Fresh Off the Boat is the memoir of Eddie Huang, an American-born Chinese/Taiwanese restaurant owner and food show host who opened Baohaus, a well-known New York Chinese bao (meat bun) eatery. I first heard of Huang from the show Fresh Off the Boat, a comedy about his adolescence growing up as a minority in middle-class Orlando. The book, which came before the show, is significantly different.
Huang is actually not “fresh off the boat” as he is American-born and raised, but his parents, who hail from Taiwan, were. “Fresh off the boat” or FOB refers to East Asian immigrants who have just arrived in America or Canada, and it’s a little derisive, meant to highlight and make fun of immigrant kids for being foreign and not in tune with local culture and behaviors. Despite being American, Huang is singled out and picked on for his race (everyone else is white) by classmates, teachers and other adults. As a kid, he puts up with this for a while until his rage builds up and he decides to get back at society. This is where the comedy TV show and the memoir differ significantly, because the show is all laughs with awkward, goofy parents and amusing cultural clashes, whereas the reality was much more brutal and violent. Huang gets into fights, cuts classes, gets in trouble with the police, and is even expelled. At home, things aren’t much better as he gets beaten by his father occasionally (and I don’t think it was mere spankings), who his mother rages at almost daily. She in turn gets beaten by Huang’s father, which is disturbing. Despite the domestic turmoil, Huang’s father manages to become a successful owner of restaurants, and Huang admits they were genuinely rich when he was in high school.
Huang’s teenage years include spending some time in Taiwan where his parents sent him after he hits somebody with a car after a fight and faces charges. Huang embraces the local night markets, learns more about his parents’ culture, and leaves with some understanding and appreciation of his parents, especially his father. He’s also conflicted, as he wonders why his father left Taiwan, where he could have been anything he wanted, to go to America, where Taiwanese, like all immigrants, encounter racism and discrimination. The most obvious answer is opportunity, which is almost like a cliche, but Huang’s father admits being able to get with girls easily was also a factor (In Taiwan, you’ve got to pretend to love them, says Huang’s dad). I don’t envy a lot about Huang’s life growing up, but I admire how, at least, he related to his parents who passed on not just the typical platitudes about hard work, a fighting spirit and making the most out of life’s opportunities.
Besides the fights and the struggles with racism, Huang also talks a lot about coming to terms with Taiwanese/Chinese culture, which most ABCs (American-born Chinese) face, literature and food. As a “rotten banana,” which Huang calls himself (banana is a term for ABCs who retain little of their Asian culture – yellow on the outside, white inside), the writer knows he does not fit the ideal concept of the obedient, quiet Asian who gets straight-As and grows up to become a doctor/accountant/programmer. Huang finds solace in hiphop and rap, while retaining some part of Taiwanese/Chinese culture with his love for food. Before he becomes an entrepreneur, Huang goes to law school, then joins a law firm, demonstrating a little pragmatism. Not surprisingly, within a year, he gets fired by the law firm for drug use. Soon Huang opens Baohaus and his life takes off. Of course, by this time, he had mostly sorted out his life.
At times, Fresh Off the Boat is almost too real and there is a lot more details about his childhood antics than readers might need to know. The ultimate result is a crazy and entertaining story that holds nothing back.