Left to my own devices I would only watch TV shows about smoldering Scotsmen in kilts. My husband would only watch things explode. But we have children, so our TV world involves a lot of cooking shows and sitcoms. Which is fine, because there are a lot of good sitcoms nowadays. Like Fresh Off the Boat, based on the autobiography of chef Eddie Huang, who moved from Washington, D.C. to Orlando with his family at age 11 and found himself isolated as a Chinese kid in a mostly white school, a rap fan in a world of “Now That’s What I Call Music!” and a slouching troublemaker in a family of strivers.
Asians, like us Jews, are frequently considered a model minority. We’re both perceived as a goody-goody group of nerds who immigrated to America and immediately grabbed all the spots in all the competitive schools. Last night’s episode of Fresh Off the Boat addressed this commonality head-on: Eddie’s school finally gets a second Chinese-American kid, and everyone assumes they’ll be best buds simply because of their shared genetic material. But the new kid, Phillip Goldstein, has been adopted by a Jewish family and sees himself as wholly Jewish. Sharing none of Eddie’s interests, he is the kind of crystalline cello-playing nerd that Eddie’s mom wishes Eddie could be…and it turns out he’s kind of a dick.
My friend Jeff Yang, a media consultant and Wall Street Journal online columnist whose son Hudson plays young Eddie, asked me to come to a live viewing of the episode in a nightclub followed by a talkback about the Asian-Jewish connection.
As ever, the episode was funny, starting with Eddie trying to convince his mom, Jessica, to let him go to a rap concert. (Clutching a Beastie Boys CD as he serves her breakfast in bed–an unopened box of Pop Tarts on a tray–he wheedles, “They’re rappers, but they’re white rappers! WHITE!” He then tries Wu Tang Clan: “They’re sort of Asian!” Dr. Dre: “But he’s a doctor!” Snoop Dogg: You’re always talking about the Year of the Dog!” Nothing works. And anyway, asks his mom, why does he want to be a G when it is worth only two points in Scrabble? He should want to be a Q.)
Then Phillip Goldstein shows up at school. Despite their obvious differences, Eddie initially tries to build a cultural bridge: “We both eat Chinese food on Christmas and our parents are super-pushy!” But Phillip is an irreparably stuffy nimrod. When the Goldsteins invite the Huangs for Shabbat dinner, Eddie and Phillip work out a plan despite their mutual antipathy: Phillip will go to the Beastie Boys show with Eddie if Eddie will go to a Les Miserables matinee with Phillip. (It’s on Shabbat, so Phillip needs Eddie to handle the money.) But Shabbat ends while Eddie’s in the theater bathroom after the musical concludes, and Phillip takes off; Eddie panics and misses the Beasties concert while desperately searching for Phillip. As it turns out, Phillip has simply taken the bus home without telling Eddie because he didn’t want to go to the hip-hop show. When Eddie’s mom learns this, she confronts Phillip, telling him he should be ashamed of himself. “You broke your promise to [Eddie]! You are very selfish. You are not a good Chinese boy. Eddie is.” As they walk away, a proud Eddie tells his mom, “drop the mic.”
“Who is Mike?” she replies.
My response to the show was mixed. My immediate reaction was tribal: Phillip is a jerk and he is Bad for the Jews. He’s a straight-up stereotype in a show that generally plays with and subverts stereotypes. In the promo, his appearance is accompanied by deedle-deeing Yiddish-y music. (He also says he’s from Jerusalem, even though his parents are American—presumably because all American Jews are actually from Jerusalem? Which is why people don’t want them on college student council boards?) Worse, underneath the nerd trappings Phillip is actually a bad person. Finally, his portrayal also betrays the writers’ cluelessness about or uninterest in observant Judaism: He says he can’t touch money on Shabbat, yet somehow he’s allowed to carry it in his pocket–presumably to satisfy the plot point of how he buys his souvenir t-shirt and takes the bus home. He’s as religiously consistent as our last observant Jew on TV, the late Mrs. Wolowitz on the Big Bang Theory (who was recently cremated—counter to Jewish law—presumably so that her ashes could get wackily lost). Jewishness falls by the wayside when it comes to plot exigencies.
Anyhoo. The viewing event went well; there were maybe 250 people there, almost all of them Asian-American. (An exhausted Hudson Yang was in residence too, watching from his dad’s lap, which was very cute.) We panelists all talked about our responses to the show, then the floor was opened to questions. The first speaker was an older Jewish woman who was furious at the show’s facile portrait of adoption and negative portrait of Jews. And I think her feeling was legit. Though we all agreed that there’s only so much a 22-minute show can do, and that the real focus is Eddie’s family, and that overall, the show is a force for good, expanding the diversity of TV, this episode was disappointing. One thing that makes FoB delightful is its specificity about Eddie’s obsession with black culture, so divergent from the stereotype of insular geektastic Asian kids. And here the show played to stereotype on Jews.
It’s ironic that both FoB and Black-ish are both dialogic about the minority experience and playful and thoughtful about its stereotypes, while The Goldbergs, another ABC sitcom my kids love, resolutely refuses to acknowledge that the family is even Jewish. They talk like Jews and have Jewish names, but they’re…American.
For people who supposedly own the media, we really need to do a better job portraying ourselves.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.