so, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
never enough for both.
—”diaspora blues” by Ijeoma Umebinyuo
It didn’t take more than two minutes of Fresh Off the Boat‘s season 3 premiere before I got goosebumps from three sentences of dialogue.
Louis Huang loads his family’s luggage into an old taxi outside the Taiwan Taoyuan Airport, as his three sons complain about the stifling heat. Youngest son Evan assures his brothers that he’s prepared for their stay, unzipping a suitcase full of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and toilet paper rolls as advised by a tourist packet. His mother Jessica admonishes Evan:
“You’re not tourists–you’re home.”
Evan counters with a reminder–“But we’ve never been here”– which Jessica waves away with a confidence. “Doesn’t matter. This is still your home.”
It’s not an easy moment to explain to non-immigrants, even as it rings almost unbearably true. Home is a strange, perturbing concept to diaspora kids, especially during that first visit to one’s so-called “native” country. Fresh Off the Boat managed to capture the contradictions and complexities of what home means in this season premiere. It does so with compassion for those of us who wrestle with that concept our entire lives. I say “us” because it’s a wrestling match I know well, one that has followed me through several cross-continental moves and still pokes at my brain at 3 am some nights. Watching the Huang family muddle through their ideas of home and identity in this episode was incredibly cathartic, as well as timely.
The last year and a half in television and film has been nothing if not confusing to many Asian-Americans/diasporic Asians: shows like Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend have centered Asian-American characters and narratives, while movies such as Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell perpetuate the appropriation of Asian cultures. Where TV seems to take four slow steps forward, film seems to roller-skate a good mile back, with Asian-Americans caught in the middle.
The middle is a pretty familiar place for many of us. Having grown up in the States, there was a natural distance between me and Filipino culture, a distance later exacerbated by a few years spent in the Philippines. While I can’t speak for anyone’s experiences but my own, I can certainly identify with Eddie, Emery, and Evan Huang when they find Taiwan perturbing–it’s not the place they grew up in, no matter that Taiwan is where their parents were born. Being Taiwanese-American is part of who the Huang kids are, but in this premiere, that hyphen has never been more obvious or more visible.
Meanwhile, Louis and Jessica grapple with what “coming home” means, and the ways that living in America has changed them. They both start out secure in their Taiwanese identities, delighting in how they belong:
“I forgot how relaxing it is to be around all Asian people. You don’t feel like a foreigner. You blend in with everyone around you.”
It’s a sentiment I know my own parents felt to some extent during our time in the Philippines.
But slowly, Louis’s confidence in his success is shaken when he realizes that his “loser” brother Gene has carved out a glamorous, financially secure life for himself despite not moving to America. Jessica finds that her much-lauded bartering muscles have withered away on a trip to the night market. Their relatives’ obsession with the movie Ghost begins to grate on tired nerves. Distance makes itself known, as much as Louis and Jessica try to ignore it. The surface sense of belonging dissipates, fades into wisps that can’t hide the time away.
It’s a frustrating, crushing realization, and Fresh Off the Boat doesn’t shy away from that emotion. Louis can’t help the outburst that comes before his brother’s wedding: “Why did I have to make it harder on myself, and start over in America? I was already started here! We’re the white people of here!” I can only speak for myself, but Louis’ question echoes the times I’ve heard relatives or family friends express that same thought, questioning the decisions they made to seek stability and success in Western countries. There’s also the fact that for many immigrants, starting over wasn’t a choice they wanted at all. Being an outsider wasn’t a choice they made.
So I wasn’t surprised to later hear Louis tell his wife that “Maybe we should move back. Things would be easier.” I wasn’t surprised to hear the note of regret and uncertainty in his voice, even knowing that life in Taiwan isn’t what he’d expected it to be either. How could I be, when every day, we hear of racism and discrimination against people of colour in North America? When we see Asian stories being told by white writers and actors, having cleanly cut away the people of Asian heritage that those stories came from? I understand Louis’ wish to escape, just as much as I understand Jessica’s reminder of what they left behind and why:
“No, they wouldn’t. It’s hot, crowded, there’s mosquitoes, a sick obsession with the movie Ghost. Everybody here knows everybody’s business. Even shopping at the night market isn’t as fun as I remembered…I know I’ve been saying how different things are here, how they’ve changed, but it’s not true. They’re the same. I’m the one who has changed. And I’m homesick for Orlando.”
That in-between isn’t just a transition for Asian-Americans/diasporic Asians. For many of us, it’s a constant state of being. As Louis and Jessica come to realize that they’re “stuck between two worlds: part of both, belonging to neither,” that conclusion also empowers them. To strike out on your own requires courage; to find that new start in not quite belonging brings out a resilience that you might not know you have.
Fresh Off the Boat is in its third season, and with this premiere, they haven’t only continued to find their voice and their future, but they own it. Unabashedly, unashamedly. The stories that they’re telling are stories I wish I had had growing up, as I navigated that in-between. I’m glad that diasporic Asian kids today have the Huang family on their screens to remind them that their experiences are not only valid, but powerful.