Last week, ABC announced that it is picking up the sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, which was originally a memoir by Taiwanese-Chinese-American writer Eddie Huang. With its release, “fresh off the boat” — a margin phrase usually abbreviated to FOB — will be on major network television, the most mainstream space in America. As a result, some important conversations have begun about the term and who gets to use it.
In an interview with BuzzFeed, Huang said, “I would never call myself an American, I’m a Taiwanese-Chinese-American. My parents came here in the late ’70s and had me about three years after they’d lived in this country. So I consider myself fresh. You can’t tell me to not consider myself something.”
On Twitter and in the comments sections of every article written about Huang’s sitcom, it quickly became evident that everyone with an immigrant experience — no matter how distant or immediate — had a nuanced, complicated relationship with the phrase “fresh off the boat.” We asked some of our colleagues to share theirs.
4. Kevin Tang, Taiwanese-American
I was raised in Taiwan but later attended an international high school. At Taipei American School, FOB insinuated more about class than race. It was mostly USA-raised Asians who leveled it sneeringly at their local classmates — if I dressed really “local” and not Ja Rule/Dell Guy enough, some yuppie douche would say, “What are you, a fucking FOB?” Most of my high school friends, like me, learned English late in their lives. We went to karaoke parlors, sang 陳昇 and 阿妹, and rented Japanese comics from dusty stationery stores. We were never invited to bottle-service parties at posh nightclubs, but really, so what?
The weird thing, though, was that even in the midst of Taipei, FOB meant you were less desirable than some Ryan Seacrest cosplayer who’d probably grow up to earnestly love David Guetta and Instagram lobster rolls. But a solid counterculture at my school wore the FOB label with pride — dressing in uniforms borrowed from local schools, smoking cheap domestic cigarettes, loudly slanging in Taiwanese in the hallways. In Taipei, after all, not being FOB meant being a smug self-segregated expatriate.
My “Asianness” would later be a liability in my American college, but I was never stung by the word “FOB” itself, just by strangers silently deciding I was a less vibrant, likable, or interesting human being based on my cultural affect. That never manifested itself in the F-word.
5. Adrian Carrasquillo, Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian
I don’t have a huge history with “fresh off the boat.” When it was used, it was sort of being used by my dad, kind of as a joke, with family, not to others. I know our own family on the Puerto Rican side liked to remind people that we were Americans. I remember my dad saying that when people asked my grandfather how he came to the U.S., he would respond sort of defiantly, “I flew here on a plane from Puerto Rico.” I think that comes from the assumptions people had in the past when they saw someone with tan skin who didn’t speak English as a first language. My dad got a bit of it from my grandpa, he would say, “I was born in Buffalo, N.Y.” Now no one assumes I’m something other than American, but I imagine that’s how these things are.
6. Tanya Chen, Chinese-American-Canadian
I grew up in a community populated almost entirely of immigrant/refugee families in the late ’90s, and FOB, or “fresh off the boat,” was something openly tossed around by kids in the area. I think we were privy to the term because it was never hurled as an insult or a slur. It’s something we identified with — whether we were “fresh off the boat,” by its conventional definition, or not. We’d described our parents as FOBs. We described our behaviors as “fobby.” I referred to myself as once “having been ‘fresh off the boat.’” But we’d never trust anyone else (anyone else not born in another country or with parents from another country) to. Because, well, as much as it’s used — and I’ve used it — very casually in conversation or jest, for me and my friends, the term rouses realities and lived experiences and ideas that are very real and that I take very seriously: the hopes my parents carried from China, watching them struggle to find a place in a new country, really struggle, get knocked down, face discrimination, find success, make something, make MONEY.
And for someone who’s been the subject and spectator of the term being used to hurt or lessen a kid of immigration, yeah, I think that kinda distrust is warranted. The side effects of being fresh off the boat are unique and special to those who identify with being fresh off the boat. It’s a part of me. It’s real. Don’t use it if you’re not in that reference group.
7. Tabir Akhter, Pakistani-American
I can’t help but see the double entendre of the word “fresh” in Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat, given its ’90s context of a boy growing up as a child of immigrant parents. To me, there is nothing more “fresh,” worthy of pride, praise, and admiration than the perseverance of immigrants settling in the United States to create a new life for themselves in the face of struggle and discrimination. I think Huang’s use of Fresh off the Boat as the title of his new show is merely an entry point for viewers to connect with a much larger and meaningful narrative of the immigrant experience. I don’t exactly self-identify as a FOB since I was born in the United States, but my father and my grandparents would once be considered FOBs and their experiences very much influence how I construct my own identity and the way I choose to see the world. I derive an enormous sense of pride from the hardships they experienced as people who left their homes for a better life and sought to create a foothold for their families in the States. Whether the placement of the word “FOB” on major network television is an argument for internalized racism or not, I do believe it’s time that the story of so many immigrant families be told on mainstream television. However, I share the concern that, despite Huang’s attempt to transform the power of the word “FOB,” the oppressive power of words have the tendency to be reinstated when put in the wrong mouths.
8. Aylin Zafar, Turkish and Pakistani
I grew up in Cupertino, Calif., where the majority of people are a minority, and over 60% of the city’s population identifies as Asian. It’s the kind of place where groups of friends in school would joke about their “token white friend.” My parents are immigrants from Turkey and Pakistan, so I’ve always identified more closely with those cultures than I did with whatever “American” culture was supposed to be, as represented to me by what I saw on TV and in the movies.
I can’t remember the first time I heard the term FOB, but it’s one that gets thrown around casually and with relative regularity among people with immigrant parents or who’ve emigrated themselves. But the term — at least from what I observed and the experiences of my Asian friends — was never used as a slur by non-Asians toward Asians. Rather, it was a term used within the Asian community, and used most often in a joking manner, or to describe your parents and the funny occurrences that happen when things get lost in translation with them. And as the kid of parents whose English isn’t always on point (don’t kill me, Anne and Baba!), I get my share of funny texts or emails with broken English. My friends and I will exchange screenshots of these kinds of texts, and we love the My Mom Is a Fob Tumblr, which asks: “My mom is a cute fob. Is yours too?” and asks users to submit funny texts, conversations, etc. It feels more endearing than anything else.
I’m proud that my parents are from another country, and in awe that they picked up their lives and started a new one, with a new language and customs and way of life, all the way around the world. And with my friends — who are all also the children of immigrants, mostly Asian — FOB and “fobby” are descriptors to use about your own culture. It can be used as an insult, too, sure. But I’ve only ever heard it used by Asian people to describe themselves or another Asian person — maybe someone who actually did emigrate recently to the States, and mostly as a lighthearted and self-deprecating term. But if I did hear it used by someone who couldn’t claim the term or have a connection to it, it’d be another story. Being “fresh off the boat” means something: Your parents (or you) moved around the world, to a country where they knew no one, learned a new language, adapted to a new culture, and made a life for themselves. As far as I’ve experienced it, it’s been an insider-y term, one more of camaraderie than “othering” someone. It’s a way to make sense of growing up in a culture where the customs/traditions/values in your house might not align with most of the outside world. Hey, maybe I wasn’t allowed to have sleepovers and I had to go to Turkish school every Sunday, but it wasn’t so bad if my other friends got to complain about going to Chinese school with me too. Our parents were “fobby” and cared about us and wanted to instill their culture in us. I’m grateful for that.
9. Gideon Resnick, American
This is actually really interesting because I hadn’t heard this term until I got to college. I go to Northwestern and it lacks diversity in certain capacities, at least compared with my high school. I had only heard the phrase from the mouths of some Korean friends of mine and it did seem immediately jarring. Like there’s nothing inherently within it that makes it bad but it has this sort of negative connotation to me even though I hadn’t heard it before. I identify as an American, I guess, because I was born here, but my family is South African so I’ve been raised on that history and especially what it meant to be Jewish there as well. In terms of the phrase having a negative connotation, I guess that’s more of a visceral thing. Like, it equates to a conception of other that’s like “new immigrant,” if that makes sense. It reads and sounds to me like, Here’s a person who just got here so they can’t communicate with us as well as we’d like them to. And there’s this inherent expectation among Americans that people of other nationalities have to speak English well when they emigrate here otherwise they’re stupid. At the same time, a great majority of Americans are not bilingual. I guess that’s where the negative connotation comes from in my mind. In that respect, I suppose any kind of labeling contributes to that conception of other. It’s a means of boxing, I suppose, as opposed to learning. A barrier instead of a door.
10. J. Lester Feder, American
Here’s a really Washington answer: When I hear FOB, I first think “Friend of Bill,” which referred to all the folks who came into Washington when Clinton became president.