Why 'Fresh Off the Boat' Is Doing an Episode in Mandarin (Guest Column)

Writer Jeff Chiang opens up about the very personal experience behind Tuesday's episode.
Courtesy of ABC

I wrote tonight's episode of ABC's Fresh Off the Boat — called "Ride the Tiger" — and there is a lot of Mandarin Chinese dialogue in it. In fact, about 50 percent of the episode is spoken in Mandarin. So why did we do this episode? "Why" is a simple question but can be complex to answer.

For example, every morning I ask my tomato plant why it refuses to generate tomatoes. "I feed you water, bear me vegetables," I yell. But it refuses to give me a satisfying explanation. But let's give this a shot.

As a first-generation Chinese-American who grew up in the 1990s, I didn't see a whole lot of Chinese people in American pop culture. I literally spent the last couple hours trying to think of the first Chinese person I saw on TV and narrowed it down to either Bruce Lee fighting a guy with a prosthetic hand made of knives or Eugene Chung, a football player drafted in the first round of the '92 NFL draft who turned out to be Korean. (Side note: Eugene is now a coach for the Philadelphia Eagles who just won the Super Bowl. The world is a magical place.) Honestly, I think the Chinese person who got the most screen time in my childhood was probably Chun-Li from the Street Fighter II video game.

Although there weren't many Asians on TV back then, it didn't stop me from devouring every sitcom I could watch. And now, I look back on the shows that I loved with a more critical eye and see that beyond the fact that they were hilarious, I enjoyed them because of the universality of their specificity. They were honest to the life-experiences of their writers and, because of that, a diverse audience who may not have lived the same lives as the characters on those shows still felt like they could relate to them in a very personal way.

I think that's why writing for Fresh Off the Boat is a very meaningful experience for me. Working as a TV writer, I never thought there would be a primetime network sitcom centered on an Asian family. The fact that I get to work on it and pull so directly from my childhood, being a half-Chinese kid raised in a Mandarin-speaking household, is still hard to wrap my head around. Our brilliant showrunner, Nahnatchka Khan, always encourages the staff to bring in those personal experiences, and it's amazing that the specificity of those stories can be found entertaining by a network TV-sized audience, many of whom didn't grow up in a Chinese household.

So, to answer the original question, why did we do an episode that features an entire storyline spoken in Mandarin? Because on a TV show about a Chinese family, we can. And hopefully people will enjoy it.

Jeff Chiang is a writer on Fresh Off the Boat whose credits also include Don't Trust the B— in Apartment 23 and American Dad. Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesdays on ABC.