Ryan Wong

“My Dad Said I Sounded Like a Slant-Eyed Malcolm X”


Get shut out of white, affluent society, but don’t beg your way in. Instead, steal, deal and do drugs, and get with white women. Get arrested and realize that isn’t sustainable. Visit the motherland and see people who look like you who don’t have the same chips on their shoulders. Read about your history, the theories on why America is like this. Put it in your words and tell others.

This is what happens in Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat, a new memoir that builds upon one of the great American narratives: self-transformation through the fires of racism, revolutionary identity out of conservative oppression. The urtext in modern America is The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and the parallels in Huang’s story are striking. Huang is mostly known for his restaurant Baohaus, but the book is not about a chef’s journey. The book is about race: in his words, the attempt to understand “How something so stupid as skin or eyes or stinky Chinese lunch has such an impact on a person’s identity.”

That something forms the core of Huang’s narrative. He tells searing stories of racist humiliations subtle and overt: from peers, from authority figures, and, perhaps most insidiously, from family members and other Asian Americans who internalized and regurgitated it. Every Asian person in America has felt something like it. Huang grew up in the south and suffered the taunts of “chink” and “chigger” from peers and physical abuse from his strict and traditionalist parents; he gets into constant trouble at school for fighting the former, and beatings and scoldings from his parents for the trouble at school.

When Huang’s childhood neighbors trash his birthday party, he makes a resolution: “I refused to be that Chinese kid walking everywhere with his head down. I wanted my dignity, my identity, and my pride back...There were no free passes on my soul and everything they stole from me I decided I’d take back double.” He floods his neighbors’ house with a hose and releases his Russian wolfhound on them.

His family's move to an affluent suburb didn’t stop the racist incidents or the fighting. After an arrest and plea deal for aggravated assault and third degree murder, Huang goes to Taiwan to sit out his probation time. There, he finds Taiwanese people in “suits, in sandals, in tank tops, in Iverson jerseys, with mole-hair growths, without mole-hair growths. No matter where you turned, slanted eyes were watching.” It’s not quite Malcolm X’s description of people of “all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans” praying together in Mecca, but it’s a similar escape from America’s racialized images. Seeing those people and eating some fantastic stinky tofu inspire Huang to work harder in college, engage with the material and his teachers, and figure out a way to make his mark. Only the last few pages of the book discuss Baohaus; the rest is already in the annals of celebrity chef history.

Frantz Fanon noted that in colonial situations, before revolutionaries develop they will first assimilate into the dominant society. In modern America, Asians, Latinos, and other minorities are offered a crude choice sometime during their childhood: you can socialize “white”—non-confrontational, buttoned-down, conservative, guitar music—or “black”—oppositional, street, radical, hip-hop. A large piece of Malcolm X’s narrative is about the conked hair and adherence to white culture he would later reject, but for Huang, the decision was quick. Visiting his white friend Jeff’s house, Huang is filled at first with envy at his toys and wealth: “I wanted to be white so fucking bad. But then dinner happened.” Jeff’s mom’s tuna fish sandwiches and macaroni and cheese were literally gag-inducing to young Huang.

Huang disdains conservative “Uncle Chans” as much as he does the white racists who tormented him. Despite his success, he rejects the ‘model minority’ myth of success through middle-class striving: “Your community actually wants you to sell the fuck out and work in law, accounting, or banking. But I realized then that I wasn’t going to cross the picket line just to get a nut.” Like Kanye West, he was offered that middle-class out: Huang’s parents moved into an affluent Orlando suburb when his father’s restaurants flourished. Like West, he gleefully rejects that path.

Part of Huang’s persona is built on a masculinity defined through violence. When his friend doesn’t back him up in a fight, Huang describes him “sitting in a Toyota Celica smoking Parliament lights like a fuckin’ female.” It is an attitude bred on the pavement, where manhood is defined and defended through force. Malcolm X and Huang tell a decidedly male story. Their first response to the violence of racism is violence. Their closest friends and confidants are men, in part because their social circles are deeply divided by gender—X with the Nation of Islam, Huang with his crews. Both, in the early phases of their stories, see white women as sexual objects that should be distrusted. The violence in Huang's book is both ugly and glamorous, upsetting and justified.

Malcolm X prophesied that America faced a choice between the ballot and the bullet, the enfranchisement of black people into the political process or the natural reaction of racial violence. The stories of these men serve as both a warning and peace offering. Malcolm X’s Hajj changed his worldviews, tempering his stances on violence and racial conflict, and offering a path for others who felt his rage. Huang turned his rage into an insatiable drive: food and wit became tools more powerful than fists (even when that fist is wrapped around a padlock, Huang’s signature weapon).

Unlike Malcolm X, Huang has not crafted a vision for the transformation of America. His political weapon is his own image, a wrench in the mill of tired Asian American stereotypes.

Huang is a child of the hip-hop era. He has absorbed both the hope and callousness of his rapper idols: out to get paid and make a name, ready to savage anyone who tries to stop him. But he has applied his distinctly Asian American story to the rags-to-riches rapper mythology. He was not raised in a project, but his parents held their success for themselves. He didn’t have to hustle drugs, but when he did he applied his parent-instilled work ethic to it. He was physically abused by his father. When he decides to make a name for himself, he recites the classic motto of hip hop capitalism: “I realized that if I wanted to see change in the world, I need to make dollars first.” He does it by selling Taiwanese baos, carving a path beyond black and white.

More than any of his speeches or the organizations founded, Malcolm X’s autobiography is the message that has moved generations of readers—the sitting President, Huang, and this writer included. It is a story not just about race and class but about renewal and metamorphosis. The power of the memoir lies not in what the author has done; by offering shared experiences, memoirs challenge you to reshape your worldview and from there reshape the world.

If the personal is political, call Fresh Off the Boat Asiangate: an expose of America’s brutalities towards a largely silenced group. It is the most noted memoir written by an Asian American man in recent memory: a cause for both celebration and a somber look at American literary prejudice. There are a million kids out there who have felt and continue to feel the same stings as Huang. Like a good hip hop album, it is poised to become a guide and prayer book to the young and disaffected. Don’t temper the rage, make noise out of it.

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