Eddie Huang (restaurateur, former lawyer, former drug dealer, and as of last night, TV show creator) is in transition. He's crossing over into the mainstream and he's ready for the attention. His law degree will come in handy as he moves from the world he's comfortable in (hosting Vice's "Huang's World,"running his restaurant Baohaus), to the less forgiving arena of network TV. His bestselling memoir Fresh off the Boat has been turned into a family-friendly sitcom debuting on ABC this week and Huang's efforts to maintain the humanity, edge and frank discussion of race have been at the forefront of his thoughts. "If you look at the buzz from the TCA's (Television Critic's Association screenings) our show has the most. Why? Because we're telling the truth. And I tell the network, 'Take a hint!' Just tell the truth and people will tune in." The show is notable not just for its depiction of an Asian family on TV but treating them the same as any other American clan: three dimensional and flawed. One gets the sense that Eddie Huang wouldn't let it exist any other way.
"Being Asian in America is complex. You see white culture and you see black culture. Being Asian you say what is my identity? So, I can do kung-fu, math, play violin then become a lawyer or doctor." His identity as a 2nd generation immigrant is informed by his exposure to rap music, skateboarding and the diversity that lives in kitchens like the one in his father's restaurant growing up. His goal is to make sure the show stay true to that struggle for self. "My biggest concerns are the representation of the Asian male, the exotification of the Asian female, and the aping of black culture."
Huang's recent New York magazine piece laid out a common scenario he's faced with: writer writes about his Asian identity honestly; TV company buys the rights to that story; television people try to whitewash it. When the writers on Fresh Off the Boat wanted to change the rap group Gravediggaz to Beastie Boys in a key scene, Huang, the guy who should be happy just for the change to see his memoir turned into a network sitcom, had to explain to them just how much changing the rap group from black to white means. Huang is also the Wonder Years-like narrator on the show. When it comes time to record his voiceover he's combing over every line, sorting out the proper context and inflection. He explains, "I don't give notes for what's funny. I give notes on power."
Eddie's fights with ABC are consistent with his struggles with his other work. He's conscious of his place in the world, in New York and in time. His main concern is using whatever shine he has in the spotlight to pull focus onto the issues that define him and color his world. He recognizes that three seasons into his Vice show he needs to shift the focus away from his personality and onto his guests. He's aware that too much time in the public eye can make you disposable and wants to stay one step ahead. In his race to do interesting work Huang's self-awareness may be his best asset. He's surrounded himself with a network of close friends who help manage his restaurant, his money, and his time. He knows that insulating himself with such a tigttknit group exposes him to the occasional ruffled feathers, but he likes having people around him who will tell him the truth.
If you grow up with your roots in a subversive subculture–in Huang's case hip hop and skateboarding–the appeal of being rebellious usually wears down as you get older. It's such a rarity to see an adult question authority that it feels like the default to just marginalize those who do as loudmouths or troublemakers. Huang has definitely been branded as both of those things, but is quick to defend himself: "I don't think I'm a bad person. I'm a nice dude who refuses to watch things I love get destroyed. But when I've decided you've done something wrong, I tend to show no mercy." Part of the reputation is his roots in the New York food world, especially the sect that worships at the altar of "bad boy chefs" who present a version of New York cool, a carnivorous palate, and a dismissal of authority. It's faux-machismo, 'vegans are dumb' posturing and let's face it, some pretty pedestrian taste in culture. Huang owes a lot of his success to other people having that outlook, but he's dead set on doing it right and not letting his personality get bigger than his work.
As Fresh Off The Boat makes its debut, it's not lost on Eddie Huang how lucky it is that his deeply personal, somewhat warped memoir is making it to network TV. I ask him if its a trip to see his show being advertised on buses and in the subway. He acknowledges that it's crazy but is typically pointed in his response. "I look at them and I think: I wouldn't have done American Gothic posters."