RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Eddie Huang has done a lot of things in a short period of time. He's been a lawyer, a standup comic and now he's the owner of New York's BaoHaus restaurant and the host of his own food show on Vice TV. It is all chronicled in his new memoir. It's called "Fresh Off the Boat." But the most remarkable parts of his life took place before all of that, back when he was growing up with his Taiwanese immigrant parents, navigating the ins and outs of American culture.
EDDIE HUANG: I have always wanted to tell this story. When I was 18, on the way off to college with my friend Warren, who is also in the book, I was just like, man, I really got to write about what just happened because I'm sure there are other people going through this and we have no one to talk to.
MARTIN: Huang had a complicated relationship with his family, especially his father.
HUANG: Yeah, my dad, he's a bad dude. You know, like, not in a bad way but he definitely was a very, very strong male presence in my life. You know, and I thank him for that, because one of the biggest issues with the book and the things I wanted to talk about was, you know, Asian masculinity. That's not something that is portrayed or talked about in the media, many times re-emasculated. And I never related to that because my father, he was a man's man, and he instilled a lot of those old-school masculine values in me - some of them I reject and some of them I accept. But my father is a very, very unique individual, and in his time a stereotype breaker just like me.
MARTIN: But at the same time, you write him as someone who was really hard to live with. I mean...
MARTIN: ...there's no way to parse this.
MARTIN: There's some abuse that happens in your childhood.
HUANG: Yes. And, you know, the thing that was most difficult for me was growing up in America and seeing how other kids - and you'd see television commercials, like, if somebody has hit you, somebody has done something, say something. I'd be watching them, like, in the middle of "Dukes of Hazzard," like, am I supposed to call them right now, you know what I mean? So, the most difficult part for me is that my parents grew up in this culture. When I went to Chinese school, there were other kids that they were also hit at home. And, you know, I knew Puerto Rican and Dominican kids, I knew black kids, I knew Muslim kids that were hit at home, and I knew white kids that were hit at home, you know. The thing is, is that the culture here in America correctly tells you that's wrong. You know, I definitely think it's wrong. I will say this, though, that I've really come to terms with it and I love my parents and the abuse is definitely a big thing in the book that is a prime example of how values across the water are different than they are here. But you have to understand your parents in both lenses, if that makes sense.
MARTIN: Your escape from a lot of that became hip-hop. What did you find in that world that resonated with you so much?
HUANG: Well, a lot of it is about struggle, a lot of it is about struggle. And when I was in Florida - they moved me to Florida, which was very traumatic for me, because going from a community with cousins and aunts and uncles and lots of other Chinese people around and more diversity, you know, D.C., Northern Virginia is a better place, but when I went to Orlando, I really got snapped on a lot. My first semester in school in third grade, somebody pushed me to the floor in the lunch line and called me a chink. You know, and I had to decide, like, to stand and fight or I could spend the rest of my life in Florida just rolling over and being picked on every single day. And I chose to fight.
There really wasn't a place for me in Florida. We went to seven schools in five years. And I remember one summer, my cousin played "The Chronic" for me by Dr. Dre, and I just remember the opening sequence. You can hear the jail bars go click-clack, and he said welcome to death row. And it struck me, because, you know, teachers would say to me you're going to end up in jail one day the way you act, you know. And also people would pick on me. But when I heard Dr. Dre, you know, make fun of Easy-E and all these other people, I really related to it. 'Cause that's how I got back, 'cause I couldn't keep fighting, so I would snap on people. And I learned to, like, kind of box people verbally. And that's really what I related to hip-hop, is, like, the lyrical swordplay, like Wu-Tang, you know.
MARTIN: I mean, at one point you tell this great story about your mom making you bring Chinese food to school for show and tell.
HUANG: Yeah. That was so sad, yeah.
MARTIN: And it was kind of a sad thing. You felt humiliated in a way. Did you change how you identified as Chinese?
HUANG: Yes. When I was younger, my mom thought it would be really cute that I brought seaweed for show and tell because most people in that time weren't eating sushi yet. The people weren't eating seaweed. And I remember, I was really excited to show everyone, and they were like you eat shark poop because sharks poop and it lands in the seaweed, so you must be eating shark poop. And no one wanted to hang out with me 'cause I was the kid eating the shark poop. And it really made me upset because I was, like, there's nothing I can do. I can't win with you guys, because, like, I just don't know how to be white. You know, I don't know how. And when I say white, I don't mean, you know, just white people. I mean, you know, when I go to China or I go to Taiwan now, people single me out as being American. What I'm talking about, I'm talking about whiteness and dominant culture. I just want to make that clear with people.
MARTIN: Yeah, sure. There is this compelling scene I'd love for you to walk us through where you've gotten caught stealing something from your neighbor's front lawn and the cops show up. And your dad drags you outside to talk with them. And he asks you to do something. I mean, he's punishing you. Describe what he asks you to do.
HUANG: Yeah. This was one of the most formative moments of my life. What he had me do was, you know, there's a police in the driveway and my other friend that had help me steal the things from my neighbor's lawn was there too with his mother. And the officer told us, you know, we're not taking you to jail. We're going to let your parents handle it. And my father yelled at me in Chinese. He said (Foreign language spoken). And it means, you know, kneel down. And he had me kneel down in front of the officer and bow my head numerous times and apologize to the officer. And the officer was totally astounded. The whole neighborhood...
MARTIN: And also kind of uncomfortable, right, which is also an...
MARTIN: ...interesting part of what your dad must have known. We're going to do this. We're going to do it the Chinese way and I don't really care if it makes you feel uncomfortable with our Asian-ness.
HUANG: Yes. You know, he also wanted the officer to know, like, our culture doesn't approve of kids doing what Eddie did. He told me clearly. And, you know, well, later on, I don't want anybody thinking that in our culture we teach you that it's OK to go steal things from people. It's not OK. And literally, for an hour, hour and a half, he made me stay in the driveway after the police officer left. The police officer was really, really uncomfortable. He's like it looks like you have it under control. It's OK. He almost tried to get me out of it. My dad's like, no, he's going to stay here. And it really stuck with me, and I was really proud of my dad for doing that and coming down so hard on me.
MARTIN: Eventually, you went to law school and you got a job at a big firm, and life seems to be kind of chugging along. You get laid off. Tell us what happened then. That's when the Food Network kind of becomes part of your world.
HUANG: Yeah. I was doing standup comedy and I really loved it. But I met a manager while was performing at the Laugh Lounge, and he told me, you know, you always bring chicken wings and fried rice to the events before you go on. Why don't you, like, kind of run with the food thing? Why don't you go get an appearance on a food channel or food show or do some food stuff and be funny, do videos. I said OK. So, I applied to be on "Ultimate Recipe Showdown," made it to the finals, was on the show. I lost, but the thing was there are people in the crowd yelling, like, yo, represent, Eddie. You know, like, they were just all cheering for me and they loved my food. And that's when I said, you know what, I think food is the thing. Food is that thing that Americans expect Chinese people, Asian people to be good at.
MARTIN: But you actually were. I mean, you came from a family of food. Your dad owned a series of really successful restaurants.
HUANG: Yeah, yeah. It was something that was always around. What I'm really interested is coming to talk about my experience in America. But if they like my pork buns, you know, if they like the things that I'm making maybe they'll listen to me. And it worked. And, you know, I have to thank my mother for all the things she taught me about cooking. I have to thank my father. And I have to thank all the people that came before me 'cause I'm just the next in line.
MARTIN: Have your parents read your book?
HUANG: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And the most interesting reaction is my father texted me as soon as he read it. He said I'm sorry. And I said, dad, don't be sorry. You don't have to be sorry, dad. I didn't know if he was referring to, like, you know, the abuse, because I definitely don't want him to be sorry about that. But he said I'm sorry that I brought you to this country. And that was a shocker to me.
HUANG: He said I'm sorry that I brought you here. I didn't know it was that hard for you. 'Cause I didn't tell my dad to go to school to help me with my issues. I handled it myself. And my dad said you should raise your kids in China or Taiwan. And I said, no, dad, like, we won. Dad, we won. You know, like, I'm going to stay here. And I love it. I love New York, you know, and I said, dad, like, we're going to change the way that people think about not just Chinese or Taiwanese or Asian people but anyone who's different in general. Like, that's what the book's about, is if you're different, really you have to fight for yourself 'cause no one's going to do it for you. I want people to feel like, you know, like, let's plant our flag in America. Like, this is our home.
MARTIN: Eddie Huang. The book is called "Fresh off the Boat." He joined us from our studios in New York. Eddie, thanks much for talking with us.
HUANG: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.