I’m obsessed with Fresh off the Boat. I’m obsessed with watching an Asian American family, including a grandma who speaks Mandarin and whose lines are subtitled in English, on network TV. I’m obsessed with the ridiculous cuteness of the youngest kid, Evan (especially when he loses his giant stuffed rabbit to his grandma in a game of poker).
I’m particularly obsessed with the nostalgia of it all. Despite what the show’s creator, Eddie Huang, might think, FOTB is relatable to many Asian American families with similar stories of immigration, family-owned businesses, and success perms. But why I keep watching, despite falling ratings, is for the continuous pop culture references from the ’90s. From all the dang hip hop to the McDonald’s collectible Garfield mugs to Glo Worms to Reebok Pumps, the show is chock-full of old school throwbacks that keep me endlessly entertained.
Yet, the nostalgia of the show is not just a gimmick. It’s often deployed as a way to help materialize, and more importantly critique, the idea of cultural assimilation. When Eddie begs his mom to buy him “white people food,” a.k.a. Lunchables, to get along with the kids at his new school, it becomes a moment where we all wonder, why are white folks obsessed with the non-food of Lunchables? What is that? The show turns the table on cultural and racial norms, wherein it’s white people’s food that is rendered strange and questionable.
In this light, the show’s frequent references to all things Shaq can also be read as moments of cultural critique. Meeting Shaq is step two in Eddie’s plan of world domination. Step one is obtaining Lunchables to get a seat at the table, and step three is to “change the game.” In Orlando in the mid-1990s, Shaq is the key not to mere assimilation, but total domination.
And this is what makes Fresh off the Boat so fresh. It’s not a story about an Asian American kid trying to “fit in.” It’s a story about an Asian American kid figuring out how to discern paradigms of power and privilege outside of whiteness, embodied in the figure of Shaq.
Eddie and his sometimes-friends’ obsession with Shaq is endearing, including their Shaq sighting at the mall (“he’s at Mrs. Fields eating a giant cookie,” “except to him, it’s a regular cookie”), and subsequent letdown when it’s not him (“just a big black guy in a mustard-colored suit”). Eddie sports a Magic jersey regularly, and I look forward to the show dropping references to Shaq’s rap career and Kazaam. An entire episode was devoted to Shaq Fu, the cult failure of a video game that also points to a long and interesting history of Afro-Asian cultural production.
Shaq is so much more than a ’90s sports reference. He symbolizes power, dominance, failure, and folly.
This week’s episode featured a cameo from Scottie Pippen, playing himself twenty years ago. The joke was not that Scottie was no MJ, but that he was no Shaq. The basketball theme will be further explored next week, as it is revealed that Louis (the dad) was a semi-pro basketball player in Taiwan.
In the meantime, here’s a clip from Shaq back in the day. Because if you want to understand the show, you have to understand Shaq: