The Eddie Huang most Americans have come to know is the boisterous 12-year-old version of him on the ABC comedy Fresh Off the Boat, played by Hudson Yang.
Prior to the show’s debut in February 2015, most of America hadn’t heard of the man whose memoir inspired the series. But it wasn’t long before Huang began making headlines himself. Frustrated with ABC’s depiction of his childhood, the real-life Huang wrote a New York Magazine essay denouncing Fresh Off the Boat as a “reverse-yellowface show with universal white stories played out by Chinamen” and a “cornstarch sitcom.” A few months later, he slammed the network on Twitter, saying the show bore no resemblance to his life.
Eventually, he stopped watching altogether.
Now, more than a year later, he says he’s moved on entirely. “I don’t think people realize how weird it is to watch a 12-year-old kid act out your childhood,” Huang told BuzzFeed News with a small smile, sitting inside the Vice Media offices in Venice, California, in late April. “That’s just like basking in yourself. That’s a lot of ego, to sit back on the couch and look at someone act out your life. Even if it were exactly like the book, it would have been unhealthy. And that’s something I didn’t realize when we did the show.”
But since then, he has cut ties with Fresh Off the Boat. Although he vacated his role as narrator after the show’s first season, he is still credited as a producer, as the show is based off his memoir.
“It isn’t like my life, and it isn’t like the book, but it’s fine,” he affirmed, calmly. “I refuse to bash that show anymore. I refuse to be critical, because that ship has sailed.”
Though he recognizes that Fresh Off the Boat is relatable for a lot of Asian-Americans who love it, it’s still not something Huang can bring himself to watch.
“And it’s not out of spite. It’s because I gotta respect my mind,” he said. “I gotta move on. I gotta keep creating.”
For Huang, that’s translated to trotting around the globe shooting the third season of Huang’s World, a gonzo food and travel show in which he visits various countries, sampling and offering insight about different foods. The travelogue originally lived on vice.com as a web series — a project he started in 2012 after he shot “Getting High Off Asian Food” for the site’s Munchies section. But for the latest season, he’s back in the medium that nearly broke him: Huang has taken his series from the internet to Viceland, the company’s new cable channel.
“It has been really tough to go from an online show that did not have much supervision to a television [series] with a healthy budget on a cable channel,” he admitted. Not only is his show four times the length of his original web series, but his team grew too. “There are more people whose lives depend on this,” he said. The stress seems to have taken a toll on Huang, who appeared a little weary and distracted during his interview with BuzzFeed News.
But Huang was determined not to let the move to television — or the pressure that comes with it — change his show. Some of the “veteran TV guys that were hired to come in and work on the show,” as Huang described them, pushed for voiceover and reality television setups, which he fought hard against.
“Compared to any other travel show you see, we have the least amount of voiceover ... I’m talking to these people in real time. You’re seeing verité. It’s in the moment,” Huang said.
It was important to him that his show present an unidealized, true-to-life depiction of the countries he had visited, including the everyday citizens who live there. “A lot of times, you get guests on shows — they want to be famous, or they have an agenda. We try to meet people who don’t have an agenda, [whose] ideas and identities are looked over and ignored a lot of times,” he said.
In an upcoming episode of Huang’s World, for instance, he and his crew travel to Istanbul, where he breaks fast with a Muslim family during Ramadan. It was his intention to show a different side of a region in the world that often only gets media attention in relation to ISIS. “The few radical maniacs killing people are being allowed to define everybody else that’s part of this religion, and it’s not fair,” Huang said, his vexation oozing out of every word. “If I was Middle Eastern, I would hate to be defined by these psychos who I have nothing to do with.”
It’s easy to see why Huang is so keenly sensitive to the way minorities are portrayed in the media. As an Asian-American man, he’s had to go through a lifetime of society telling him who he can be. “Asians, you guys are nerds. Asian men, you’re emasculated,” he said mockingly. “I just always felt like, this kind of sucks to be siloed off in the world and segregated because of my skin. Like, wait, you’re trying to tell me because I look this way that I’m supposed to be good at counting and can’t do anything else?”
His frustration with the portrayal of Asians in film and television is also a reason he penned that New York Magazine essay in early 2015, ripping Fresh Off the Boat’s depiction of his family:
“Randall [Park] was neutered, Constance [Wu] was exoticized, and Young Eddie was urbanized so that the viewers got their mise-en-place. People watching these channels have never seen us, and the network’s approach to pacifying them is to say we’re all the same. Sell them pasteurized network television with East Asian faces until they wake up intolerant of their own lactose.”
“I think it was very important I stood up,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I started a conversation about how we’re portrayed and how a person loses control of his identity, what the system does, and how the system skews and projects a hologram of us at times in the media.”
Instead, he wants to speak for himself and explain who he is on his own terms, which seems all the more challenging when there’s an entire television show based off his family’s story: Born in Washington, D.C., to immigrant parents, Huang then moved to a lily-white suburban neighborhood in Orlando, Florida, where his father, Louis, opened up a steakhouse. But Fresh Off the Boat, the show, really only scratches the surface of what the Huangs have been through.
“My grandma had bound feet, my grandpa committed suicide, [Florida’s Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services] tried to take us from my parents. That shit was real,” he tweeted in April 2015, while also addressing his affinity for hip-hop. “My relationship to hip hop and black culture rose from being the victim of domestic violence. It's not a game. That music meant something to me.”
In his memoir, Huang ruminates at length on identity and how white Americans tried to skew his self-perception:
All my life people would call me a chink or a chigger. I couldn’t listen to hip-hop and be myself without people questioning my authenticity. Chinese people questioned my yellowness because I was born in America. Then white people questioned my identity as an American because I was yellow ...
We can’t fucking win. If I follow the rules and play the model minority, I’m a lapdog under a bamboo ceiling. If I like hip-hop because I see solidarity, then I’m aping. But if I throw it all away, shit on my parents, sell weed, pills, and strike fear into unsuspecting white boys with stunt Glocks, now I’m authentic? Fuck you, America.
This dilemma of never fitting in anywhere and constantly being subjected to stereotyping is an Asian-American frustration that viewers don’t see in the 22-minute sitcom.
When asked what his parents thought about his memoir, Huang responded sharply: “My dad’s first reaction with the first book was 'I’m sorry I brought you to this country.' ’Cause he didn’t know how it was for Asian-Americans growing up here.” But Huang has still carved out a place for himself in a country that has long ostracized and marginalized Asian-Americans. “I’m happy with my life. I was raised in America, and I was born in America, and I don’t know what it’s like without it, but … we did good,” he said, softening his tone. “We came here, we created our place. And look at us,” he added before listing his accomplishments over just the past three years: his memoir; his second book, Double Cup Love, which hits shelves at the end of this month; and, of course, Huang’s World.
“These are things I’m really proud of. They’re direct from me to you. And if anyone wants to know what it’s like to be this Asian-American person, you will see it,” he said, resolutely. “I’ve given myself up to this show. You see me in bad spots, funny spots, awkward spots: You see my fat ass diving in the water in Jamaica. It’s fine. I’m comfortable with it. I’m good. ’Cause I think I’m part of something bigger than myself. It’s called Huang’s World, but it’s a movement.”
Toward what exactly?
Huang seemed to really ponder what he hoped to impart on his viewers before finally explaining, “I don’t think I have one singular message. I really do like to let the people in these countries speak for themselves ... If there’s one thing people could learn from the show and myself, it’s empathy: to put yourself in other people’s shoes, see it from a different perspective than yours. I think it really makes your view of the world a lot more textured and deep and rich. It’s in your own interest to be empathetic. It would suck to be all tunnel-visioned and single-minded and run into a wall like Donald Trump.”
Though Huang didn’t hide his contempt for Trump, he seemed perhaps even more frustrated by those who oppose the likely Republican nominee’s views but shy away from voicing their unease. “If you don’t like ISIS, if you don’t like Donald Trump, if you don’t like radicals, say something,” Huang said pressingly.
“You have to say something. You have to take it head on, otherwise it goes unchecked. I think it’s very important that America’s facing itself and seeing almost half our population [share Trump’s] views. … Now you want to stop it, now, because he might be president? You should’ve fuckin’ said something earlier,” he said, anger seeping into his voice. “That’s how I feel. That’s why I said something at Sausage Castle. That’s why I said something in Sicily.’”
The latter is a reference to when Huang challenged a group of white supremacists, members of the Italian far-right political party known as Forza Nuova, during his visit to Sicily on a recent episode of Huang’s World. And the former is an uncomfortable moment in his hometown of Orlando, at Sausage Castle, in the last minutes of the Orlando episode, when the proprietor of Sausage Castle, Mike Busey, orders a bikini-clad Chinese woman to speak to the camera in Mandarin: “Just make some shit up, and make it sound Asian,” prompting a visibly angry Huang to leave, but not before lecturing Busey on why it’s wrong to exploit people.
“When you’re on my show, you’re not going to talk to people that way. I have my standards, and if you don’t agree with my standards, you can argue with me,” Huang said, revealing that there have been multiple instances where he stepped in and debated with his interviewees. “It’s not me trying to pick a fight. I have my beliefs about what’s right or wrong. I know how I think people should be treated. And I’m going to stand up for those. And if I’m wrong, I hope people would stand up to me.”
For minorities in America, speaking out about issues pertaining to identity can lead to being branded as the indignant spokesperson on Twitter, which undermines the point they're trying to get across. So how does Huang, who sparked controversy after lashing out against ABC last year, stay true to himself without coming off as just another angry Asian person?
“I’ve learned the way to win is to not make it personal,” he said immediately. “I made a lot of mistakes. I’d get angry with something somebody said, but then the way that I addressed them was in a personal manner. And I realize now, don’t make it personal. Make it about what they say or what they do.”
Huang acknowledged that’s where he went wrong with his criticism of Fresh Off the Boat. “I think my job was done when I started the discussion. The New York Magazine article should have been the end of it, and I kept talking. And I think, when I made it personal, that’s where I lost,” he said earnestly. “That’s my only regret. … But you know what? I live with it. I grew up. I don’t think people can blame me.”