In 1994, I was 11 and TV was a direct portal to all my dreams, supplying endless high-jinks-filled plots to all the romances and friendships and family dramas that hadn't happened to me yet but surely one day would. Like a lot of kids my age, I took my cues from television, modeled myself and my dreams after the fictional characters and worlds I tuned in to every night. In those worlds, people like me mostly did not exist except as occasional punch lines —comedic relief, usually in the form of broken English.
In rare instances, we made cameos where our "Asian" appearance was not the basis for a crude joke. That was the same year All-American Girl aired on ABC, and just seeing Asian Americans on my TV screen playing the lead in their own plotlines made the tiny wings in my soul grow and flap with ardor. Maybe, I thought, this is the beginning. But the show was canceled after one season, and the tiny opening made by Margaret Cho and the rest of cast closed up again for more than 20 years.
When I found out that ABC was developing a sitcom inspired by and named after Eddie Huang's memoir Fresh Off the Boat — it would be the first network sitcom to prominently feature an Asian American cast since All-American Girl —I felt euphoric, but also tentatively wary. Would people love the show because we had been dying of thirst for the last two decades and that first taste of water, no matter what, was guaranteed to be so, so sweet? Or, after two decades of invisibility and marginalization, would we expect too much and place the burden of representation too heavily on the shoulders of a single sitcom? Or could we watch this show as if it were any other show, no qualifiers or decades-long pressures at stake?
The first season was a total hit, and it was renewed for a second. It did the tricky thing of showing us how this Taiwanese American immigrant family saw America from their perspective: as a land of persistent underachievers, delusional wannabe pop stars, nutrition-less diets, and weird customs. And after decades of stereotypes — dragon ladies, submissive china dolls, overbearing tiger moms — it was a relief to see Constance Wu shine in her role as the confident, authoritative, and endlessly capable matriarch of the Huang family. She imbues her character, Jessica Huang, with humanity and hilarity, often creating humor out of situations where she's exposing the mediocrity and daftness of the white people around her. Like many fans of the show, I loved her and was giddy to finally have a female Asian American character whose badassery was both inspirational and aspirational. I spent a Sunday afternoon talking to the 33-year-old actress about the filming of the second season, which premiered on September 22; the burden of authenticity; being a bad bitch; and the importance of not lowering your voice.
Jenny Zhang: How's the filming of the second season so far?
Constance Wu: It's going well. I feel more comfortable this go-around. Last year, I hadn't really done network television before and was relatively inexperienced with comedy. On top of all that, there was a lot of talk that it was the first Asian American show in 20 years. I was anxious and nervous and therefore quiet on set. That's what I do when I get anxious, I just get quiet. This year, I feel a little more familiar. My voice doesn't shake as much when I ask for something that matters to me. Whereas last year, I wasn't always sure if I was allowed to. I thought, Who am I? Just some actress who's never done anything before.