Fresh Off the Boat
Read Eddie Huang’s book, to know that the title of this post is a direct quote from Huang’s dad. He cleverly captured Eddie’s militant conviction and pugnatious attitude in this referring to him as a slanted-eye Malcom X. Huang’s dad might have even captured a bit of Eddie’s mayhem, like dealing and petty crime, which was also a vice of the young Malcolm Little.1 Somehow though, the racial paradigms that Eddie railed about in this book were ironically what shielded him from the same institutionally racist repercussions Malcolm or any other brother faced. Frankly speaking, cops policing white neighborhoods and fighting Reagan’s war on drugs, did not routinely picture a Huang, Wang, or Wong when they were patrolling. This made Eddie’s early escapades look like he saw the sh#t, deliberately stepped in it, and had to grind the toe of his kicks in it before riling the institutional beast. Eventually however, he did, and it’s covered in his book.
That brings us to the topic of parenting, and Eddie spends a considerable amount of time evaluating the methods employed by his parents. But, his dad, abusive by Eddie’s initial depiction, seemed like any other old-school dad of my era that wouldn’t think twice about poppin’ you upside the head, if that would set you straight. So, while Eddie spent the first few chapters of his memoir casting Mom and Dad’s discipline as needing CPS intervention, it was the type of discipline that many of us grew up thinking was normal. Without condoning it, some of us even understood that style of parental discipline was there to impress upon us the need for life-saving conformity. Basically, our parents were conditioned to protect us from a Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner type situation way before these situations were trending in the news–even if they had to beat it into us. This brings us back to Eddie. I admire his spit and fire, but he would have been what we lovingly would have called hard-headed. Raising kids like him took more skill than any previous generation had handed down; and I mean this both literally and figuratively. Therefore when you take an immigrant parent (like Eddie’s dad), parented by the back of the hand, and with no other parenting style modeled; and combine that with a hard-headed first-generation, first-born, boy-child, obviously bearing the weight of his ancestors’ hopes and dreams; then you have a recipe for exactly what Eddie presents in this unapologetically raw, poignant, and often funny memoir. I almost sprayed my coffee, reading through all of the relatable and laugh-out-loud moments as Eddie recounts his early college years that show-up about midway through the book.
“They don’t understand that in China, Taiwan, or the Philippines we can be whoever we want. In America we’re allowed to play one role, the eunuch who can count. You’ve seen Romeo Must Die, Jet Li gets no pussy. Whenever I tried to articulate what I really felt about being Chinese in America, my dad said I sounded like a slanted-eye Malcolm X.”
Mind you, I said this showed up about midway. You had to be patient enough to get there with him—to grow with him from grade school, through poor times, puberty, bad choices and more. He lays the foundation; so that by the time he’s come of age you understand that Eddie Huang earned his right to be bad-ass. He’s where you find that behind his constant barrage of f-bombs and angst there is purpose and dare I say poetry in his prose.
Another little gift Eddie bestows upon us is his ability to discretely weave the whole culinary journey into the trajectory of his life. He wrote this as an organic out-growth of where he was and who he was with. His forays into food served as a pretext for philosophically profound notions that had stewed within him over time. That’s how a simple bowl of cavatelli and red sauce became an illuminating revelation about what grounds us.
“In that little Italian diner tucked onto an anonymous Italian street in western Pennsylvania, I learned that there are universal food truths. Every culture had dishes that prized the simple and traditional over showy flavors and elaborate presentations. The things that may not seem worthy on first look but over time become an indispensable part of your life. If you grow up in an immigrant culture there are going to be foods you eat that other people just don’t get. Not the universal crowd pleasers, the fried chickens and soup dumplings, but the everyday stuff.”
“The things people left off menus only to find an audience during family meal. Whether it’s food or women, the ones on Front Street are supermodels: big hair, big tits, big trouble. But the one you come home to is probably something like cavatelli and red sauce. She’s not screaming for attention because she knows she’s good enough even if your dumb ass hasn’t figured it out yet.”
Okay, he had me at dumb ass. I loved how Eddie kept dropping these little unpolished pearls of wisdom throughout. He goes on to thrill with self-discovery in Taiwan, a short but awakening stint in law school, his call to student activism, social justice, and more. Don’t be misled by Fresh off the Boat’s hot pink, candy colored book cover, because Eddie doesn’t sugar coat a damn thing.
So, this is now my must-read recommendation for all my fellow “friends of color,” their kids, and friends of my friends. It’s a compound recommendation really; because it is not sufficient to read the book, one must also listen along to the audio narration by Eddie, out on Audible. Eddie’s voice, its cadence, the passion and flow of his reading, keep the experience “one-hundred”!
Drop the mic. Buy the book.
1 Malcolm Little was the given name of civil rights leader Malcolm X.