“Fresh Off The Boat” by Eddie Huang

I’m a girl, he’s a boy.

I’ve never lived in the States, he’s lived there since 1982.

I’m Korean, he’s Chinese (Taiwanese) American.

My so-called encounter with hip-hop is limited to club music (which I guess he would never consider as ‘true’ hip hop). He would tell you the history of hip-hop in a beat.

I’ve never dealt drugs, never even been close to any (hopefully it will continue being so), he was a major (or so it appears, to me) dealer in marijuana.

I don’t get the rules of American football, to me it’s just a bunch of overly equipped male high on testosterone hitting into one another with no particular purpose. He’s been in football teams at school.

The only adjective I can find to describe food is ‘delicious’ and sometimes, I can go as far as ‘yummy’ if it’s really good. He can talk and analyze food as much as, or more than, I can talk about and analyze Nikita I guess.

As you can see, Eddie Huang and I are worlds apart, but strangely enough, I could connect to much of what he was talking about in his book.

True, when I saw that the book was a memoir of some Asian American dude, I thought to myself, it’s going to be a typical success story from an Asian American, surviving the pressures and ‘discipline methods’ imposed by his Asian parents, and ‘making it’ to the top, and achieving the American dream. Not that I don’t enjoy those books, even if it is merely for getting the satisfaction of knowing that my parents are definitely not the worst you could ever have as Asian parents, but come on, we all know the story of the Asian-American dream. But Eddie Huang is not your ‘typical’ Asian American (and yes, I’m aware of the stereotype I am setting here already). He’s a guy full of controversies and diversities, as much as an Asian guy could ever be. Or maybe he is simply one of many Asian Americans like him, and simply the first one who was able to talk about his atypical life. A life that may be shared by all these Asian Americans whose journeys have been over shadowed by the success stories of the ‘model-minority’ type, represented by lawyers and doctors, and definitely not by a ‘former drug dealer/former lawyer/hip hop connoisseur/restaurant owner’.

But I guess the reason I was able to connect with him is that, despite all our differences, we are both/all searching who we really are and want to find our place in this world; we want to connect with those around us and belong to some group or community, all the while trying to differentiate ourselves from the rest through our uniqueness.

“I saw that my interests in hip-hop, basketball, food, comedy, and writing were symptoms of a larger interest: finding a place for myself in the world or making one. School helped me give that larger interest more precise names – racial identity, social justice – and I was determined to figure it all out.”

For him, finding that place was a road paved with struggle, fight against discrimination, and efforts not to be seen and labeled as a stereotype, and I admire and respect how he managed to always fight his way back, against the system and the people that we hardly recognize or acknowledge as discriminatory because we are too busy trying to fit in.

“It was all about Uncle Chans and how they fucked up the game up for Asian people. For too long, I wrote, we’ve been lapdogs. The people who don’t want to offend anyone. We hide out in Laundromats, delis, and take-out joints and hope that our doctor/lawyer sons and daughters will save us. We play into the definitions and stereotypes others impose on us and accept the model-minority myth, thinking it’s positive, but it’s a trap, just like any stereotype.”

By doing so however, he also falls into stereotyping the other, the ‘white man’, and the ‘model Asian man’, of whom he already has a certain idea of, and whom he judges according to his own prejudices, and I guess my biggest criticism of his book would be that discrepancy. But I’ve never lived in the ‘white world’ that the US sometimes can be, despite all its myths of ‘melting pot’ or ‘salad bowl’, so I guess I can’t really criticize his experience with racism. I’m kind of dreading living in the States in the very near future, in that sense. I still have this naive hope that living in the same country, especially one as big as the US, will not necessarily lead to the same unpleasant experiences, and dearly hope, on the one hand, I won’t have to go through this subtle discrimination and racism every country kind of holds against foreigners. On the other hand, I feel like I should prepare myself for such encounter, instead of holding on to a futile hope, and think of smart ways to overcome them and perhaps, learn a thing or two.

And that’s the other thing about his book that is atypical and refreshing. His clear and bold voice denouncing the blunt and subtle racism that exists in the States (and probably any other country) to this day. We have all become somewhat race-conscientious today that we are afraid of being called as a ‘racist’ whenever we talk about race. So we’d rather overlook certain things concerning race and be satisfied with the superficial talks on this issue, to be on the safer side. Ironic, isn’t it, that the more we become aware of certain issues (race, gender, etc), the less we are encouraged to actually seriously discuss them?

Anyways, Eddie Huang’s way of dealing with such prejudice while growing up was to always ‘fight back’, and not be the docile, weak and polite Asian kid who, after being on his knees to find the glasses on the school playground, glasses knocked off from his nose by the white bully, only dreams of his vengeance in the future, when he’ll be the successful lawyer that will sue that kid’s ass off. I felt small learning of this distinct way of fighting, wondering whether I myself had not been that ‘docile, weak and polite Asian kid’ who preferred to be quiet instead of barking back. I don’t think I was that docile when I was little, back in Mauritania, although, technically, primo, I don’t think I ever faced ‘racism’ back there, and segundo, little as I was, I was always more comfortable using words than fists. But I think I’ve become more docile when I grew up, mainly because I just don’t like confrontations. Especially when it comes to certain images and perceptions foreigners have of Korea. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I can list you a hundred things that I think this country is clearly doing wrong, but Korea is, in a way, like my mom. I can spend days and nights about how she/it annoys the hell out of me, but don’t you dare trash talk about her/it. It may be a fucked up country, but well, and I hate saying this, it is my fucked up country, you know? It’s one thing to have both foreigners and Koreans hold a critical point of view about Korea, and carry on a civilized and sensible discussion, for instance, about how many Korean companies have insane working hours. But it is another thing to have a foreigner ‘criticize’ the drinking culture in Korea and complain about how Koreans love drinking, when that very same person is clearly having tons of fun drinking with his other foreigner buddies, and nobody is forcing them to. And just because I didn’t want to be seen as that ‘nationalistic Korean kid’ who will defend her country against the big white evil, I nodded along most of the time. But, just like Eddie Huang puts it,

“Whether you accept it or not, when you’re a visible Asian you have a torch to carry because we simply don’t have any other representation.”

At first, I felt as I I had been betraying the ‘Asian race’ because I didn’t have the physical strength to fight back with punches like he did. I felt as if I was the spitting image of that ‘Asian stereotype’ he was so clearly against, because, well, I’m a nerd who likes studying, I have never even dreamed of doing, let alone, dealing drugs and I don’t have the energy or the time to be that invested in hip-hop. I absolutely hate sports, especially when they involve a ball of any sort, because I always feel like the balls are just rushing to hit me, and only me. And in a way, I was jealous that he got to be both cool and smart. As much as the ‘good Asian’ in me was saying ‘Gosh, he’s such a bad Asian, and a bad son! His parents are working their butt off to educate him and what does he do? Deal drugs? Shame on him…’, the ‘rebel Asian’ in me was simply envious of his genuine love for food and cuisine and passion for something besides studies. But Eddie Huang is not telling us to be exactly like him. Au contraire. He is telling us to find our own way to stand out in the dominant system and culture, to find something proper and unique to us and be proud of it. To make your own culture and your image and own them. And this is the biggest lesson I draw from Eddie Huang’s memoir.

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