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Fresh Off the Boat and the language of the Asian-American experience

Fresh Off the Boat, the newest addition to ABC’s primetime lineup, has garnered more than its share of attention in the lead-up to its February debut: based on restaurateur Eddie Huang’s critically-acclaimed memoir, it’s the first sitcom in 20 years since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl to feature an Asian-American family at its epicenter, rightfully assuming its place among the network’s recent crop of 21st-century family comedies, including Modern Family, Blackish, and Cristela.

This fanfare comes at a time when Asian-American identity politics is, for all intents and purposes, increasingly front and center in our national dialogue; in the wake of Wesley Yang’s seminal “Paper Tigers” essay in New York Magazine, Jeremy Lin’s meteoric rise to athletic fame, and the ascendance of YouTube personality KevJumba, Fresh Off the Boat makes strides in shattering what is known as the ‘bamboo ceiling’, a term frequently employed to describe the range of obstacles Asian-Americans encounter in collision with mainstream society.

It’s a new era which, alongside ushering in new attitudes about race, has also pioneered a new vocabulary, one illustrative of multiculturalism as modern American ideal. From the inventive terms ABC to nisei, there is revived interest in the language of the immigrant experience: its tensions, complexities, and — above all else — its vibrancies. Language, in this case, becomes less an heirloom than a living thing, evolving to represent a changing landscape for generations of immigrants, all of whom have strained under the weight of racial discrimination.

There is revived interest in the language of the immigrant experience: its tensions, complexities, and — above all else — its vibrancies.

Give me your tired, your poor

Parsing this “new vocabulary,” of course, involves unraveling the historic origins of the ‘immigrant experience.’ Many invoke textbook narratives, recalling Emma Lazarus’ most memorable lines from the poem ‘The New Colossus’, inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: ‘Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’

But Lazarus’s words, poetic as they were, mostly belied the actual immigrant experience: the phrase ‘fresh off the boat’, first employed against European immigrants, swiftly developed derogatory connotations—alongside other racial slurs like mick, wog, and wop — to deride those who hadn’t fully assimilated into mainstream culture.

No different in their fervid pursuit of ‘the American dream’, hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived on the heels of the California Gold Rush in the mid-19th century. And no different than their European counterparts, they too were ostracized by the ‘native’ population, as terms like Chink, coolie, and Chinaman enjoyed widespread use by politicians, including Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). This fear of racial otherness manifested itself in the all-encompassing term “Yellow peril,” owing much of its prevalence to use in newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst.

Language became law when, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act suspended all Chinese immigration to the United States until 1943. Even so, this wasn’t the first occasion where Chinese immigrants endured scrutiny: an earlier piece of legislation, colloquially known as the ‘Anti-Coolie’ Act of 1862, imposed special taxes on Chinese businesses in California. Eventually, the phrase ‘Chinaman’s chance’—meaning very poor or negligible prospects—came to appropriately symbolize the unequal treatment Chinese immigrants experienced in their new country of residence.

From San Francisco to New York, the immigration waves of mid-19th century arguably marked the beginning of America as it is contemporaneously known: a heterogeneous country that, in theory, would house democratic multitudes. But for many, there was a chasm between the American ‘dream’ and the actual immigrant experience. From private beliefs to public action, xenophobia spread unchecked, even leading to massacres of Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles, and—most famously—in Rock Springs, Wyoming.

Reclaiming identity

During the mid-20th century, following the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigration to America resurged, as did use of the phrase ‘fresh off the boat’, revived in 1968 partly thanks to the acronym FOB. Coinciding with the rise of FOB, however, was the spread of the acronym ABC (American-Born Chinese), similar in meaning to the derisive terms ‘banana’ and ‘Twinkie’, denoting a person of Asian descent who is ‘yellow on the outside and white on the inside.’

This dichotomy, above all else, speaks to the duality of the immigrant experience: an external struggle against mainstream perceptions, as well as an internal struggle to tread a middle ground between Americanization and ethnic preservation. For instance, where first-generation immigrants are more likely to resist cultural integration, their children — and grandchildren — more often than not embrace assimilation. These differences are reflected in linguistic distinctions like issei, nisei, and sansei, now used to identify first, second, and third-generation Japanese-Americans.

Indeed, a new generation of Asian-Americans—of which Eddie Huang is a part—grapples with the language of belonging. For many, identity formation becomes a balancing act, ranging from sensitive negotiation to violent oscillation between opposing cultural forces: family and country. Not to mention lingering tensions with racism; while, in recent years, ethnic slurs have declined in mainstream use, familiar stereotypes of Asians have been slower to improve.

In recent years, there has been a renewed effort to reclaim derogatory slurs like ‘fresh off the boat’, as the title of Huang’s memoir and subsequent TV adaptation suggest. ‘Fresh off the boat’ has evolved from slanderous term to unabashed badge of honor, re-appropriated by immigrants themselves as a product of changing times. Eddie Huang’s sitcom, in this sense, could very well transcend itself as the expression of a painful history: it has the potential to shed old hatreds and breathe life into a new vocabulary.

A version of this blog post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Image Credit: “An English class for Asian American ILGWU members of Local 23-25, December 15, 1968.” Photo by Kheel Center. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

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