Controversy is “Fresh Off the Boat” at USD

The premiere of ABC’s new series, “Fresh Off the Boat,” part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival, should be sparking more dialogue on our campus


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the United States. While this does not necessarily reflect the demographic of the student population here at University of San Diego, if we look just outside our campus’s walls, there lies a community rich with Asian culture and influences from the diverse countries that make up the Eastern world.

Although Asian culture is not heavily apparent on our campus, USD has continuously supported the San Diego Asian Film Festival, SDAFF, which is an annual event organized by the Pacific Arts Movement, comprised of films, workshops and speakers aimed at educating the San Diego community about the Asian culture and its unique media arts. The Asian American Journalists Association of San Diego first held the festival in 2000, here at USD.
USD’s continued support for the festival reflects our campus’s initiatives to enrich our community with diverse cultures. However, for this year’s festival, a decision was made by the Torero Program Board to not fund the festival due to this year’s headline screening of a new sitcom entitled “Fresh Off the Boat.”

The series will premiere on our campus this Saturday, with the first episode and the first time it has been shown to an audience. Even though the showing will be on USD’s campus, TPB has chosen not to fund the festival in recognition of the offensive roots that the term “Fresh Off the Boat” holds among the Asian community.

In fact, Leeva Chung, a USD professor and a founder of the SDAFF 15 years ago, mentioned how difficult it has been to receive any kind of funding for the festival. While that may have to do with lack of interest or awareness about the festival, it may also have something to do with the headliner show’s title.

The phrase “Fresh off the Boat,” or in short FOB, has been a term used in both the United States and abroad, historically, as a way to describe Asian immigrants who have just arrived to a Western country and have not yet integrated into the Western ways of life.

The term can be used as anything from a derogatory yet factual statement to an offensive, racial slur, depending on the context in which it is said. While it has arguably become somewhat outdated in terms of its capacity to insult, it was not until recently that it has been openly used in mainstream media. Needless to say, the new form it has taken as the title of the new sitcom series, Fresh Off the Boat, based on the memoirs of Eddie Huang, has stirred up controversial dialogue and conversation as a response.

While some members of the Asian community have openly claimed that they are offended by this title, others are in support of it, arguing that the incorporation of the term into mainstream media will be a positive way to eliminate it as a racial slur and turn the focus of it onto a factual indicator of identity.

TPB’s lack of funding for the festival, speaks to the offensive connotation of the term, and how it may cause students to react. Many words that were once offensive to certain groups of people in our society, have now become normalized as a result of the way they are depicted in the media. I would assume it is a concern that the use of this phrase as a title in mainstream media will cause the term to become normalized in a way that will make it acceptable to be said on our campus, without recognition of the insulting implications it may have. This is understandable and certainly justifiable, however, there is a lack of openness to understanding the real reasons for the title and the show itself.

Additionally, the writer of the memoirs that this series is based off of, Eddie Huang, a Taiwanese-Chinese-American, based his writings off his own experiences as someone who does consider himself “fresh off the boat.”
In an article with BuzzFeed, Huang makes note of how the term is simply a way to describe his own situation as an Asian immigrant to the U.S. and the experience of others like him.

“I would never call myself an American,” Huang said. “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.”

Although not all Asian immigrants would agree with Huang on the factual use of the phrase, there are many who believe it has become outdated as a racial slur and is used now as a description of identity instead. Huang titles his memoirs “Fresh off the Boat,” in order to show how his family, like the family portrayed in the show, identify as being fresh to the US, and that freshness has become a part of their identity, not necessarily in the negative way that is often associated with the phrase.

Lee Ann Kim, executive director of the Pacific Arts Movement and the San Diego Asian Film Festival, hopes that viewers understand who has created the show and how they view this phrase being used as the title.

“We hope everyone understands that the show title is based on the memoirs of a well-known Taiwanese American chef and writer, Eddie Huang, who is also the writer and producer for the show on ABC,” Kim said. “We hope everyone also knows that the show’s Executive Producers are both Asian American, and that this show is culturally historic in many ways, being the first Asian American sitcom on a major TV network in 20 years.”

While there is no right or wrong side to this controversy, it has certainly stirred up conversation among the Asian community as well as our own community here at USD.

This begs the question though, as to why it is not being more talked about by our larger student body; the only people who seem to be discussing or even aware of the controversy are those with ties to the Asian community or the film festival. Is it because race is still so awkward in our society, and especially on our campus? Or perhaps it is because many USD students feel as though they cannot relate to Asian films. Whatever the case, this controversy brought about interesting dialogue that should not be ignored.

Kim is excited about the dialogue that has begun as a result of the title of the headliner show.

“We decided to show ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ for this exact reason; to have this conversation about the tricky position the show occupies between Asian Americans and the mainstream,” Kim said. “We want to show the pilot episode precisely because many in the community were uneasy (for good reason) with the title, and yet they hadn’t seen the show. These concerns have created a lot of buzz and dialogue online.”

How this controversy and dialogue will affect the turnout at the festival. Do we need to have controversy in order to gain discussion on our campus? And is that controversy the only way for the festival to get the attention it needs to have a good turnout?

Change starts from the inside and usually stems from controversy and open discussion around those issues. Providing funding is but a menial benefit when compared to the great leap forward that the platform of discussion as a result of this controversy has created.

By making ourselves aware of discussions that may be a step outside our own culture, we are broadening our knowledge and diversifying our understanding of the world around us.

The San Diego Asian Film Festival, which will take place between Nov. 6 and Nov. 16, is the perfect opportunity to enrich your understanding of the Asian culture and the unique media that members of the culture have created.