TV's Challenge For 2016: Taking Immigrant Stories To The Next Level
In Fresh Off The Boat's first episode, Eddie Huang walks into the cafeteria of his new middle school for the first time, toting a brown paper bag. As he looks for a seat, we're reminded that on top of the usual new school jitters, Eddie's the lone Asian-American kid in a sea of white faces, each with their pre-packaged Lunchables and pre-packaged friend groups.
If you're the kid of an immigrant, or an immigrant yourself, you know where this is going. One student calls over to Eddie — "Yo, Chinese kid! What's your name again? Something Chinese?" — and invites him to sit at the table. Eddie plops down and pulls out his lunch — a container of noodles. His schoolmates scrunch their noses and recoil. "Get it out of here!" one squeals. "Ying Ming's eating worms."
It's all straight out of the Immigrant Kid Handbook — the other kids finding your lunches radioactive, your name unpronounceable, your parents' rules bizarre, your house otherworldly. For many of us who grew up living these scenes, it's been a delight to watch immigrant coming-of-age stories get the mainstream American TV treatment this year, from Jane the Virgin's pious Catholic abuela to jokes about Dev's height on Master of None to Eddie's lunch. It's cathartic and comforting to watch these familiar themes play out in pop culture, and they've been handled in ways that feel tenderly genuine.
But while we've gotten a huge and long-awaited kick out of what we've seen so far, I know I'm not the only loyal viewer who'll welcome future plotlines and characters that move beyond the Immigrant Kid Handbook and start delving into tougher stuff. Here's the heart of this challenge: Will these shows continue to reflect our experiences, grateful and heart-clutching and breathless as we may be to simply have the chance to see ourselves onscreen? Or will they force us to peer deeper, revealing something new about recent American immigrants' histories and experiences that we'd never considered?
It'll be interesting to see whether, say, Master of None's Aziz Ansari and co-writer Alan Yang take up a dating storyline between "two Asian people," as Ansari put it recently in a reddit AMA in which he was asked why all of the women Dev has crushed on so far have been white. There's rich territory to be mined here — familial guilt, cross-cultural expectation, the trickiness of navigating one's "American" and "traditional" selves. (And with Ravi Patel — who produced a documentary exploring his family's relationship with arranged marriage — on Master Of None's crew, the bench is deep.)
To be sure, these shows have at times already demonstrated a willingness to move past Immigrant Storytelling 101. As Julie Carrie Wong wrote for Vulture, the start of Fresh Off the Boat's second season revealed the "confidence to double down on the question of identity, but in subtler and more ambiguous ways." Take the episode "Good Morning Orlando," in which the dad, Louis (Randall Park), goes on a local TV news show to promote his restaurant and share his goofy impressions of Donald Duck and Sylvester Stallone. Afterward, his wife Jessica (Constance Wu) is incensed. She thinks he's made himself — and other Taiwanese-Americans — look bad.
"Name one Chinese person on TV," Jessica challenges her husband when he says she's overreacting. "Pat Morita," says Louis, invoking the Japanese-American actor who became a stand-in for "wise man of any Asian ethnicity" for decades. Jessica's not satisfied. "We don't get opportunities to be on TV. That's why when we do, we need to present our best faces, not clown around like you did today," Jessica says, comparing his appearance to Sixteen Candles' Long Duk Dong.
Louis thinks about it, agrees to go back on the show, and this time, when one of the hosts earnestly mentions she recently made pot stickers, Louis snaps back: "Is that all Asian culture is to you? Pot stickers?"
But the show doesn't tie that neat bow on the question of Asian-Americans on TV and leave it at that. Jessica still isn't happy with Louis's appearance. She didn't want him to make waves, she wanted him to leave viewers with the impression that Taiwanese-Americans are interesting, pleasant and smart. "You realize that doing all that is impossible, right?" Louis counters. "One person can't be everything. That weather duck isn't going out there thinking about representing all ducks."
This is perhaps one of Fresh Off The Boat's most incisive and introspective commentaries, and the plot serves as meta conversation about the burden that brown folks in mostly white industries carry when they're "the only one." And it's knowingly personal, too: Before the show's first episode even aired, many Asian-American folks were anxious about seeing themselves reflected on TV for the first time in decades, wondering how Fresh Off The Boat would fare. Its writers and producers were of course aware of that burden, and this episode smartly speaks on behalf of that audience to the wider world, but also asks the audience to consider the demands placed on the show.
Master of None has also demonstrated it's looking to complicate our understanding of the first- and second-generation immigrant experiences. The "Indians On TV" episode begins with a montage of racist or simply goofy TV clips caricaturing Indians — the monkey brains scene in Temple of Doom, Ashton Kutcher in brownface for a PopChips ad — but it doesn't stop at skewering stereotypes, or simply beating the drum for more shows with well-rounded Indian lead characters. In the episode, Ansari's Dev pushes a white network executive to explain why he doesn't want two Indian leads in an upcoming pilot, while wondering which is the smarter career move: sticking his neck out for Indian representation in Hollywood, or leveraging the exec's racist emails into a personal career boost. The episode perfectly plays Dev's self-righteousness against his ambition in a way that feels more multi-dimensional and street level than the usual conversations around diversity in Hollywood. (Meanwhile, the episode features three actors of South Asian descent.)
It's interesting to compare the depths of exploration in this episode to the much-loved "Indian Parents," which centers on Dev's mom and dad (played by Ansari's own parents) and his Taiwanese-American friend Brian's dad, all of whom immigrated to the U.S. around the early '80s. Audiences swooned, rightfully, over the quips about Indian snacks, the story about how Dev's mom was too scared to answer the phone on her first day at home alone ("I sat on the couch and cried") and Brian's dad's bittersweet memories of his childhood pet chicken, which wound up as dinner.
The episode clearly resonated, landing loads of glowing write-ups, and at least two kids of Indian immigrants I know made a point of watching it with their own parents over Thanksgiving. It served a long-felt hunger for popular stories about the herculean "coming to America" journeys our parents undertook decades ago, which so many of us have grown to adulthood without really understanding, or even hearing in full.
But as sweet and personally satisfying as this episode was, a part of me couldn't help but think it was also a bit too easy. Maybe going without for so long has left us jaded, but — just like in the case of Eddie's lunch — it seems the challenge for these shows, now, is walking the line between presenting the familiar and comforting, and leaving the audience feeling as though we're being shouted and beckoned at from across the room: Hey! Hey! I saved you a seat. This right here? This is for you.
For years, we've been waiting for these experiences — our experiences — to show up on TV. And now that they're here, fresh little notches on the very wide, stretchy belt of progress, there's another question inherent in the challenge of striving not just to reflect immigrant stories, but to reveal something new about them: If these shows consistently offer up more nuanced explorations into the Asian-American immigrant experience, will other audiences ultimately lose interest and drop out? As the New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum recently cautioned, this surge of diverse shows could easily recede, as it has many times in the past.
So I hope these shows will continue to evolve into deeper, subtler, more searching immigrant storylines, and that broad audiences will stick around if they do. But in the meantime, as we're seeing more and more of these shows, and more and more of these characters — immigrants like our dads or moms or ourselves — it's been an unalloyed delight to finally feel like someone's saving us a seat at the table.
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