As a kid, I was a poser trying to keep it real.
At 11 years old in Mrs. Fredrickson’s fifth grade class, I was like most of the other Asian Americans in my school and the surrounding SoCal area. Like them, I was a first generation kid who bumped hip hop (a little too much) as my pants sagged low, with a bowl of rice in my left hand and chopsticks in my right.
I struggled through the dichotomy of my childhood. On the one hand, my parents passed down traditions hailing from Hong Kong, but school and the media pressured me into an American way of thinking.
There was this time, back in second grade, when my parents took me to the Chinese Expo in downtown L.A. It was around Chinese New Year and my parents made me wear a traditional silk shirt and pants. I even had a matching cap with a fake braid in the back.
My parents loved it. I hated it.
Other times, I fully embraced my heritage. My favorite films all contained kung fu, whether it was the antics of Jackie Chan, the stoicism of Jet Li or the brilliance of Bruce Lee. While the other kids played tag, I was off in my own fantasy fighting off crowds of bad guys. The other Asian Americans usually joined in, and together we defeated our imaginary hordes with fake swords.
At times, I loved being Chinese. Other times, I wanted to be American.
Recently, ABC premiered the show “Fresh Off The Boat,” a sitcom starring an Asian American family as they get acquainted with their relocation from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Florida. In every sense, it is my childhood. I have never connected so much with a character: 10-year-old Eddie (based off creator Eddie Huang) struggles through the same dichotomy I experienced. That is important.
It is important because for the first time in more than a decade, a TV show chose to star not only an Asian American, but an entire Asian American family. “Vanishing Son” aired 13 episodes from 1994-1995 and “Martial Law” aired 44 episodes between 1998-2000, and like their many predecessors, they focused on martial arts. And no, “The Walking Dead” doesn’t count because of Steven Yeung. It’s worth mentioning, in 2002, ABC aired a pilot episode of “The Chang Family Saves The World,” but it was immediately cancelled.
Asian Americans are a classic example of the model minority myth, which refers to the assumption that a group of people can propel themselves into the middle class and higher by instilling American values, such as hard work, dedication, family cohesion and self sufficiency. In fact, to a degree, it is true. The average income for an Asian American is $66,000, as compared to the national average of $49,800.
But Asian Americans’ financial security does not align with their ethnic class status. Our media representation falls way lower than their percent of the population, and the representations themselves are far from true. We have not “made it,” and the assumption that we have encourages others to ignore blatant discrimination. And one of the most powerful forms of discrimination is exclusion.
“Fresh Off The Boat” doesn’t involve kung fu, stereotypical clothes or heavy accents. It does not reduce the Asian American population to a common character. Rather, it follows a normal American family trying to make it while balancing their Asian traditions. Through this, we see a much truer version of how Asian Americans live, one that parallels my own experiences and that of other Asian Americans.
“Fresh Off The Boat” airs each week at 6 p.m. (MST) on Tuesdays. It is a wonderful critique on what it is to be an Asian American, in a world that warps what that means.
Collegian Columnist Lawrence Lam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LawrenceKLam.