Book Review: Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang

Two book reviews in a row?! Well, yes, there’s still such a thing called Summer Reading which I joyfully partake in, and gladly share on the blog. Well, in Taiwan, it should probably be renamed to Typhoon Season Reading, so stock up on food and books for the days you’ll be stranded at home.

photo from Rocky Li (thirdlooks.com)
photo from Rocky Li (thirdlooks.com)

There is the VICE show called Fresh Off the Boat, and now there’s also the book, both productions signed by Eddie Huang. Besides his grudge against David Chang’s pork bun, and his exuberant videos, I had never really heard of the guy before, nor was familiar with his past. So, I was quite excited when I got my hand on his book, not knowing what to expect beyond stories of newly arrived Asian immigrants to America, because his story is indeed beyond the average Asian-American kid growing in America. At least, unlike anything I have read before, though I’m sure many others have lived similar experience to his.

Eddie’s grandparents fled to Taiwan after the Cultural Revolution, worked their way up, and once again left, to America, in northern Virginia.

Why leave a country when you’re on top? Whether it was another communist scare or the even greener pastures in America, no one ever gives me a straight answer. (The only thing anyone can agree on is that they still miss the island.)

The grandparents opened a furniture shop, and after the passing of the grand-father, Eddie’s dad decided to move to Florida and get into the restaurant business with the opening of a seafood grill. First-generation Chinese opening a non-Chinese food restaurant, mmmhhh… a chapter must be missing from The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. From that point on, Eddie goes on with stories about rebelling at a Christian private school, getting picked in and out of school because of his Asian appearance, and seeking ways to stand up against all that, with wit and force.

“Chinks get to the back!”
I looked up from the ground, dumbfounded.
My dad had told me about the word, what it meant, but you’re never ready for your first time. It just fucking happens…
I was nine years old, and I called ’nuff… I grabbed his arm and threw it in the microwave. With my other hand I grabbed the door and slammed it on his arm as hard as I could.

He spills it all, from wanting all those White things, trying to fit in, moments of injustice, pleasing his parents, trips back to Taiwan that accentuates his love of Chinese food, not always getting along with other Asian-Americans, standing up for Chinese culture, dealing marijuana, finding refuge in basket-ball and rap music, and you’ll have to read the book to know the rest, because I just can’t do justice for everything he conveys with his straight talk ;).

Even as an immigrant who came over in his twenties, when it came time for the talk, my dad found the inspiration in an African-American basketball player. Like father, like son. //

And that summer in Taipei, I looked around and saw myself everywhere I went… Here I was coming home to find myself again in street stalls, KTV rooms, and bowls of beef noodle soup. All the things instilled in me from a young age by my family and home, rehydrated and brought to life like instant noodles… But in truth, in Taiwan, I was different too. I had to explain myself to people in Taiwan just like I did in Florida and I realized that if I stayed, I’d have a whole new set of hurdles to face. //

… as I opened each book I saw there were other people like me who saw the things I saw… I didn’t know how to express it but reading things like Teresa de Lauretis, Audre Lorde, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Toni Morrison, I got it. //

“Oh, wow, that face…”
“My face?”
“I mean… your face. You know… you look young, that’s all.”
“Yeah, I know, but you don’t put the beat writers’ photos in the newspaper, do you?”
“No, but no one is going to talk to you with that face…”
Just like that, it was over. All because of “that face.”
That face… What the fuck did he mean by “that face”?

Finally, after getting laid-off from his law gig, he goes all-in with Baohaus, and takes it home for a happy ending.

Shining under the streetlamp was an old man and his cart of noodles… My dad had told me about this man for years.. Every few months or so at home, Pops had to have Taiwanese ‘Mian… clear pork bone stock, sesame paste, and crushed peanuts on top… Creamy, smooth, and still soupy. A little za cai (pickled radish) on top, chopped scallions, and you’re done. I realized that day, it’s the simple things in life. //

I wanted the atmosphere at Baohaus to be everything that the Dan-Dan Noodle Stand was to my dad as a teenage Taiwanese street kid, but the food was for my mom… her moves are the only ones I’ve ever stolen in the kitchen. //

To this day, publications like New York magazine still credit Chang for introducing New York to the gua bao. I was mad, but respected the hustle. The only way to get even was to set up shop myself. I thank David. Just like he came up on gua bao, I jumped off his success and brought the title home. A Taiwanese kid makes the best gua bao in New York just like it should be.

In the end, I’m most intrigued with how he found refuge and comfort in Black figures, whether it be basket-ball players, rappers, or writers. Growing up in places without a significant Asian community, he definitely found an atypical way to make sense of America and become the American he feels comfortable celebrating.

Amidst all his mischief tales, there’s also all those bits of food memories, all those culinary experiences building up, giving him enough confidence to give it a shot with BaoHaus. A place to shamelessly celebrate an humble piece of Taiwanese cuisine, and where the neighbourhood can come hang out.

Readers expecting a food memoir will finish the book hungry for more, so head to Eddie’s blog, http://thepopchef.blogspot.com, or better yet, go to his BaoHaus shop in New York.

Finally, I’ll leave you with the leaked TED talk from ex-TED-Fellow Eddie Huang, talking about self-identiy. Things have come full-circle for him.

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