If You Don’t Know, Now You Know: An Interview with Eddie Huang
Interviewed by Daniel Youngwon Lee
Eddie Huang is a chef, writer, TV host, fashion designer, speaker, and producer based in New York City and Los Angeles, whose work is recognized for bridging food with music, culture, comedy, politics, and metropolitan life. He is widely known as the chef and owner of the popular Taiwanese restaurant Baohaus in New York City’s East Village and as an advocate for the young and cultured and experienced foodies alike.
Huang has created several projects under the moniker “Fresh Off the Boat,” beginning with his popular blog. The name then went to his ingenious travelogue series with VICE Media—a “genre-bending venture of subcultures through the lens of food,” which features Huang traveling domestically and abroad. He is currently executive producing the Season 3 of the series. He also adopted the Fresh Off the Boat name for his first book and memoir, released by publisher Spiegel and Grau, which became a New York Times Best Seller in its first week of release in 2013. 20th Century Fox optioned the memoir and brought Huang on board to produce a sitcom of the same name, which premiered in February 2015 to incredible ratings for ABC.
AAPR: I have a couple of quick questions to help get this conversation going. Last meal you ate?
EDDIE HUANG: I went to Peter Luger’s last night. I did the steak for four, creamed spinach, German hash, tomato onion salad, Hennessey XO . . . and a coffee. [laughs]
AAPR: Last book you read?
HUANG: Oh, and we had the bacon. I’m currently reading Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye.
AAPR: Last time you voted?
HUANG: 2012. I stopped voting for a reason. I know the more conscious thing, the better thing, is to vote, right? I just don’t think this system works. You have to trust these people to remain Jedi and not fall victim to Beltway politics, lobbyists, and all that. But they’ve all been bought. I don’t believe in this system because it makes it easier for people to control our democracy. If all you have to control is the representatives, that’s easy.
AAPR: Your favorite city?
HUANG: I just like New York. Favorite city? It’s so far New York that the close second is not even close. I would say a very distant second is, hmm . . . I’ll tell you that my favorite vacation was always Hawaii. I like fish, man. Fish don’t say shit. You could look at them all day and they don’t say shit. I like being underwater cause underwater seems like another planet. I would say Hawaii, Taipei, and Paris. Those are the three other places I really like to go.
AAPR: What do you think are some of the bigger issues facing the Asian American community?
HUANG: I don’t want to answer any questions that have “biggest” or “best” or whatever because I don’t believe in that. I’ll give you my opinion, that’s all. I think that’s important because certain people will ask me about Asian America, and they’ll want me to say objectively or cumulatively what things should be. But that’s not why I’m here. I’ll give my opinion, and I really hope other Asian Americans will speak up with their opinions.
But I will say this. Our community has done very well—done well economically and done well scholastically in America. Our achievements though have been entirely overblown. If you look at the Census, there’s a lot of Asian kids who are struggling with school. There are a lot of organizations trying to help illiterate Chinese kids who can’t even apply to college. There are some Asians who are very high achieving and they did that on their own merit, but people are always trying to connect this shit. It’s like when White people do something well, it’s never a result of their race or a result of their privilege. It’s always entirely merit based, that they did that themselves. When Asians do something well, it’s like, it must be green tea, it must be the antioxidants in green tea. It must be their upbringing.
AAPR: I imagine you have in mind the recent discussions on tiger parenting.
HUANG: Yeah, that tiger mom shit is ridiculous. It’s the idea that people are going to explain off Asian achievement in certain areas . . . that’s fucking ridiculous. People do it on their own. Nobody else takes the SAT for us. They take it on their fucking own. The other thing is, nobody asks these questions to White people. If you’re a minority, you have to be smart enough to not answer these fucking questions. Don’t allow them to frame this conversation. And another thing is, when people in the ‘80s and ‘90s noticed that African Americans were dominating professional sports, they thought they must have an extra ligament or extra tendon, they must have better hamstrings. Nah. People work, man. People work.
AAPR: In your memoir Fresh Off the Boat, you wrote that as a kid you hated having the expectation of being the representative or the statement of the Chinese people in your community.
HUANG: I don’t like it when you’re the only Asian person somewhere and inevitably everything that you do becomes the stereotype for all other Asian people. They impress all the expectations of Asian people on you. That is extremely unfair, and that’s the shittiest part about America. As the only one, everything you do becomes crystallized as a stereotype or a stigma, and everything that others have seen before, you have to do as well.
I don’t like being a token Asian. I don’t think anybody likes being a token anything. I definitely believe that I represent a part of Asian America, that there are a lot of kids like me out there. I really enjoy talking about it because when I was growing up, there weren’t other people who were. There weren’t other Asian people I could relate to. I think that it’s important that people talk—and not just accomplished people.
You go to school, you go to classes, you read novels in school, but there’s never one from an Asian writer. It’s, like, Maxine Hong Kingston and the Joy Luck Club, but much love to Maxine Hong Kingston. She’s the OG.
AAPR: Are you purposefully trying to fill a gap in Asian American representation in our culture?
HUANG: I never go out thinking, “Oh, I want to fill this gap, or there’s a market demand for that.” I’ve never done that. I just lived a very different life. I just want to tell people about the first time I saw mac and cheese and thought it looked fucking weird. I want to tell people about the first time people tried to explain my achievement or success with green tea, or my mom hitting me with a spatula, or my dad telling me to kneel with a rice bucket on my head. The time my mom got a restraining order against my dad because she wanted him to respect her mind. I have a very, very unique family that doesn’t fit in the Chinese/ Taiwanese stereotype.
I really like to use my life in specific examples. We’re people. We’re humans. We’re not demographics. We’re not a race. At the end of the day, we’re people. I really get sick of people talking about us like numbers, demos, and test scores. It’s disgusting, man. People look at us like we’re these exotic, test-taking, fucking bean-counting, green tea–drinking motherfuckers. That’s not us, man.
AAPR: Do you find that certain progress has been achieved by the Asian American community?
HUANG: I think this is a conversation for Asian Americans to have amongst themselves. On a personal level, there are things that I’ve seen improved. But outwardly, it’s not productive for us to say, “Oh it’s getting better, let’s just stop.” There’s so much further to go, and we’ve been tricked numerous times. When you let down and you think things are better, oh we’re post-racial. We’re not, and it’s not even close. Until we’re equal, it doesn’t matter if things get better.
And I also think that it’s not productive for people to think in a silo just for their own community. “Oh, I fight for Black rights” or “Oh, I fight for Asian rights.” Man, I’m trying to use our Asian American experience for everybody because everybody can relate to this Asian experience. We all have to get better. If you used to hate on Asians and you watch my show or you read my book and now you like Asian people, well maybe you’ll feel the same way about Guyanese people. Maybe you’ll feel the same about gay people. We’re all ignorant about something. It’s all about trying to open your mind and allow things you’re uncomfortable with to teach you something.
I’ll tell you this. I never understood punk rock, or heavy metal, or hardcore. I never understood any of that music. But since I’ve started working at VICE, I’ve hung out with those kids and I party with those kids. You see fucking Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs perform. I actually like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but I’d never seen them live. I would never go to a Yeah Yeah Yeahs show. But I saw her last night. Ghostface Killah was there, Lil Wayne was there. Obviously, I was the most hyped for them to go on. But Karen O was the best performer of the night. Hands down. I would go to a Karen O show any day. And the thing is perspective. When you see it as “the other,” and when you see it as different and weird, when you feel like it’s not of you . . . but when you are welcomed into the crowd, and they accept you, and they make you part of their fucking shit, you enjoy it with them through their eyes. You start to understand it through your own perspective.
It takes people welcoming outsiders into their communities and being like, “Look, you may be fearful of this and you may not understand this, but I want you to see this. I want you to enjoy this with me.” It’s like wine and my boy Michael Madrigale, the wine sommelier. Wine is an intimidating thing. It’s stuffy, and it’s for old people. But I started drinking wine with him and he taught me about it, what to pay attention to. It’s not about how much it costs. It’s like, what do you like personally? I believe every culture is like this. There has to be a bridge, there has to be an ambassador of the group. There has to be somebody who reaches out and be like, “Yo, I want you to experience this with me on my terms.”
The problem is, a lot of our ambassadors, they are basic. They’re fucking mouth breathers. They think that if I want people to like it, I have to make my culture change so they can understand it. You can appease people’s fears, but they have to see it our way. Otherwise, it’s a gentrification, an appropriation, a co-optation. If you’re going to open a modern Chinese or Taiwanese or Korean restaurant, stop changing it, stop changing your culture to fit American tastes. The place where things really go wrong is when the ambassadors of our culture go out into dominant culture and they say, “How do you want it?” It’s not like Burger King. You know these motherfuckers are going to want it on bread with mayonnaise. But I found an intersection. They like bread. But the Taiwanese people also make the bao, and it’s authentic and it’s real and I didn’t have to change anything for that. That’s the beauty of it. Find something you share, that your cultures share, and use that as a gateway. Use that as a jumping-off point, but don’t change yourself so they like you more. They need to appreciate you for who you actually are. What’s the point if you have to change your essence?
AAPR: Drawing from your own experiences, what are some recommendations for the Asian American community to consider as they work toward creating that bridge and common understanding with others?
HUANG: Don’t compromise. And not like in a vigilant, aggressive way. If you have a point, if you have a reason, explain it. Make it heard. That’s it. Agreeing on something doesn’t necessarily mean compromising. You can agree to something and convince people without compromising your point of view. That’s just negotiation.
And there are so many things that we can do to benefit everybody, for all people of color, for all people that are weird and different. I think there’s a lot of power in solidarity. All people who are marginalized should really come together and think about what we have in common and how we can help each other out. And if we have differences, maybe these differences need to be addressed. If we’re all being marginalized in singular ways, we should have singular recourse. I just think that the dialogue needs to transcend just isolated communities and that we have to talk amongst ourselves. So much of America is being marginalized for like 1 percent of the world. I just think there’s so much work that needs to be done together. When they divide the barbarians, that’s when they win.
AAPR: What do you think of the recent tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, and how it has sparked diverse groups of people to come together for a particular cause?
HUANG: I hate to say it, but the way we protest is so outdated. Why doesn’t someone protest by fucking going to law school? Go volunteer at the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], go work at Legal Aid. I fucking volunteered at Teen Court as a kid. It was government mandated because I was on probation at the time, but I went to Teen Court and that really changed my life in a lot of ways because I saw social justice up close. I saw how I could affect it. OK, we’re teaching our kids how to march, that’s great. I think once or twice, great. You teach them how to march, how to protest, the historical roots of a social movement like that. What are we doing beyond the protest? Write articles, talk to people, force your schools to teach these things. We have to evolve our protest because it’s not working.
AAPR: Looking back on your memoir, is there something you wish you had done differently?
HUANG: If there’s a flaw in the book, I would say that it’s so in the moment. There are certain chapters where it’s so inconsistent. In the early chapters, I write like I’m my twelve-year-old self and then in high school, I try to write like my high school self. I didn’t transition it enough. I think there are times when I really nailed the childhood voice and when I really nailed the high school voice, but I should’ve been more cognizant that that’s what I was doing. I mean, I was cognizant that that’s what I was doing, but I need to show a growth and it should’ve been more of a crescendo.
The ability to change the voice right in those moments is pretty dope. But that’s about becoming a better writer. When your voice mirrors the growth of a character, that’s when you’re really dope.
AAPR: Did that realization come from personal reflection or from people you were collaborating with?
HUANG: It takes a while to see it yourself. It was really after I wrote my second book. When I go back and read my first book, I’m like, “Oh Eddie, you were so eager to say . . . ” It looks like it was written by a really genuine kid who was in a rush to say so many things because people silenced him for so long. And he fucked up a few times. [laughs]
I said I knew when I wrote it that it wouldn’t be perfect because I was really young. I’m still really young. But I wanted to write it when I was twenty-nine years old because if I waited ‘til I got older, my appearance would’ve changed, the way I felt would’ve changed. I was still really angry when I was twenty-nine, and I didn’t have as much respect as I have now. I think it’s important to write that because people need works from people in those ages and time periods to relate to. Books can’t always come from old people who’ve seen it all, done it all, and are all calm. I wanted to capture lightning in a bottle so people that age can read how I felt at that age in that time in that space.
AAPR: What do you think about your growing popularity?
HUANG: I don’t like it when I’ll be walking down the street and people grab me or touch me. That’s annoying. When people stop me for a photo, no lie, it’s always a really nice thing. People who want to take a photo with you and are excited because they like your work, that’s cool. I’m not famous. You only know me if you’ve been paying attention. My work is niche culture. And that’s great because I want people who stop me on the street for a photo that really read my work and paid attention.
There was an old mom from Texas that ran up into Peter Luger’s the other day. I was sitting there and eating and she ran over and she said, “I just have to tell you. I fucking love you, you’re fucking hilarious. I watch your shows, and I’m an old mom from Texas. I’m gonna leave you alone now. I just had to tell you.” I was like, that’s great. You can’t beat that. Old White woman from Texas. It just shows you that people from all sides want to talk to each other. And we’ve been kept away from each other too long.
AAPR: Do you have fears about your memoir being transformed into a network television series?
HUANG: My book is very raw and it’s very pure, and if the writers on the ABC show stick to the stories of the book and they do it justice, Asian Americans will be represented very, very well. But if they put their own personal stories into the show and disregard the stories of the book, you’ll basically be making a White show with yellow faces. And that would suck. That would be no better than yellowface, like Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese man in Breakfast in Tiffany’s.
Yes, I have fears. Yes, I’m worried, but I’ve done what I can by writing this book that does not compromise and that’s not sutured. I’m under the impression that this show is going to be inspired by the book. In the end, I signed off because there’s none of us on fucking network television. I’m aware that there are potential pitfalls, but I do my best to fight and I do my best to speak up and I speak up every fucking time.
AAPR: What do you want people to know about your show?
HUANG: It won’t be perfect. This show will not be perfect, but somebody has to come first. There’s a lot of room for another kid to come after me, whether he’s Asian, Black, Latino, Arabic, gay, whatever. A person will come after me and say, “Eddie didn’t go as hard.” But they have to know that I didn’t write the show. Judge me by the book and how hard I fought [for] this show. I definitely am open to people questioning how hard I’m fighting and what I’m saying about it, but you have to understand that I have been handcuffed in a lot of ways. But I just want to say that there’s an opportunity for someone to come after us and do this bigger and badder and even more uncut, in terms of a sitcom. And that’s what people need to do.
We need representation. Asians have no representation in the culture of America. So don’t shoot the messenger, just be a better one. Push yourself and do it better cause people didn’t just hand it to me. I fought for this and I fought for it for all of us. I did this for all of us. I don’t need the money, I did this so that we would be represented, but I’m questioning it all the time, just like other Asian Americans. And I’m trying. If they don’t like it and if they think they’re being misrepresented, I hope they understand that I’m trying and I didn’t get full control of this thing. And that’s what scares me. I control the book and I control my restaurant. I control the VICE show. This is the one project I have that is in many ways outside of my control, unless the community supports it and I have the ammunition to go in there everyday and fight them on this fucking show.
AAPR: You were once an attorney. These days, you’re a writer, chef, television producer, fashion designer, and musician. Why engage in popular culture to push your causes and perspectives?
HUANG: It’s more powerful. When I was a kid, I went to Taiwan and I saw huge billboards for Britney Spears and Kobe Bryant. I just remembered thinking to myself, “Man, American culture is so powerful.” People who have never seen America or been to America, never smelled it, tasted it, or lived there, think it’s the greatest country in the world. The Chinese name for America is mei guo, which means beautiful country. America has the best marketing of all time!
But soft power is so incredible. I just started to realize that I could continue to be an attorney, go protest, and be a part of these groups or I could sell narratives that endear our communities and our values to other people. I’m a funny person. I know how to tell jokes. I use my humor to open people up, to get them into our world and start to see things from our eyes. “Yo, there’s good shit here, some good food, I got good stories. You wanna hear some stories? I got some funny stories about my family. But now I want you to understand our existence about how we feel and where we come from and what our perspective is. Be fam with us.”
AAPR: Any parting shots for our readership?
HUANG: I think they have a responsibility to do better than the rest of us. People at the Harvards and the Yales have a lot more resources and opportunities and come into contact with a lot more shit than the rest of us do, so I think there’s a duty to fucking do something with it. When I go speak at schools like UPenn or Northwestern, students there are constantly like, “My parents want me to get this job that makes a lot of money, but my heart’s not into it. What do I do?” I had the same pressure from my parents, and everybody has similar financial pressures, but the thing was I never questioned what I was going to do. You always have to end up doing what you really want to do and what you care about. You can’t leave this earth and not make a difference. You can’t go through it passively. Especially when you have so many opportunities.
I just genuinely think that people at these schools need to realize that it’s not just about what you need. Go to a third world country. Go to a fucking really shitty city in China. Go to Haiti. People who are born there, it was their dumb luck that they were born there. And it was their dumb luck that there’s nothing that they can save them. You will meet people there who will never get out, and they will tell you that themselves. Being born somewhere fucks you the rest of your life sometimes.
If you are in America and you get to go to a Harvard or you get to go to any other college like I did, you have a duty to do something with that. You can’t just be self-fulfilling. You have to do something outside or beyond yourself. That’s all I would say. You serve something bigger than yourself, man. Every time I say something, I risk something. I think a lot of our problems come from people who are too scared to think for people beside themselves.
This interview took place on 6 December 2014.