…whereas it might actually do some work against that, but in a very subtle way.

B: I agree that the danger of presenting these familiarities is exoticization from non-Asian cultures to an extent. The Huang family’s borderline irrational superstition in this episode, from Jessica to Louis (“Give me my jade!”) to the grandma lighting incense on the toilet, is a bit extreme and could be perceived as “othering” of this Asian-American family. Not to play devil’s advocate, but I know the writers are also attempting to make the show universal as best as they can. So overall, it’s about a family struggling to assimilate and fit in—that’s an experience everyone’s had in some way or another. This episode builds off of the characterization we’ve already seen with Jessica in past episodes—her love/fear of Stephen King and the nightly news, for example. So that is presented as more of an individual quirk, like you said Esther, versus the grandma’s very traditional form of superstitious practices. But I think there’s a part where they bring in white/American superstitions as well—when they’re at Cattleman’s Ranch, with tossing salt over one’s shoulder or something equivalent—that shows that these superstitions are not unique to just Asian culture.

K: There’s definitely a double valence to this whole plot. I liked that the way they ended it, with the grandmother’s knowledge of rituals helping save the rest of the family from their apparent bad luck, which shows that the Huangs’ superstition is not entirely silly or unfounded. And as you pointed out, B, the bit with Nancy and the others in the restaurant also signified that superstition is not exclusive to Asian-American culture. What I didn’t like, however, was Louis telling Eddie that it was okay to lie “for the greater good”—i.e. to keep Jessica’s fears about bad luck infiltrating the household at bay. Obviously this was meant to be a humbling lesson for Louis in the end, but at the same time…the way this whole subplot played out just felt really odd to me.

B: Going back to what we were discussing before (not related to just this episode but the show in general): it’s a delicate balance to present content that’s identifiable among the Asian-American community but to not consequently perpetuate certain stereotypes. But I think Eddie being the central character – even if he’s far from the real-life Eddie Huang – alleviates some of that model minority weight. Eddie is pretty much the opposite of a model minority (although his two brothers aren’t). I guess his parents constantly disapproving and pointing this out perpetuates that Tiger parents stereotype on their part, but I do think Eddie’s voice mitigates that somewhat.

Now to Louis: I still think the writers are not completely sure of how to deal with his characterization. While he usually redeems himself from his faux pas, he again negatively influences Eddie and writes off Jessica’s fears. Are the creators playing up the somewhat incompetent archetypal sitcom dad with Louis?

E: Yeah, I see that sitcom stereotype hovering in the background: the incompetent, less attractive dad and the hot hawkish mom. But I also never really know what to say about Louis’ storylines/character because I feel like it’s so clunky, and when he makes these missteps (like telling Eddie it’s ok to lie), the show never really addresses it fully—or the fallout is something that Eddie deals with, not Louis.

B: At least Louis offered up an apology this time, and admitted that superstition is real if you believe in it, aligning with Jessica. That’s a step further than how he’s dealt with past incompetencies.

Though what resulted from the web of lies led to something pretty serious: Child Protective Services paying a visit. This could have invoked something in the real-life Eddie Huang, who was abused as a child by his father. Eddie sent out a series of tweets denouncing the show, stating that it has strayed so far from his life that he doesn’t recognize it anymore. Eddie’s gone back and forth on this, on one hand saying that the show is a positive thing for Asian-American representation, but also claiming that it bastardizes his memoir.

Could ABC have done more with this show (preserving more of the memoir’s authenticity and not making light of serious issues like child protective services) while keeping it palatable for network TV/a wide audience?

K: That’s a good point, B. I’d forgotten about the child abuse storyline in the memoir that was left out of the show. In light of that fact, I feel like maybe the inclusion of the Child Protection Services agent was a really oblique, sitcom-friendly way for them to reference the child abuse? I don’t know how much they can include about that part of the real Eddie’s childhood beyond that, because while it may be bastardizing his memoir, the show is obviously catering to a general audience that probably isn’t ready to confront that kind of storyline in the context of a sitcom.

B: Within the scope of a sitcom, I agree it’s challenging to feature grittier issues like child abuse. There are other parts of his memoir that can translate, though, that the show doesn’t yet capitalize on. For instance, the real-life Eddie’s made it a point to address how hip-hop was a form of catharsis for him, amid many of the struggles he encountered growing up. FOTB still fails to add that kind of complexity to the hip-hop narrative, and Eddie has yet to have a meaningful bond with a black character (any development with Walter kind of petered off). So maybe that’s something to look forward to in future episodes/if the show gets renewed.
K: Now let’s move on to episode 12, “Dribbling Tiger, Bounce Pass Dragon.” I liked this episode a lot better than episode 11, if only because it confronted myths about Asianness in a much cheekier way. The most distinct example of this would be the Mystic Tiger League that Louis was a part of, and Eddie’s fantasies about Taiwanese-style basketball. As the title indicates, this refers to popular Chinese wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but I also interpreted it as an allusion to Shaolin Soccer (2001), another popular Chinese movie that had martial arts as a central trope. While Louis connects the basketball team (sans Dmitri) with “the band of misfits”—one of whom is a girl—in The Mighty Ducks, this group dynamic also describes the soccer team in Shaolin Soccer. And I think the reference is made more overt with Eddie’s fantasy about the wire-fu style basketball that his father must have played in Taiwan. Of course, the Shaolin Soccer reference could be seen as an anachronistic imposition, given that the show is set in the 90s, but regardless, I thought that attributing orientalist imaginings of the mystic, eastern, Taiwanese-style sports culture to Eddie’s point of view [since he is a second-generation Asian-American, after all] was a very clever move on the show’s part.

Photo @FreshOffABC/Twitter
Photo @FreshOffABC/Twitter

B: Yeah, K, that’s an incredible reading. I do like the way the creators confront these myths about Asians head-on, especially when a lot of that is propagated by the media. Louis kind of dispels that with his actual coaching versus Eddie’s fantasy sequences. I love how you saw the tie-in with “Shaolin Soccer.” It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but it’s such a fantastic film.

Also in this episode: Jessica rewrites the nonsensical play Emery and Evan are in, titling it “Acting: A Cautionary Tale.” She thinks being in the play is pointless and asks her sons if they really think anyone is going to put two Chinese boys on TV. “Maybe if there’s a nerdy friend or a Chinatown.” This is pretty accurate commentary on the state of Asian representation in the media. However, it’s juxtapositioned in that it’s presented on a show about Asians with two Chinese boys, and this episode pays homage to “All-American Girl,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Shaolin Soccer.” Was this the writers’ tongue-in-cheek way of commenting on how this situation is beginning to improve?

Photo @FreshOffABC/Twitter
Photo @FreshOffABC/Twitter

E: I appreciated how tongue-in-cheek the references of this episode were, especially because Shaolin Soccer itself (and Crouching Tiger, to some extent), also function as meta-commentaries on their respective genres. In a similar way, Fresh off the Boat itself is an intervention in the genre of the sitcom. But I agree, Belinda, I think FotB has failed to address a lot of the issues open to them in their complexity (the role of hip hop in minority cultures of many kinds, as you mentioned, is one example), and I’m starting to turn away from our earlier excuses that this is ok because it’s an ABC show. Sure, the sitcom format is limiting, but I think it’s more open as a vehicle of critique than a lot of commentators have brought up.

My hope is that by bringing up this lineage of other Asian faces in media (especially All-American Girl), the show is preparing for a more complex next season–one in which it can move beyond the issue of just “representation” (ie. mere presence) and delve more deeply into specific issues of the Asian American community and identity.

But I’m also afraid referencing All-American Girl is a nod to the fact that Fresh Off the Boat might be similarly short-lived. So Jessica’s ironic commentary about Asian actors not making it can be read as a joke (since they’re obviously on TV), but it’s a joke that might still be too real, you know?

Basically, the show might nod to improvement in the representation of Asian Americans in mass media, but I think it’s also very wary of it. It seems to be doing well, but as we pointed out when the show began, it might get crushed under the weight of being basically the only representation of Asian American families on TV.

K: I agree that the show really dropped the ball when it comes to certain issues that it could have addressed more substantially, but didn’t. That being said, I’m glad both of you brought up All-American Girl, because the dramatic irony of that particular scene (“See? There are Asians on TV!”) highlighted for me the burden that the show faces because it’s the only one of its kind (that is, a contemporary show about an Asian-American family). Before the show premiered, Wall Street Journal writer Jeff Yang wrote a really moving piece about his complex relationship to both All-American Girl and Fresh off the Boat, since as a TV critic he contributed to the cancellation of the former, and as Hudson Yang’s father and as an Asian-American journalist, he is very much invested in the success of the latter. The fact that it took so long for an Asian-American family to return to TV really showcases how much scrutiny FOTB faces by virtue of its singularity, but I think that also highlights how we can’t hold the show as solely accountable for its representations of, well, anything — though that’s not to say it shouldn’t be immune to criticism, either. So I agree with you, E, that the joke of “There ARE Asians on TV” might hit very close to home for the cast and crew. Especially since the ratings have been dropping steadily since the pilot, and we still don’t know if it’s gonna be renewed next season.

 

The timing of this episode’s airing also coincided with me watching Margaret Cho’s concert film, I’m the One that I Want, for my feminist theory class. Cho talked extensively about the failure of the show in I’m the One—how her face and body were deemed inappropriate for American TV, how she was pressured into losing 30 pounds in a very short period of time, how an “Asian consultant” was hired for her, how eventually all the Asians other than her and one other actress were fired. Her descriptions of how much the show/her protagonist within it was sanitized for an American audience, and how much her body was policed during the show’s production, were particularly resonant with Eddie Huang’s criticisms of FOTB. But I think both versions of the “sanitized” Asian-American family speak to how much work is still to be done before Asian-Americans on TV can be represented adequately without much concession to a general, perhaps oblivious, American audience.

 

B: I’m sure many critics and viewers identify with Jeff Yang’s assessment of the two shows, even though they didn’t contribute to All-American Girl’s cancellation or have special interest in FOTB. From what I understand, All-American Girl wasn’t very well-received when it premiered, especially among the Korean-American community (which should’ve been its target audience) because Margaret Cho’s voice was so suppressed. I talked to Diane Mizota, an Asian-American actress, who actually interned on the show at the time. She said the writer’s room was really homogenous, with its makeup of mostly white men, and a “Korean correspondent,” who would come in every now and then and basically say, “Yeah, you bring fruit to someone’s house when you visit.” FOB’s showrunner is a POC and wanted to avoid that this time around, so the show is better staffed and inherently more likely to thrive that way. And another difference is that now, people welcome and champion diversity.

E: At least, I hope that people welcome and champion diversity. Though I also think that with the perceived success of minorities in media and other areas, there will be a stronger backlash against their/our presence, as you pointed out in your earlier piece, B.

B: True. I guess we’ll have to see how the show’s ending pans out, too. FOTB—while scrutinized because of its singularity (even with our roundtable analyses)—also receives so much support from the Asian-American community; we may not think the show is perfect, but we are tuning in and tweeting about it and sharing it on social media regardless, and I think that’s important.

The Fresh Off the Boat season finale airs Tuesday night. Will you be watching? What are your thoughts on the show so far?

Fresh Off the Boat: Roundtable Ep. 9/10

Now let’s look at “Blind Spot!” This episode drew a lot of attention because it spotlighted the LGBTQ community, bringing in a gay Asian character (who will be recurring if the show gets renewed for a second season) and presented other gay characters. However, the creators of the show took a stereotypical approach. Oscar is a flamboyant and effeminate “Gaysian,” and the lesbians at the bar are butch and rowdy. While these over-the-top portrayals are necessary to the plotline of Jessica’s “gaydar” being broken, are they problematic? Should they have been more nuanced?

E: So before we start, B, I want to ask you about meeting the show’s creators!

B: I got to briefly introduce myself to [FotB writer/executive producer] Nahnatchka and tell her about my capstone project [for my journalism degree]. I asked if I could interview her about FOB and she directed me to her assistant! I’ve contacted him and am waiting to hear back. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to discuss anything at length with her.

But it was a great forum because it featured her and several LGBT activists and performers, including Rex Lee, who plays Oscar!

K: Aahhh that’s so cool!

E: Ooh cool! Let us know how the interview goes if you get to do it!

Ok, let’s get started? Continue reading “Fresh Off the Boat: Roundtable Ep. 9/10”

Fresh Off the Boat: 7 and 8!

This week on Fresh off the Boat: the team discusses masculinity, competition, and all the feels.

This week we’re looking at Fresh Off the Boat episodes 7 and 8. A quick recap: In episode 7, Louis proudly shows off his new Cattleman’s Ranch billboard, only to get involved in a vandalism showdown with the owner of the huge franchise chain Golden Saddle. We later learn that Louis stole the manual from Golden Saddle to start Cattleman’s. Meanwhile, Eddie struggles to get Nicole to notice him. In episode 8, the show introduces us to Phillip, another Asian-American boy at Eddie’s school. The episode explores the school’s attempts to force them together as ‘best friends,’ competition between the two boys, and the idea of being a “good Chinese boy.”

Esther: Episodes 7 and 8 had pretty different focuses and covered a lot of ground in terms of topics. Shall we start with episode 7 (“Showdown at the Golden Saddle”)? What did you guys think of the way this episode wove in two different pop-culture genres: the western and the gangster film? Was the episode satisfying in addressing the hypermasculinity of these two genres, translated into the sitcom lives of our characters?

Belinda: While those two genres are certainly hypermasculine, I didn’t quite see that aspect playing out in episode 7. Louis’ takeaway from his love of gangster films is that one needs to provide for his family at any cost, something in line with Asian-American (and other) immigrant values to a certain extent. What he ends up doing with the copyright infringement isn’t necessarily conventionally “masculine” (running away and essentially “stealing” an idea), but also isn’t illegal—it is actually not a bad entrepreneurial decision in the end, as Jessica points out. Jessica has such a strong voice and is so supportive of Louis that she softens his role as the patriarchal head. His need to provide for his family is undoubtedly masculine, but it’s not hypermasculine, akin to what we see in gangster movies.

Karen: First of all, full disclosure: I didn’t like episode 7 very much. I understand what they were trying to do, and it was interesting that they incorporated these classic film genres, but the episode as a whole wasn’t very funny (and that doesn’t even get into the weirdness of the b-plot, which we can talk about later). Anyway, I think Louis’ “competition” with the Golden Saddle can certainly be seen as a competition in hypermasculinity—especially because so far in the show, Louis has been all about what’s good for the business and by extension for his family financially (since he’s the de facto patriarchal head of the Huangs). I’m not so sure about the gangster film genre, but I agree with you, B, that it was nicely translated into an analogue for the (Asian-American) immigrant experience. Also a random, superficial aside: Jessica looks great with her curly hair and yellow dress!

E: Money and business have always been the ways in which Louis’ masculinity have been expressed, to me—especially since the whole show started with Louis moving the family away to avoid being under his brother-in-law’s thumb. I like that the show has attempted to subvert the narrative of the masculine patriarch with Jessica’s strong voice and character. Though I agree, K, this episode came across as pretty muddled and ultimately not that interesting to me. I did relate to Eddie’s bus struggle though, haha.

B: He wasn’t actively trying to compete with Golden Saddle, though. He ripped off of their idea and just hoped to succeed, and ended up almost surpassing them. I guess that competition comes into play with the whole billboard fiasco. The image of Louis getting squirted with the udders was pretty emasculating and disturbing, now that I think about it. Jessica’s right there with him, always on par and as a support system, so yeah that does subvert that patriarchal narrative.

E: Even though he wasn’t trying to compete directly, I think the show paints Louis as invested in a kind of traditional ‘American’ masculinity. Thus he opens the quintessential American ‘manly’ enterprise—a steakhouse. But I wonder if the show has been trying to break down this investment—like with the Wyatt storyline? Where the perfect masculine figure, who is also great at business, somehow disturbs and dissatisfies Louis.

K: Right. But then again, the Wyatt thing can also be seen as a kind of competition for hyper-masculinity. Louis can be seen as dissatisfied because he isn’t as perfectly macho as Wyatt. Speaking of masculinity…Eddie’s whole courting of Nicole in episode 7, if we can call it that, made me really uncomfortable. The show has already established Eddie’s interest in her, but in previous episodes she’d flippantly ignored or rejected him, which undercuts his weird/uncomfortable advances. But in this episode Nicole is starting to be nicer to him, which makes it seem like the way Eddie has been trying to woo somehow okay? I don’t know, it was a forgettable b-plot altogether, but it just felt odd to me because Eddie never gets called out for his casually sexist behavior (even in the context of him being a kid and not knowing better).

B: I hope the show doesn’t take it in that direction; the idea of Eddie and Nicole dating is extremely uncomfortable for me. The age gap, in itself, seems inappropriate, in addition to Eddie’s misogynistic advances and behavior. I think they’ve just reached this point of understanding… Nicole is friendlier with Eddie on the bus, but I don’t know, and hope it’s not indicative of a budding relationship.

fotb7_1
Jessica, Eddie, and Nicole | Photo @FreshOffABC/Twitter

K: Yeah, that’s true, they can just leave it like that and not develop it, which is what I hope the show will do.

E: I’m hoping she develops into that ‘90s trope of the cool older sister/friend who acts as a guide to life rather than a straightforward romantic interest.

K: That would be cool too!

B: Agreed…and she’d be a female character Eddie’s age. There really aren’t any of them in this show. It would do the show a favor to have her as his friend rather than love interest.

K: Also true.

E: Shall we move on to discussing episode 8? I thought this episode was much more productive and interesting than “Showdown at the Golden Saddle.”

K: YES!! I think the whole dynamic between Eddie and Phillip, and how Phillip acts as a foil to him in almost every way, was very well done without feeling too heavy-handed. The show really nicely avoided having the two Asian-American boys stick together just by virtue of their ethnicity, when it was clear they had nothing else in common. I love that despite all their teachers’ intentions of having the two of them pair up and be buddies at every turn, Eddie and Phillip were not here for that.

E: Lol the principal’s discomfort at calling Phillip in to meet Eddie was hilarious.

B: That also showed how teachers and principal were inadvertently racist, in a sense, to naturally assume that the two would get along because of their shared ethnicity.

E: Yeah, that discomfort (so ‘politically correct’) seemed to acknowledge on the administrator’s part his own awareness of how racist it was to assume that.

B: And the principal’s strange photo for his ex-wife showing “open-mindedness”… it was actually kind of the opposite of that, haha.

K: Yes, the principal character is a really great parody of PC white people in general.

E: Yeah I really liked that because it made this practice of shoving like-raced students together the butt of the joke. And I don’t know about you guys but that was an experience I personally went through at my school.

K: I didn’t have that experience because I went to a predominantly Asian-Canadian high school. And middle school. And elementary school…

E: I thought the episode did a really great job showcasing a common theme of Asian-American writing and experience—competition for achievements and managing the crushing pressure of expectations.

 

B: But Eddie doesn’t feel the need to compete. He’s really secure in who he is, which I like. He just doesn’t give a fuck, haha. But he does get annoyed with his mother for swooning over Phillip.

K: Yeah, I think that is a common experience, though—to have the expectations of your parents thrust upon you when you don’t want to engage in that with your peers. I’ve certainly had my mom told me multiple times, “why can’t you be more like [Asian-Canadian friend]?”

Photo @FreshOffABC/Twitter
Photo @FreshOffABC/Twitter

B: Esther, that person was always you for me. Hahahaha.

E: Yeah the show ultimately rejects the narrative of intense competition, making Jessica less of a Tiger Mom figure. I thought the Jewishness of Phillip’s parents might be a clear nod to the controversy surrounding Amy Chua’s book, where she brags about the combined might of her Asian parenting skills and her husband’s Jewish background.

K: Ohh, I haven’t read Amy Chua but that’s a really interesting connection.

 

B: Yeah it is. But what’s interesting is that Phillip is, in fact, brought up solely by Jewish parents, but is the more competitive and “model minority” one. His parents were saying that HE’s strict with THEM… like with the Shabbat practices. So it seems like Phillip was less driven by his parents to be that way, and just more inherently “perfect” by Jessica’s standards.

E: Well Jewish people were the original “model minority,” lol.

 

K: Ultimately, though, I love that Jessica stuck up for Eddie when Phillip ditched him at Les Mis. That was such a Crowning Moment of Heartwarming.

 

B: Yeah, that was definitely a d’aww moment! My favorite moment between the two of them. So in the end, Jessica valued Eddie’s selflessness and was put off by Phillip’s selfishness/dishonesty. Without that crucial flaw, though, Jessica wouldn’t have aligned with Eddie. So I think that was a bit heavy-handed, that Phillip had to have a major flaw. But ultimately, it still works and is a powerful moment.

E: What I really loved about this episode’s focus was the way it deconstructed these themes of hyper-competition and achievement among Asian American kids that get thrown around mainstream media all the time.

K: Yes, exactly!

E: It was so nice to see those moments of competition dealt with “from the inside,” so to speak, on major network TV, because so often I see these tropes discussed in really casual, uninformed ways. Like, “all Asian people stick together” or “all Asian American kids are such high achievers” without anything to back that up, or any experience to discuss it in depth. And this offered some pushback against the prevalence of those surface ideas about competition in the Asian American community, without feeling totally contrived.

K: My favorite moment in this episode, though, was when Eddie and Walter FINALLY became friends. I yelped at the TV screen when that happened!

E: Yeah, that was so great. It also felt so real to me, like—that instantaneous bond that kids can feel over a shared love of something despite all of their earlier prickly interactions.

B: But it happened to be over WHITE rappers. I was stoked to see them finally bond, but thought it was a tiny bit cursory just because of their former rivalry.

E: That was an instance when Eddie’s age worked really effectively though. I think that was something that could only really happen to a child – that instantaneous effect. Can’t wait to see if and how their friendship will develop!

B: While that was a really satisfying ending, I still wish Walter could’ve gotten more screentime in this episode.

K: Yeah, B, but maybe he will have more screentime from now on?

B: Right. I hope it continues to build into a substantial friendship, and doesn’t standalone as a single shared moment. Sure, they’re kids, but some serious shit has gone down between them, like the chink comment. I mean that was misguided and probably something they picked up from adults, but still…but yeah, in the end, I can still see that bond happening over a shared interest.

E: Yeah, we’ll see where the show takes it!

Stay tuned as we follow Fresh Off the Boat’s unfolding! Have thoughts about these episodes or the show in general? Leave us a comment!

Fresh Off the Boat Roundtable: 5 and 6

“My favorite moment in this episode… maybe in this whole show… was when Eddie turned to the white character and said, simply, ‘Shut your damn mouth.’ Now that’s a mic drop moment.”

This week our roundtable discussion of TV’s Asian American family looks at episodes 5 and 6. Read below for more on Shaq (Fu and Soda, respectively), “the talk,” and more.

Belinda: What stands out most in episode 5 (“Persistent Romeo”) is the discussion of sexual assault, consent and sex, all of which are big issues to tackle in one 25-minute episode of a family sitcom. The fact that “Fresh Off the Boat” even addresses these matters shows a lot of complexity and audacity from the writers. A few scenes stand out. First, there’s Jessica’s “sexual harassment seminar” at Cattleman’s Ranch. This is, of course, played up for laughs, but Jessica ends up essentially harassing the workers (in what we’re supposed to see as a goofy, endearing manner). Louis cuts her off and later hires Dusty Nugget, who similarly gets kind of creepy with the employees. While I think the show has good intentions, do these instances make light of a serious problem?

Karen: I think those are really interesting questions, Belinda, and frankly, I have to say that the fifth episode’s treatment of sexual assault really made me wary and kind of uncomfortable. To begin with, the Dusty Nugget cameo was mostly played for laughs, as were Jessica’s (well-intentioned) attempts at teaching her employees and kids about sexual assault.

Esther: I agree, and I thought the framing device was also problematic: i.e. the way that Jessica’s fears were shown as irrationally stemming from her attention to “nightly news.” That kind of framing makes it seem like an individual woman’s quirk, or a housewife’s boredom, rather than a larger issue that’s worth addressing in a serious way. But I wonder how much this has to do with the limitations of a sitcom format and tone.

K: Yeah, exactly. Her paranoia was framed within her obsession with Stephen King — as a kind of pulpy read. So in that context, her fixation on issues of sexual assault was seen as a singular obsession, too. I agree that the sitcom doesn’t enable one to consider such fears more seriously, though.

B: Yeah, and Louis doesn’t take her and her concerns very seriously. He seems pretty dismissive of her “irrational” fears. It would’ve helped if he agreed that some kinds of precautions, like a sexual harassment seminar (which is normally required) are necessary. Like, he allowed for the sexual harassment seminar to happen to placate her rather than agreeing that it is a good safeguard in its own right.

E: I wonder if that is tied to a class discussion — like in terms of Louis’s money-making “pragmatism.” Which is part of the problematic nature of it, because then sexual assault education becomes a discussion of monetary ‘value’ for the restaurant.

K: Right. That’s a really good point.

@FreshOffABC/Twitter
@FreshOffABC/Twitter

B: Yeah, maybe that’s why he had her lead the seminar to begin with rather than hire someone legitimate.

E: Ugh, Dusty was so sketchy.

B: And even after she kind of botches it, he hires someone illegitimate still.

 

E: I guess that’s the joke, though. I did like when he spoke Mandarin.

B: YES! Hahahah. And not entirely horribly.

 

K: YES! That was hilarious. And so true to life, even — I always switch to Mandarin with my friends or parents when I’m about to rag on someone but don’t want them to know, haha.

B: But essentially, the sexual harassment training should’ve been something that was important to Louis regardless of the cost, and not something that he was forced into doing because of his wife.

E: Right. I kind of want to chalk up this episode as a forgettable attempt to address a topic kind of outside the scope of the sitcom format.

B: Well, many sitcoms address sex, especially in the parent-child context. So I think that was the focus of this episode, but they wanted to throw the whole sexual assault topic in there. Which, again, I think was audacious, but it wasn’t the best delivery.

E: I guess the generous reading of it would be something like: it was nice of them to try and address it, even though it was kind of botched. At least it was put out there? But that’s a pretty generous take on it.

K: Yeah, I appreciated them trying to tackle these kinds of issues, which does ring true to a kind of middle-school experience. From what I’ve heard, it’s also an adaptation from a moment in the memoir.

B: How did we feel about “The Talk” overall? It a strong bonding moment between Louis and Eddie, and it’s great that Lois didn’t want to water anything down, i.e. “Flowers and Watering Cans.” Some of it was a little uncomfortable, though, like when he talks about how excited he is for Eddie’s future spring breaks and how he might come with. Or how he moved to this country so Eddie could have lots of sex. I think this aspect was a lot more solid than the show’s way of addressing assault, but it still seemed a little awkward to me.

K: I think that’s a productive reading, Belinda.

E: Seeing this moment in the context of the next episode, which is more explicitly about father-son bonding, I am inclined to see “the talk” more generously. I appreciate the way that they build up the father-son relationship, and how (uncomfortably) direct the talk is. But there is also a squicky element of treating sex as… a prize? Or something to look forward to that takes the human connection element out of it.

B: Yeah, that’s not the way I see a father explaining sex to an 11-year-old. That’s how I could see an older brother explaining it to a younger brother, or a friend explaining it to a friend. But it definitely seemed like more of a “sex is awesome” kind of discussion rather than “here is what sex is.”

K: For what it’s worth, I do appreciate that Eddie got a less euphemistic talk about sex than the other kids in his class, though.

E: The contrast with the watering can version was pretty hilarious.

B: Yeah, the directness was definitely good and I like that he addresses contraception! Another big highlight is, of course, Jessica’s fervent “anti-date rape” lesson. It’s so over-the-top with her tackling Eddie on the bed with a giant stuffed animal. “You like that? Well, girls don’t either. No means no! Respect girls!” It has an important message but the delivery was, uh, peculiar. How did you feel about the way Jessica handled that?

K: YES, I really appreciated that moment just for the content and the message. But the way it was framed was definitely weird. I feel like we were supposed to be critically distanced from Jessica in that moment, and given how important that message (“no means no”/”don’t date rape”) actually is in a broader context, that made me really uncomfortable. Especially as Louis repeatedly tried to get her to apologize afterwards.

B: Agreed. I didn’t even find that very funny, and I think that was the writers’ intention.

E: Should we transition from there to episode 6’s (“Fajita Man”) handling of the father-son relationship?

Photo @FreshOffABC/Twitter
Photo @FreshOffABC/Twitter

K: Well, for starters, I liked episode 6 a lot more than 5.

B: Me too! This episode is more focused on the Huang family’s internal relationships than previous episodes.

E: I thought they did a very sweet and funny job handling a VERY common, pretty played-out theme: the intergenerational narrating of hard work. I loved that they brought the grandma in to the episode more and allowed her to speak.

K: Yes!! And even bringing in the legacy of the grandfather, while still troubling his work and parental ethics.

B: Me too! And I love that the grandma only speaks in Chinese. I almost wish the parents would interact with her in Chinese, but I know the writers don’t want to put off audience members with too much Chinese.

E: It definitely complicates a traditional narrative of filial piety, since the grandma steps in to point out that this hard emphasis on work alone has emotional costs. And I think that’s something that’s addressed at great length in other formats (I’m thinking of Asian-American literature here), but it’s nice to see a sitcom take on it. And some genuine sweetness. Or, I guess “genuine.”

K: Right. To be honest, I appreciated Louis as a character a lot more after this episode. I didn’t think he was as fleshed out (or perhaps as comedic?) as the other main characters, or even the grandmother, in the previous episodes. But this episode worked well to give him more dimension and deepen his relationship to Eddie.

B: I like that the grandma is able to get through to Louis — and that he follows in his father’s footsteps of promoting strong work ethic in his own son, but is able to soften up and compromise. That definitely makes him more complex and likable in my eyes. And it makes the grandma a more valuable character as well, rather than just a secondary character.

E: Yeah, definitely. I really liked the exchange between Evan and Emory at the table — where they have this weirdly detailed but adorable exchange but Evan’s career as a future pickle-maker, hahaha. The show is really smart about strategically utilizing the cuteness of their characters. I feel like that cuteness also is used too cover up otherwise problematic themes, like the womanizing we talked about re: Eddie.

B: Yes, their adorableness is kind of a distraction. Like comic relief… cuteness relief. I hope the brothers become more developed so that they start interacting with the parents beyond just being these little goody two-shoes, mamas’ boys. Haha.

K: To this episode’s credit, that little moment of interaction between Evan and Emery particularly did develop them a little more, I think… I feel like they maybe connect to each other a little more because they both model the ideal son, albeit in different ways, whereas Eddie is more of a rebellious son. I love the moment when Emery said, “I know you’re expecting me to say [my specialty is] the ladies, but I’m too classy for that.” So much snark!

E: Haha, yeah.

B: Yeah, that’s a good point. It does serve to distinguish them… Side note: I think it’s important that the show promotes work ethic as not just studying and achieving good grades — what many people *may* associated with Asian-American “work ethic” — but also helping out the family. What Eddie does is more on par with physical labor, but it’s still a character-building and father-son bonding activity, and I’m glad the show makes that a positive thing… that it’s not just pushing the “Chinese Learning Center” facet of hard work.

K: Right, it doesn’t feel stereotyped or reductive — especially with the fact that they lingered on the photo of the grandfather at the end. Speaking of work, let’s talk about Jessica’s job search?

E: Starting from the end, I loved that that storyline brought that moment of celebration where Jessica imitates Eddie’s “pimp walk,” haha. It was so cute and went against the stereotype of the stoic Chinese family that’s centered around the patriarch/filial piety.

K: Oh, yeah, that was adorable. I think every episode so far has ended with a feel-good family moment, but so far that one resonated with me the most.

 

E: What I really liked about it was the way this episode took a really clichéd sitcom storyline — the kid trying to buy something he can’t afford — and put an Asian-American spin on it. But that spin also managed to avoid feeling really reductive or essentializing.

B: Agreed! It was a fun moment, and it showed this sense of deeper understanding between Jessica and Eddie. Jessica’s always skeptical of these “fat brown men” Eddie is into, and Eddie feels like she never sides with him. But in the end, she kind of celebrates in a way that resonates with Eddie. And I like that everyone joins in, haha.

K: Yes, not to mention it was really culturally and historically resonant to that particular moment — I looked it up and apparently Shaq Fu WAS a hyped up game that later became dubbed as one of the “worst video games of all time.” LOL.

E: Hahaha.

B: I loved that the show mentioned that! That the one girly game the kid at the table got was so much better in the end, haha.

E: The 9-5 video game was awesome.

K: Yes hahaha. And it had a proto-feminist message! Bless.

B: That 9-5 ending was perf.

K: Thank goodness for Shaq that Soda Shaq (of the Arizona Iced Tea variety) was a much more successful business endeavor.

B: What is this Soda Shaq you speak of and how can I get some?!

K: https://www.drinksodashaq.com/ — For Belinda and any of our viewers who may be curious!

B: I love Arizona Iced Tea! So good to know. haha.

E: My favorite moment in this episode… maybe in this whole show… was when Eddie turned to the white character and said, simply, “Shut your damn mouth.” Now that’s a mic drop moment.

K: Yes, Esther, that was such a good moment, since it addresses a common Asian-American stereotype really well and in a funny way.

B: Not sure if the kid genuinely thought he was Japanese or was trying to tease him. Either way, that was a badass response.

All in all, our team still finds “Fresh Off the Boat” a sweet and fairly balanced look at a particular Asian American family, replete with 90s nostalgia and a great soundtrack. We look forward to next week’s episode. 

Not ready to disembark just yet? We recommend Phil Yu and Jenny Yang’s post-show commentary stream, “Fresh Off the Air.” Access it through The Angry Asian Man Blog, here.

(Link) Fresh Off the Boat Roundtable: 3 and 4

If you missed it earlier, check out our earlier coverage of episodes 3 and 4 on contributor B.C.’s blog here!

…I thought that was really kind of emblematic of the way the show was treating black people — as markers of culture, happening in the background, with very little real interaction or full understanding. Maybe that is a little harsh, but I just feel like there’s a real disconnect between Eddie’s love of black hip-hop and his total failure to talk to real black people in a meaningful way, and the show kind of skirts around that. I just want to love this show without reservations and this element of it is holding me back.