“Fresh off the Boat”: The Long Duk Dong Effect

The recent Fresh off the Boat episode, “Good Morning Orlando,” showed the benefits of having a second season. Once a show gets to their second season, especially a show as culturally aware as Fresh off the Boat is, the show’s writers (and perhaps the stars themselves) can start to address things that got on their nerves during the first season (and probably, throughout their lives). Fresh off the Boat did that by having Louis go on local morning television to promote his restaurant and do funny impressions, only to come back home to a disapproving Jessica who uttered the damning name of “Long Duk Dong.” Yes, she said he Long Duk Donged all Asian Americans because he decided to make two white anchors laugh.

If you think Long Duk Dong is just a harmless character from Sixteen Candles, then you don’t know Long Duk Dong. Long Duk Dong is to Asians as Uncle Tom is to my people, African Americans. Long Duk Dong is the character that shucks and jives to the white audience’s amusement, shaming all of his people who are cognizant of the fact that he is the on Asian character that made it through the cracks to even be on the big screen without ripping off Bruce Lee (because no one can capture the magic and mystery that is the one, true martial artist/philosopher/Cha Cha dance master Bruce Lee).

Just like how many African Americans have been conflicted about supporting certain characters, movies, and TV shows (pick your poison), I’m sure many Asian Americans were conflicted about Long Duk Dong and the actor who played him, Gedde Watanabe, a Japanese-American actor playing a Chinese stereotype, which probably adds insult to injury. (Interestingly enough, Watanabe went on to voice Ling in Mulan, but I don’t know if that makes things better since Ling was also comic relief.) The question is this: Is it right or wrong to support or not support an Asian actor even if he’s making a mockery of himself and the group of people he represents onscreen? I think it’s fair to say that even though many folks have their own answer, the consensus was soundly against favor of Watanabe, and as Jessica reminded Louis, Long Duk Dong has become the marker of what you don’t want to be. You don’t want to be thought of as a sellout.

Fresh off the Boat is in the unique position to address this, because there are many folks out there who might understand why being called an “Uncle Tom” is wrong, but might not even be aware of why Long Duk Dong is problematic. America is very hypersensitive to black issues, in the sense that black Americans were at the forefront of the civil rights movement. But because America equates “diversity” to just “black,” a lot of the issues concerning other minority voices gets shuffled under the rug for no reason. Fresh off the Boat can give another perspective to a conversation that’s constantly happening on shows like black-ish—that having limited or no representation in the media can lead to the one individual that does make big having to represent the entirety of their race. For a week, Louis was in that tough spot of representing an entire group of people without the luxury of just being himself. And after Jessica went on and on about how he should be approachable, but serious, but discuss issues affecting Asian Americans, but still be jovial, but not make too many jokes, but be polite, but not overtly and stereotypically polite, etc., etc., both realized how much of an impossible burden it is to put on just one person.

Fresh off the Boat addressed this not only to add more to the conversation about a lack of representation on television, but to also provide a bit of meta commentary to some of the frustrations that the show had about being the first Asian American television show in about 20 years. Because they were the first, they were getting unnecessary (in my opinion) annoyance from folks who felt the show didn’t represent them and their experience. Well, to that I say: DUH. It’s not supposed to represent everyone’s experiences, because, while there are some shared cultural experiences, not everyone’s upbringing is the same. My upbringing is different from any of my cousins’ upbringings, even though we’re all black. My life isn’t theirs, so if I told my story on the big screen, they don’t have a right to get offended just because something that happened to them isn’t in my story. I hate to invoke The Cosby Show after the horrors of Bill Cosby, but The Cosby Show played that “Perfect Minority Family” game, too. To everyone, including a lot of black people, the Huxtables represented the perfect black family, but some black people were mad that the show didn’t represent them or that the show felt unattainable in real life somehow. The Cosby Show however, was built to portray a perfect life; Fresh off the Boat was never meant to portray perfection; it just happened to be the only show of its kind at the time.

#Freshofftheboat addressed its frustrations about once being the only Asian show on TV. Click To Tweet

Thankfully, though, we now have Dr. Ken on ABC and, for what it’s worth, Into the Badlands on AMC (even though I’ve started to hear complaints about that show, too). There are beginning to be different interpretations of Asian life on screen (and there would have been more if GLENN WASN’T KILLED ON THE WALKING DEAD! There’s already a problem with killing black guys on this doggone show, and now you’re going to kill the Asian guy, too? I don’t care if he died in the comic book; the show has already taken liberties with canon! I dare to think what could happen to Michonne or Sasha!). Finally, Fresh off the Boat doesn’t have to carry the load of the world on its shoulders. Louis can do his Donald Duck and Rocky impressions and not have to be thought of as a Long Duk Dong. He’s just goofy, lovable Louis, an individual, not the Leader of the Asian Delegation (to reference that Dave Chappelle skit that’s now become part of the fabric of millennial America).

Last thing to note: I liked how this episode slyly played with the fact that people automatically assume that black people have to date black people. As if we just like someone because they’re black. “Black” doesn’t override “good personality” or “has a nice car.” Again, it goes back to being thought of as a representative of a group instead of an individual. Poor Walter, the only black kid in the group, still has to deal with well-meaning microagressions against him from his friends, who think that because he’s black, he has to automatically go with the black girl. Like goes with like, even though they as white kids can think of themselves as individuals. Yet, they still didn’t see themselves dating the black girl because they assumed she’d immediately go with Walter, aka she doesn’t have free will to choose who she’d like to be with because she’s a minority girl. And if they did decide to be together (which we was wasn’t the case at all), it doesn’t mean they chose each other because they’re both the black kids. As Walter said, “I like her, but [her race] is unrelated.” Basically, the lesson is that if you have black friends, don’t assume they just date black people. They can date anyone, just like you can.

What did you think of the episode? Give your opinions below!

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Screencap of Fresh off the Boat.