Minutes before Eddie Huang was to face the Television Critics Association for the first time last month, he was getting briefed on what not to say.
"ABC's press people were like, 'Don't talk about race. Don't talk about immigration. Stay positive,' "" he recalls. "They gave us this whole huge, really uncomfortable, 10-minute speech about how certain people on the show had not been positive and that everybody was working really hard."
The problem was that Huang was at the TCA press tour to talk about his new ABC show, "Fresh Off the Boat" (premiering Wednesday at 8:30 and 9:31 p.m.; its regular time slot will be Tuesdays at 8 p.m.), which is based on life as a first-generation American in his family of Taiwanese immigrants. The other problem was that Huang had just written an unflinching, controversial essay in New York magazine about getting his story on network TV. ("The network's approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American [Nahnatchka Khan, best known for creating the show 'Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23'] who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane," wrote Huang.)
"I was like, 'Listen, me telling the truth -- me being clear-eyed about this show and about the process -- is not me being "not positive," ' " Huang says. " 'That's being real. That's being honest. You're telling me to be positive if I have to lie to be positive.' "
Nevertheless, Huang was ready to be positive. After all, "Fresh Off the Boat" is the first network TV show to feature a predominantly Asian-American cast in 20 years. It's a labor of love for everyone involved in the show, but especially for Huang, who provides the voice-over for the show and is an executive producer. They recognize that the show, which focuses on the Huang family's move to Orlando when he was 11 and their struggle to fit in, carries the hopes of many Asian-Americans who want to see their stories told in popular culture by people who actually look like them.
The first question of the TCA news conference: "I love Asian culture. And I was just talking about chopsticks, and I just love all that. Will I get to see that, or will it be more Americanized?"
Huang's response: "It's more about chopsticks."
"Wait till Episode 5, it's all about chopsticks," added Khan.
And it was off to the races for what some reporters called the most awkward and contentious conference of the entire press tour.
"TCA was very uncomfortable," Huang says. "It was really good timing that the New York magazine article came out before TCA so that I got to say how I felt, unadulterated, before anybody else did."
Of course, that's been 32-year-old Huang's strategy for quite some time, as he has opened his Taiwanese bun shop, Baohaus, in Manhattan; hosted his food travelogue, "Huang's World" for Vice; and written the book "Fresh Off the Boat," which inspired the ABC show. He says it's important for minorities to avoid being reactionary because it puts them in a secondary position to those in the dominant culture.
"Obviously, there are times when you're forced to respond to things," he says. "But for the most part, I really try to clear my head and think, 'Am I doing this because somebody told me I couldn't or am I doing this because I really believe it?' Being reactionary can be really self-destructive at times."
It is much more constructive to push for your own vision, Huang has found. "In general, bad things happen because people don't push hard enough," he says. "They don't want to start a debate. They don't want confrontation. If they feel like it's not just their responsibility and they can blame other people, then things get really bad. When people take responsibility and realize, 'If I don't change it, nobody will,' things get good."
"Fresh Off the Boat" is a prime example, he says. Despite all the battles over the show, the story of Huang as a hip-hop-loving 11-year-old and how he and his family deal with moving to the mostly white area of Orlando manages to be specific with its details while being more universal with its worries about trying to fit in.
It was important to Huang for that dynamic to remain intact. "These are all cultures -- whether it's Asian culture or hip-hop culture, street culture -- that matter to a lot of people and really never get represented in the right way," he says. "I'm just trying to do it as real as possible."
For Huang, it's important that the portrayal of Asian-Americans is right. "There are a lot of people -- especially some white Americans -- that look at Asians like we're scabs," he says. "There's people that say really racist things about black people to me, thinking I'm going to be on their side and I'm like, 'Dude, I'm the wrong one to say that to.' They also try to compliment me by backhandedly, insulting the rest of Asian-Americans by saying, 'You're an outlier. You're so different.' And I'm like, 'Not really, man. If you go to China, you go to Taiwan, you go to Korea, you'll probably meet a lot of people like me because we get to be whole people there. It's here where you've imposed these views on us. You've imposed these stereotypes and people now live up to them.' "
Jeff Chang, executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University and author of the recent book "Who We Be: The Colorization of America," says that "Fresh Off the Boat" could be an extremely important show, especially to young Asian-Americans.
"Having images of yourself that are recognizable, that feel authentic and real to you, is really key towards those critical periods of identity formation," Chang says, adding that many young minorities feel "adrift in this sea of self-discovery" when there are no examples in culture for them to latch onto. "All we've had, for the most part, have been very polarizing types of stereotypes. We're still very much in the Bruce Lee/Dragon Lady sort of mode here for Asian-American representation. For the vast majority of us who don't fit squarely into either category, it's a daily process where we're having to educate everybody around us as to who we really are. Eddie's breakthrough is a breakthrough for all of us in that sense. It shows the range of the kind of people who we are. It renders us a lot more fully human. When you're in the majority, you don't feel the burden of representation."
ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee says he believes it's the network's job to help with that representation and "reflect America." However, Lee adds that "Fresh Off the Boat" and other ABC shows with mainly minority casts like "black-ish" and "Cristela" were picked because of the strength of their stories. "We love Eddie," Lee says. "He's a firebrand. It's one of the reasons why we did the show."
It also helps that Asian-Americans are a virtually untapped, potentially lucrative market for network TV. According to a 2012 Nielsen report, Asian-Americans will number more than 20 million with buying power of more than $1 trillion by 2017, growing by more than 50 percent since the turn of the century.
To show its support for "Fresh Off the Boat," ABC will debut it in its Wednesday comedy block, as both the lead-in and follow-up to "Modern Family," before moving to its regular 8 p.m. Tuesday night slot.
Huang says that special showing is "probably the thing I'm most excited about," not because it will help build his show's audience, but because it puts him in the proximity of one of his heroes, "Modern Family's" Ed O'Neill.
"I don't even call him Ed O'Neill -- I'm like, 'That's Bundy,' " Huang says. "I [expletive] love Bundy. I'm such a Bundy fan."
And now, his show could shape young minds in the way that "Married . . . With Children's" Al Bundy helped shaped his.
"It's crazy," Huang says. "If I could be as impactful on other kids the way Bundy was on me, that would be incredible. I loved Bundy because he did not care. He did not care that he sold women's shoes. . . . I thought he was just this incredible hero who was super-ordinary."
In a way, that's exactly how he wants people to see "Fresh Off the Boat." "I think there's a very important conversation that this show is sparking about the process of representing minorities in dominant culture," he says. "I hope kids -- especially young writers -- see it and understand that it's not a fact of life that you're going to get swallowed up. It's not a fact of life that you'll be neutered. You can fight this. My brother will say, 'Man, you can't change the world. You can't change the way people think.' I really feel like you can. I think this show is a really good example of how you can move the boundaries. You should always try to move the boundaries."
Shows with Asian-American leads
Though Asian-American characters have appeared on network TV occasionally for decades, only a few ever led their own shows before the upcoming "Fresh Off the Boat" sitcom. Here's a look:
"Mr. T and Tina" (1976)
STARRING Pat Morita
THE PREMISE A spinoff from "Welcome Back, Kotter," Morita played Taro Takahashi, a Japanese inventor who moves to Chicago.
THE OUTCOME Only four of the 10 episodes shot aired on ABC.
"Pink Lady...and Jeff" (1980)
STARRING Mitsuyo Nemoto and Keiko Masuda
THE PREMISE The Japanese singing duo hosted a variety show in America even though they didn't understand much English. Comedian Jeff Altman would try to explain American things to them.
THE OUTCOME Five of the six shows shot aired on NBC.
"All-American Girl" (1994)
STARRING Margaret Cho
THE PREMISE The Americanized daughter of Korean immigrants balances her career as a stand-up comedian and her more traditional family.
THE OUTCOME It aired one season of 19 episodes on ABC.