Eddie Huang’s much anticipated series, Fresh Off the Boat, is the first sitcom featuring an Asian American family in over 20 years. Huang’s unabashed voice has been a refreshing streak in the conversation about the Asian American, and particularly the Taiwanese and Chinese American, experience. In an article regarding the series, the memoir it’s based off on, and his critics, Huang expresses his belief that “It’s not enough for one person to represent us. We need many people. People are going to disagree, but, you know what? They gotta make another show.”
We should take Mr. Huang’s suggestion seriously and advocate for multitudes of voices. But I’d like to investigate FOB the memoir, along with another very different book. Accidental Asian, Notes of a Native Speaker was published over 25 years earlier than FOB, by Eric Liu. Now, Accidental Asian did not quite take the world by storm, or really anything by storm. And frankly it’s just not that kind of book. It’s a quiet, humble, yet piercing look at the Taiwanese American perspective that sits on an entirely different plane than FOB. FOB and AA are both critical and honest depictions of what it means to be Taiwanese American while being wildly different. Neither are any sort of final word on the matter, but a closer look at these two experiences are a solid way to open up new avenues to talk about how we can contextualize personal choices and what it means to be Taiwanese American.
Liu’s opening piece sets the tone for the rest of the book. It’s the melancholy wash that is in the background of every story to follow. Liu is incredibly successful by any standards, and in Accidental Asian his analysis is sound, his sense of history nuanced, and his honesty breaking. There’s a refreshing openness to his tone, but also a sense of loss. Despite the success, peace, and love he has found and earned, his is a story of assimilation. There’s a palpable twinge of regret, but also a mature acceptance of his choices and strong sense of self.
The collection of stories from Liu’s upbringing will be familiar to many of us, highlighting the tensions in the life of immigrants and their children. The push and pull of languages, the growth and shrinkage of distance between family, the emphasis versus downplaying of “Asianness” in a variety of situations, and the ever shifting dynamics of personal development and identity. Liu talks levelly about his gains and his sacrifices in a process of assimilation larger than him.
How did I end up here, standing in what seems the very seat of whiteness, gazing from the promontory of social privilege? How did I cover so much ground so quickly? What was it, in my blind journey, that I felt I should leave behind? And what did I leave behind? This, the jettisoning of one mode of life to send another aloft, is not only the immigrant’s tale; it is the son’s tale, too. By coming to America, my parents made themselves into citizens of a new country. By traveling the trajectory of an assimilist, so did I.
In great contrast, Huang’s memoir is rooted in resistance. Having tried (and perhaps failing) a number of times to find enough acceptance, Huang took a more aggressive path. Where Liu couldn’t beat them and thus joined them, Huang couldn’t join them, and so beat them. Literally. Huang’s memoir is brimming with fistfights. Huang faced a kind of blatant racism that Liu did not, the kind that ossifies a person’s view of his or her relationship with the white majority they are surrounded by.
I wanted something they’d taken from me. People say kids always tease and that it’s an innocent rite of passage, but it’s not. Every time and Edgar or Billie called me a “chink” or “Chinaman” or “ching chong” it took a piece of me…Unlike others who let it eat them up and took it to their graves, I refused to be that Chinese kid walking everywhere with his head down. I wanted my dignity, my identity, and my pride back; I wanted them to know there were repercussions to the things they said. There were no free passes on my soul and everything they stole from me I decided I’d take back double.
Huang’s writing is colorful, unapologetic, driving, and hilarious. He has not an ounce of Liu’s elegance. On the contrary, FOB is unconventional, and maybe a little messy. But it is no less nuanced that AA. I can’t lie, I didn’t understand a single hip hop reference (there were many) but every single mention of food (there were many) was intensely familiar. There’s a somewhat random beef noodle soup recipe in the middle of this book. I don’t know why, but I don’t hate it. Huang writes poignantly about growing up in predominately white communities and the struggles people of color face in such adversity. I found familiar wounds in the text, as well as familiar fire. FOB is a rambunctious read and perfect foil to AA.
Despite the enormous difference of the two memoirs, both are authentic depictions of ways we resist stereotypes in America. Both explore how we navigate our families and school and work. Both lay bare the hurt we’ve experienced as immigrants and children of immigrants. Our sense of homelessness juxtaposed to a deep-rooted sense of where we came from.
I’ve been told that I’m “whitewashed” and I’ve been told that I’m “too Asian.” I’ve been both repelled and drawn towards groups of Asian peers. I’ve been so at home yet so alienated both in my hometown of Columbus and in the streets of Taipei. What these two memoirs highlight is that we cannot judge others choices on who they decide to be, whether they be of the Huang flavor or tend on the Liu side. These are our choices, our lives. We do the best we can. These books help us see ourselves in the people who choose another way.
Huang’s voice broke through the noise and made it mainstream, drawing attention and opening up a space for us not only to look back at works like AA, but also continue to push new stories onto the scene. We can take this opportunity better aim for a vibrant community of many voices to stir up some healthy conversation and support one another. And perhaps eat with one another during book clubs.
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