Thursday, December 20, 2012

Review: Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang

When I was in grad school, I chose to concentrate on a fairly little-known and growing area of literature: immigrant literature with a focus on Asian American writing by the first and second generations.  There was actually a decent amount of beautifully written, amazing works that detailed the difficult position of being Asian American in a Caucasian majority society.  The books tackled the sometimes self-perpetuating myth of the model minority as versus reality, the overt and hidden racism faced by those fresh off the boat as well as those Americans born and raised in the US, and the challenges of a hyphenated existence amongst a society that frequently still isn't fully accepting.  The books also raised the issue of difference between the desires, goals, and asperations of first and second generations Asian Americans.  So Eddie Huang's memoir Fresh Off the Boat, about growing up as the child of Taiwanese Chinese immigrants to the US should have been right up my alley.  Unfortunately it was anything but.

Huang seems to think that he's the only one to ever rebel against the model minority stereotype or at least the only one to do so successfully on his own terms.  The tone of the book is condescending with Huang coming off as always certain of his superiority.  Frankly this attitude was wearying and unearned.  His self-conscious over-reliance on gansgta slang and his 'hood credentials made the reading tiresome.  And while he clearly wants to set himself up as a bad-ass, in the end, he comes off more as a dilettante poseur than anything else.  He celebrates being kicked out of multiple private schools, fighting people at the drop of a hat, holding stupid grudges for years, and glorifies doing and selling drugs.  All of his bad behaviour, explained as his protest against model minority status, is related with a wink and a nudge and a smugness that grates.  This is a real shame as he has some very valid social insights and criticisms to present but they are obscured by his own unpleasantness and disdain for almost everyone he comes into contact with who might possibly treat him well and derail his overarching theme of his own triumph over those who would keep him down. 

The memoir is definitely not a chef memoir in the traditional sense, focused almost exclusively on his growing up years from his family's downward mobility to their financial resurgence, his education all the way through law school, and only in the final pages, his family's opposition to him starting his own restaurant and eventual pride in his success.  As he narrates his story, he spends an inordinate amount of ink denigrating and mocking white people as a whole, perhaps in retaliation for the very real racism he encountered (and perhaps still encounters).  Even if it is deserved, it unfortunately doesn't make for interesting or gripping reading, at least not here.  The pacing of his narrative is uneven and the book's writing is pedestrian, sliding in and out of his assumed hip hop dialect.  Short shift is given to his adult years and because of the lack of detail about them, they come off as an annual Christmas card letter's collection of brag and gag highlights.  As interested in this memoir as I was initially, it was, in the end, a terrible disappointment.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for providing me with a copy of this book for review.

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