Reposted from @mreddiehuang Instagram
“Chinese people don’t believe in psychologists. We just drink more tea when things go bad.” –Eddie Huang
First of all, Eddie Huang is not fresh off any boat. Unless he emigrated from Florida to NYC by way of a skiff up the Atlantic Seaboard, he’s pretty American. Hood, in fact. All Hot Cheetos, rude behavior and football.
When I first stumbled on Eddie’s late-night stoner spot serving stuffed steam buns (bao) on the Lower East Side, I was happy to find it: It was earnest and hardworking, if a little rough around the edges. Just how I like them. I liked that his walls had framed copies of his first negative review and his mother’s damning follow-up. This was a guy willing to laugh at himself.
Since then, he’s made me laugh, pissed me off (both at him and at the things that piss him off) and fed my belly with starchy fried goodness. If he were on the west coast, his restaurant would be a no-brainer. But here on the east coast, it’s a little more tricky. As he might say: It’s mad Eurocentric, kid.
So he got louder: made more baos, blasted his dirty rap music, showed up at more fashion shows, sloppy parties, and gutter video shoots. They started to listen to him. They started to consider that a restaurant and, indeed, a person could be both Asian and American and who gives a shit, really. His online debates with Francis Lam (friend) and Marcus Samuelsson (foe) on cultural misappropriation in the food industry sparked healthy debate. He laid waste to the concept of “authenticity,” one of my least favorite words within food (or maybe at all).
Now Huang is the proprietor of a new, improved bao spot near Union Square and a full-time marketing machine. His book Fresh Off the Boat is a funny romp through his adventures with sports, chicks, sneaker, guns, weed and the like. If you’re into that, you’ll really like it. I was less into the “Chinaman” references (break out of the queues and opium!), but loved the food stories (“I fux with Diasoric Thanksgiving…”) and honest grappling with his crazy mixed high-low hip-hop identity.
The book also delves into the harder parts of his upbringing: family drama, racial alienation, Orlando. I laughed out loud when he describes his mom packing seaweed salad for his Christian school lunch or his Filipino friends as “frequently left out when the model-minority net got dropped in the water.” One chapter is called “God Has Assholes for Children,” if that gives you an idea of what to expect. He’s often pissed at “Asian American herbs” but I think he’s really pissed at the narrow box he—and other Asian Americans—found themselves in, in childhood south Florida, college Pittsburg, PA, and finally his chosen hometown, New York City.
His tirade against “food missionaries” in favor of first and second generation restaurant owners--the heart of New York food life--should be required reading for anyone who thinks eating occurs in a historical vacuum. He sees food as a linchpin to identity, a force both stabilizing and vulnerable: the fun stuff of culture that becomes very serious when someone tries to take it from you. “I was sick of the Jean-Georges of the world making a killing on our ingredients and flavors because we were too stupid to package it the right way,” Huang writes.
The book is a fun read from a do-or-die Chinese Floridian. Buy it, read it, write your own. And send some money to your local Asian American Studies department. There’s probably a rowdy Chinese kid out there searching for his place in America and he shouldn’t have to go it alone, or think he’s the first.