“You Get the Rep Sweats”: Why ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Is So Important to Asian Americans

On Twitter last night, writer Jeff Yang reported that 1000 people showed up for the live viewing party of ABC’s new half-hour family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat at The Circle nightclub in New York City. Yang, who writes a column for The Wall Street Journal, also happens to be the father of Hudson Yang, the Asian-American child actor cast in the role of young Eddie Huang in the show based on the chef’s memoir of the same name.

It was a different scene across the country in Los Angeles, where another live screening was held in the Little Tokyo/Arts District at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum, a 198-seat theater space operated by the Japanese American National Museum. Stand-up comic/writer Jenny Yang and blogger Phil Yu organized the intimate viewing party with the support of the Japanese American National Museum and Visual Communications, the non-profit organization that produces the annual LA Asian Pacific Film Festival.

Before the doors opened at 7:45, a long line of people stood along the wall, forming a queue that stretched from the museum’s glass doors to traffic signal on the corner of First and Central. Across the street, a massive pile of smashed bricks and rubble lay behind a chain-link fence wrapped in festive banners announcing the Metro Regional Connector coming soon.

The majority of people in line for the LA viewing party were Asian Americans. Some chatted excitedly with friends while they waited to be ushered into the building; others swiped and tapped at their phone screens, occasionally glancing up to check for any movement nearing the entrance. Toward the back of the line, a group gazed in silence at a sculpture installed on the plaza: Toyo Miyatake’s Camera, a wood and bronze replica of the camera that the Japanese-American photographer surreptitiously built while incarcerated in the Manzanar internment camp during WWII.

Inside the theater, Calvin Wu, 44, held up his smartphone to snap a selfie from the front row. Dressed in a dark pinstripe suit, he’d arrived at the venue at 4:30 that afternoon, the first in line to nab a seat for the viewing. “I’m from Taiwan too,” said Wu, referencing the ethnic roots he shares with Eddie Huang. “I used to work at a restaurant,” Wu added. “I’m doing some background acting now.”

As guests filled the last remaining seats in the theater, Phil Yu, who runs the news and culture site Angry Asian Man, made a short speech to welcome the crowd. “You guys know you can stay home and watch this on TV, right?” he joked. The audience answered in appreciative laughter.

Right before the house lights went down, Yang quipped: “This is a safe space. Once the show starts, and you get emotional and start crying, that’s totally OK.” More laughter, and someone shot back, “Thanks, Jenny!”

The pilot episode of Fresh Off the Boat won cheers and genuine guffaws from the crowd. During the half-hour before the second episode aired, Yang and Yu participated in an informal talk-back session with members of the audience. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and the room buzzed with discussion that darted between Wu-Tang, the relationship of Asian Americans to black culture and rap music, who’s laughing at jokes about “white people food,” the burden of cultural representation, George Lopez, John Cho and the abrupt cancellation of Selfie, Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles, Margaret Cho, and whether “middle America” will get on board with a show featuring an Asian-American cast.

Yu asserted, “This is a pilot, so it’s a work in progress.” He made note of the guarded optimism with which many of his friends have regarded the show. “It’s like, ‘I’m hopeful, but I’m not going to get my hopes up too much,’ because we’ve been burned before with how Asians are represented on TV.”

In perfect deadpan, Yang introduced a new slang term to express the specific anxiety that she feels about the desire for nuanced representations of Asian Americans in mass media: “You get the ‘rep sweats,’” she explained. “[Asians] are so invisible, every time you have the opportunity to see yourself on TV, you hold your breath.”

Chuong Bui, a lawyer and DJ, came to the viewing party with an entourage who filled an entire row of seats. He said, “I’m a big fan of Eddie Huang’s. I respect his work and his point of view. I like him. I watch him on Vice. I’ve read his book. I’ve been to [Huang’s restaurant] Baohaus. I get where he’s coming from.”

The theater darkened again, for the show’s second episode. The audience seemed even more raucous and eager to laugh out loud, expectations greased after watching the pilot. The “rep sweats” had abated, at least for a night.