“Fresh Off the Boat” and Feeling Recognized

I watched the premiere episodes of “Fresh Off the Boat” a few days ago, and despite the fact that it was a little while after it had actually premiered, and the fact that I was sitting alone in my room in sweats watching it on my laptop, I tried as much as I could to make it an Event. I put my phone away so I wouldn’t be bothered, made sure to go to the bathroom, I even had snacks prepared within reach so I wouldn’t have to get up. Serious business. And as I watched I could tell that I was paying closer attention than I normally would to an episode of TV, laughing a little harder at the jokes (remember: alone in my room), trying a little harder to ignore the parts of it I found didn’t quite work. I wanted, so badly, for this to be something. And I wasn’t disappointed: it’s a sweet, funny show, with more of an edge to it than I expected, occasionally diving into the intensely awkward or the absurd (Constance Wu’s Jessica Huang braining that kid with an onion comes to mind) in ways that are daring and that mostly pay off (see above re: onion-slinging Constance Wu).

But the way I felt after those episodes finished, the joy and genuine excitement, these weren’t feelings that couldn’t necessarily be justified by the quality of the show. They weren’t really comparable to the thrill or satisfaction that comes with watching great storytelling, or even the almost draining emotional outpouring that comes with anything produced by Shondaland. My response to “Fresh Off the Boat” was something different, something that I felt had to do with all the work the show was doing just by existing. It took me a little while to place, until I realized I’ve felt it before: it’s the same comfort I get when I buy dumplings from the stall in the outdoor market here, the same excitement that comes when my friend and I realize both our houses have the same electric water-heaters with the flowery print. It’s a feeling of mutual recognition: of being able to see something of myself in someone else, and of having my experiences recognized and, by virtue of that, validated. It’s one thing – and a great thing – to have that come from your peers and people around you; it’s a whole different level when that comes from an institution like Hollywood or mainstream television.

That recognition – and I’m certain I’m not the only person feeling it – is a wonderful thing to have come out of the show, and I’m honestly a little taken aback by how impacted I’ve been by it. For someone who has recently been thinking and talking a lot about diversity in popular culture and the need for more representation, I’ve been pretty confident in saying that it is a Good Thing, but I didn’t expect it to feel this good. What’s more, the arguments that I often hear used (and that I often use myself) in support of increasing diversity and representation tend to frame it as an equity issue (the need for amplify voices that tend to be marginalized or silenced), a creative issue (getting new, fresh stories and perspectives) and, increasingly, a financial issue (people of colour watch TV too!). What I don’t think I hear enough of is the simple fact that recognition feels good: having someone say “you do that? I do that too!” is validating and exciting and confidence-boosting. That might not be enough to convince producers and executives to make more diverse products (especially since those who are feeling that recognition are usually those with the least decision-making power; we shouldn’t forget that it is still very much an equity issue) but for now, at least, it’s enough to keep me watching.

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