Fresh Off the Boat: Raising A Budding Young Star

Fresh Off the Boat - ABC's new hit comedy
Fresh Off the Boat – ABC’s new hit comedy

When I first heard about Fresh Off the Boat coming to ABC, I was cautiously optimistic if not a bit skeptical about this new show. As an Asian-American, I was fearful that the writers and producers would take the safe route and mock or ridicule Asian culture in a way we’ve seen before for the sake of a few laughs. Or that it would be so super-safe that it wouldn’t get to the heart of what it means to be “different” in American society. But thankfully, this show has been a breath of fresh air! The star of the show, Hudson Yang, plays Eddie (based on real life author, chef, and personality Eddie Huang) and its through Eddie’s eyes that we see the world as he is growing up. I’m happy to say that this show “gets it!” I find myself nodding and empathizing about eating strange food or having competitive relatives. Overall, it’s a solid show that is funny, touching, and representative all at the same time.

But I was really interested in finding out more about Hudson’s dad, Jeff. Jeff Yang is a prominent writer and journalist with a regular column in the Wall Street Journal. He is an author many times over and a strong advocate for Asian-Americans everywhere. But he’s also a dad and a dad of a young budding star. What’s it like to try and navigate the jungles of Hollywood with your son? Jeff was kind enough tell us about his experience.

Hudson Yang as Eddie Huang in his bling
Hudson Yang as Eddie Huang in his bling

Thank you so much Jeff for taking the time to answer a few questions!  I really appreciate it. Hopefully, this show will last for many years, but even if it doesn’t having been only the third sitcom to feature Asian-Americans and the first in 20 years means that Hudson’s life has already been changed.  How do you keep him grounded and rooted considering the impact this show will have on his life, not only as a TV star but as a forerunner for other Asian-Americans?

Well, he still has to do his homework, not fight with his brother and go to bed on time! To be honest I’m not sure he’s really fully come to terms with the larger context of the show and its importance. He lives in a world that’s very different from the one we grew up in — it’s one in which being Asian doesn’t have quite the same stigma that it did for me, as one of the few nonwhite kids growing up in the white middle-class suburbs. In fact, being Asian is kind of aspirational for a lot of the kids his age, who’ve basically been weaned on Yu-Gi-Oh and Nintendo and anime and sushi and dim sum.

At the same time, he’s actually getting stopped and recognized on the street now. He still doesn’t find that annoying — he’s shocked when people ask him if he’s “that kid on that show” — but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time, ha.

That said, it helps a lot that the other cast members are so incredibly cool and supportive. He and Forrest and Ian are close friends, and Randall and Constance couldn’t be better screen parents and on-stage mentors. It’s still a huge adjustment for a kid who’s never done this before to make…but it’s always easier to do it when you’re surrounded by good people.

Hudson's on screen family from Fresh Off the Boat
Hudson’s on screen family from Fresh Off the Boat

Is it at all strange for Hudson to have two families – one on screen and one off screen?  How has this experience been for you and your wife?  Has this been an easy experience for her?  

It’s not at all strange! Randall and Constance and the boys have been so welcoming of Hudson, and given him so much support and inspiration. The harder part this past season was on our own family. My wife and I are divorced — amicably — but it’s very important to both of us that the kids have the opportunity to spend quality time with both parents, and especially that Hudson and his little brother Skyler get to spend time together — they are inseparable. And yet, they did have to be separated, for four months, because Skyler was in school still and Hudson was shooting the show, so Skyler was in New York with his mom and I was in LA with Hudson. Regular FaceTime chats and visits whenever the show was on hiatus helped, but it was still very tough. We have committed to both of us moving to LA if — when — the show gets picked up for another season, to prevent that from happening again.

Eddie and his mad crush on Fresh Off the Boat
Eddie and his mad crush on Fresh Off the Boat

Having an extensive knowledge about the industry, was there ever a time you considered not having Hudson take the role?  If so, what convinced you to overcome those doubts?  If not, what was the overriding factor in that decision?

I honestly told him that he had to be sure what he was doing. This is a hard job — it has some great perks obviously, but you’re doing 10 hour days, five days a week, which includes three hours of school and lots of frustrating and repetitive and boring stuff. And of course, if you do it, your entire world changes, in both good and bad ways. Can you move away from the city in which you grew up and away from the friends and extended family you love? Can you live under a microscope and deal with attention all the time, without having it change your personality in really bad ways? An 11 year old kid can’t necessarily answer all of these questions, but you need to know that there’s a real passion and desire to do this, that it’s not just a whim. In Hudson’s case, he really wanted to give this a shot. And when he said that, I told him what I always told him: If you’re going to do it, you have to do your best. You have to realize that there will be sacrifices and hard work. And if you decide you don’t want to do it after you’re in the middle of it, I’ll move mountains to get you out…but you have to know, there really is no going back. You decide to do it, you do your best, and when you decide not to, it’s back to the regular world…people don’t usually get second chances in this business.

We talked for a long, long time. And he said he wanted to do it. And here we are.

How is Hudson’s view of Asian-Americans today different from your view when you were his age?  Is there any aspect of the Asian-American experience you hope they tackle on the show that hasn’t come up yet?

I’ll tackle the second part first: The show needs to tackle the fact that Asian America is a diverse community — the Huangs and their relatives are basically the only Asian family we see. Next season, I hope they encounter Asians of other ethnicities. They shouldn’t bear the sole burden of representing all of Asian America!

As for the first question: The biggest thing that is different about Hudson’s view of Asian Americans, and I think this is true for a lot of kids his age, is that he’s totally comfortable with being Asian American! He doesn’t stress out about it, and he’s both proud and confident about his identity in a way I never could be. It’s what gives him his swag on camera, ha. But it’s also the fundamental sea change that has allowed Fresh Off The Boat to happen: Asian Americans have established ourselves in the culture, society and business of this nation in a way that makes it hard to be dismissed as foreigners and outsiders, the way that prior generations have been. Asian American kids still face racism — let’s be real here — but there are so many more resources, role models and support networks now than there were when I was growing up. And I’m hoping that Fresh Off The Boat will become one of those resources, reshaping the ways that Asians are looked at by the generations who come after us. That’s kind of my way of saying I hope this show sticks around for a long time!

Thank you so much for your time, Jeff. I’ve been reading some of your other articles about the show and found your insight to be touching and deep. In particular your piece in The Los Angeles Times hit home for me so thank you. I really appreciate the time you’ve taken from your busy schedule to answer these questions. Best wishes to your family!

  • Read the complete unedited interview by clicking here!
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