Feel out of place? Eddie Huang can relate to that

Eddie Huang is sort of an expert on feeling out of place. He felt that way as a kid in Orlando; he may feel it now, as a tough, hip hop chef, watching his oft-angry book be turned into a genial ABC comedy. That show -- which debuts twice Wednesday (Feb. 4), then moves to Tuesdays -- is an amiable creation ... albeit sharply different from Huang's book. Here's the story I sent to papers:


On a map, the move
from Washington, D.C. to Orlando seems modest. It's 847 miles
straight down; you never even switch time zones.

But to Eddie Huang,
this was like going to another country, another planet, another
century. “You are very alone and isolated,” he said.

It's the stuff of
tragedy and/or situation comedy. And it's the core of ABC's new
“Fresh Off the Boat.”

Back in 1993, when
he was 11, Huang says he savored the neighborhood feeling of
Washington, D.C. “I had three sets of cousins within a
quarter-mile. I could ride my bike to their house.”

But his father had
already been in Florida, taking over a restaurant. It was time to go

“Moving to Orlando
was really weird, to not have my (extended) family around,” Huang
recalled. And in Florida, “kids weren't really listening to hip hop
that much.”

His new life seemed
limiting, Huang said. “Suburbia's weird for a kid, because you're
trapped. You don't have modes of transportation. You go to school and
you come home. The kids in the neighborhood, you have no reference to
communicate with them. You are very alone.”

And then there was
the other factor: The son of Taiwanese immigrants, he was the only
Asian kid in his class. One kid derisively called him a chink. “I
put his arm in the microwave and closed the door.”

That was one of many
violent outbursts. Huang eventually had his own hip hop-style
friends, quick to strike. His memoir (also “Fresh Off the Boat”)
says his one felony conviction – driving a car into a crowd to save
a friend – wasn't his fault ... but there was plenty more he could
have been convicted for.

He was a shoplifter,
a large-scale drug dealer, a little guy who delivered savage
beatings. He also has an extraordinary mind – the top one-quarter
of one percent in test scores – and was in the schools' gifted
programs. He became a lawyer, then a chef, restaurant-owner,
food-show personality and comedian. He wrote a blog that became a
book (Random House, 2013, now Spiegel & Grau paperback, $15).

And now that's been
turned into a sitcom, no easy process. The book – filled with rage
and sarcasm – is far from sitcom turf. In a New York Magazine
essay, Huang seemed to take aim at ABC and at Nahnatchka Kahn, the
show's producer.

“The network's
approach was to tell a unversal, ambiguous, corn-starch story about
Asian-Americans, resembling moo goo gai pan,” he wrote, “written
by a Persian-American .... It wasn't that I hated the show. It
genuiniely entertained me, but it had to be more.”

Still, that essay
concluded by praising the pilot film for including a variation on the
“chink” incident. “For all the (crap), I felt some truth in it
for those three minutes.”

Khan – who grew up
in Hawaii, with parents from Iran – says Huang's book captured her
quickly. “What I really related to was the immigrant experience
.... You take somethingfrom the source material that is such a strong
voice and you try to develop it for a broader audience.”

Still, Huang said,
broadening can go too far. “People are really sick of watching
universal things that are just for the middle, like mass-consumption
things. People want specific stories.”

In the first
episode, at least, he figures “Fresh” did that. “To deal with
the word 'chink' in the pilot episode of a comedy on network
television is borderline genius and insane at the same time.”

-- “Fresh Off the
Boat,” ABC

-- Debuts at 8:30
and 9:31 p.m. Wednesday (Feb. 4); then 8 and 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays