Fresh Mouth, Fresh Off the Boat

The beauty of being in a book group (and in my case, a book group focused on food books) is you are exposed to books you’d probably never have noticed. Such is the case with Eddie Huang’s memoir (memoir? he’s thirty-one years old!) as a first-generation American of Taiwanese/Chinese descent. He grew up in Orlando, and I mean that in the ironic sense.

Now he’s the proprietor of Baohaus—a hugely popular restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side that serves authentic Taiwanese street food. (Here’s a little video that explains the restaurant and the food. Language warning.) He has a popular blog and is an outsized food personality. He and Anthony Bourdain are like this.

I fear I’m not cool enough for Eddie. I didn’t understand half the book; he talks in hip-hop rhythms using slang I don’t know and jokes and references I don’t get. There’s a lot of profanity. And a lot of focus on having the hippest tennis shoes. At the risk of sounding like the old fart I am, I feel compelled to point out this has the effect of leaving out a vast portion of his potential reading audience, either by alienating us (profanity doesn’t offend me but it does some) or simply losing us because we don’t know what’s being said. (I didn’t know what “selling tree” was. Or that “ill” is slang for “really good.” Now I do.) And seriously, Eddie, there are way more important things in life than having the illest tennis shoes.

But here’s the thing: I can’t stop thinking about Fresh Off the Boat. I keep looking over at it on the corner of my desk. (It’s there because I’ve known I was going to write about it.) I am drawn to it. Let me tell you why.

First, when Eddie just gets down to telling the story, it’s a good one. And he’s hilarious. No, wait. His was not an idyllic childhood. But Eddie doesn’t blame anybody for the tough stuff (much of it self-inflicted). It was what it was, and he manages to make us laugh with him. (Sometimes he makes us want to slap him—he wasn’t an easy kid.)

And there’s that cover. I adore it, seriously. It’s pink. And perfect in every way. You’ll see.

Most importantly, though, Eddie Huang has some really moving things to say about what it means to feel out of place. To not fit in. To be “other” because you don’t look like everyone else.

To this day I wake up at times, look in the mirror, and just stare, obsessed with the idea that the person I am in my head is something entirely different than what everyone else sees. That the way I look will prevent me from doing the things I want; that there really are sneetches with stars and I’m not one of them. I touch my face, I feel my skin, I check my color every day, and I swear it feels all right. But then someone says something and that sense of security and identity is gone before I know it.

My friends, this is deep stuff. Let’s face it, melting-pot America still has profoundly troubling flaws, and Eddie has been exposed to a few of them. The New York Times says Fresh Off the Boat is “an angry book, as much James Baldwin … as Amy Tan.” And I may be a middle-aged white chick, but his comments absolutely resonate with me.

I have had the experience of making an online comment to a story in our local newspaper and watched as the very next commenter replied with an assumption about me based on my last name. (Chavez is a Hispanic name; I married it, once upon a time.) I remember sitting there with my mouth agape, astonished that some (figuratively speaking) neighbor of mine would say such a thing in a public forum. About someone he didn’t know.

As a woman of a certain age, I have had the experience of having my opinion openly dismissed by younger people (because I’m so old I couldn’t possibly understand); I have had assumptions made about me that weren’t true (because I couldn’t possibly be hip enough to know about it).

Let’s face it, though: older folks make assumptions about young people too. So, Eddie, let me stand in solidarity with you. My experiences are not yours, but I do get it, and I don’t blame you for being angry.

Fresh Off the Boat is also about culture and creativity, about being authentic and humble. He’s a smart guy, really. Eddie stayed in a lot of trouble in school, then had a teacher who introduced him to the writings of Jonathan Swift and Martin Luther King Jr.  He went to college. He got a law degree (so “no one could ever look down on me again”). And there’s more than that, but this is a book about food, remember.

In that little Italian diner tucked onto an anonymous street in western Pennsylvania, I learned that there were universal food truths. Every culture had dishes that prized the simple and traditional over showy flavors and elaborate presentations. The things that may not seem worthy on first look, but over time become an indispensible part of your life. If you grow up in an immigrant culture, there are going to be foods you eat that other people just don’t get. … The things people left off menus, only to find an audience during family meal.

He’s built a highly successful restaurant serving up simple, authentic food.

So. This was a book I probably wouldn’t have chosen, and it made me think about things in a different way. (Anthony Bourdain calls it “provocative.”) I’m still a bit dazzled by it. Eddie can write, though I think he does himself a disservice by writing in language so hip it will be dated very soon. If you’re under forty, you’ll “get” it and enjoy it. If you’re over forty, well, you’ve been warned. :)

Tweet: Eddie Huang has some really moving things to say about what it means to feel out of place. To not fit in.
Tweet: If you’re under 40, you’ll “get” it and enjoy it. If you’re over 40, well, you’ve been warned. :)

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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