I was pretty floored by Eddie Huang’s debut memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, which focuses on his exploration of his identity as a Chinese-Taiwanese American growing up in Florida in the 90s. He mixes genuine cultural criticism with a comedian’s sense of detail, timing and wit in a way that is incredibly unique.
Eddie is a bit of a Renaissance man, with a resume that includes chef & restaurant owner (Baohaus), memoirist, Vice star, broadcast TV show creator, streetwear entrepreneur (Bergdorf Hoodman), lawyer (not kidding) and former drug dealer. I admire anyone who can go after so many pursuits in one lifetime and still have such a cohesive sense of self.
Fresh Off the Boat made me think about things like why “fusion” cuisine is problematic and how seldom Asian male characters in Hollywood, as he puts it, get pussy.
I was also impressed by Eddie’s essay titled “Bamboo Ceiling TV“, where he boldly detailed why the primetime TV adaption of his memoir was disappointing to him. This made me very curious about the show, which I was pleasantly surprised by. (The show’s executive producer is Nahnatchka Khan, of Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23, so that helps explain why it’s so funny).
As this book kicks off, it becomes clear that another major focus is Eddie’s love life. The beginning includes some very candid analyses of certain women he does and does not like. This opening may turn some people off, but he pretty quickly zeroes in on one girl, Dena Fusco, who becomes his prospective future wife. As he prepares to propose, he anticipates negative reactions from both his mother and her father, who he anticipates will disapprove of their marriage. In the process, he realizes he also has reservations, specifically about whether or not the pair will be able to preserve what it means to be Chinese-Taiwanese-American for their children.
This conflict is worked through beautifully and profoundly as the pair travel through China with friends. Eddie talks about relationships with grit and candor, including plenty of passages about bonding over things that, well, happen in the toilet. It’s clear that Dena Fusco is pretty cool with being written about in great detail.
Those who like Eddie for his musings on food will not be disappointed by this book. It’s definitely a crash course in some of the different approaches to cooking that Chengdu, Taiwan and other regions bring to their cuisine.
Overall, Eddie’s experience leaves him with an even more complex view of culture and identity. He spends time in China to get in touch with his roots, but observes that he is “other” there too in some ways. He also has to process some dark moments he witnesses there (one scene with a monkey is heartbreaking) in a way that shows just how open his eyes are.
Overall, this book was awesome, although the end left a lot to be desired (I won’t say why). Maybe we will find out in his next book.