‘Dr. Ken’ & ‘FOTB’ – Watershed Moments for Asian Americans Adolescents on TV

With the end of the 2016 – 2017 traditional broadcast network television season ending, it’s been an amazing season for Asian Americans – with two Asian American family show sitcoms into their second and third seasons with Dr. Ken and Fresh Off The Boat respectively. Unfortunately, Dr. Ken won’t be around in the fall for a third season.

However, I did want to highlight one aspect of the television season for both sitcoms that really stood out – the storylines of Molly & Jae on Dr. Ken and Alison & Eddie on Fresh Off The Boat. Having been born and raised in Western Massachusetts, I was only one of a handful of Asian Americans in my high school graduating class of 270+ students. The closest statistics I could find was that in 2000, my town was 3% Asian American (I grew up in the 1980s, so definitely less than 3%).

So when first seeing the episode (S02E12 – “Ken’s New Intern” – air date: January 6, 2017) where Molly and Jae express their feelings to each other and then kiss, that was a big deal to me. Now I can’t say that I’ve watched every single episode of every broadcast television series where there have been Asian American teenagers dating, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the first to show a realistic relationship between two Asian American teenagers:

I particularly like how Krista Marie Yu portrayed Molly as emotionally vulnerable and that the character Jae was not a stereotypical looking geeky Asian guy (or God forbid,  Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong)

Then, a little more than a month later on Fresh Off The Boat, there’s an episode and plot line about Eddie’s first kiss with Alison (S03E13 – “Neighbors with Attitude” – airdate: February 14, 2017), where Eddie and Alison eventually do kiss, despite some obstacles in Eddie’s plan during the episode:

After getting over a bit of nostalgia from the musical interlude of Janet Jackson’s “Again” briefly playing in the background, I realized that I probably watched the first ever interracial kiss by an Asian American middle schooler and his white girlfriend on broadcast television.

First of all, while growing up in middle school, I can’t even imagine my parents, or any Asian American parents in my town really allowing their middle schoolers to be in any kind of romantic relationship.

Secondly, at least with my parents’ generation – I don’t think I had ever seen my parents ever kiss, hold hands or show any signs of affection, and the same with other Taiwanese/Chinese families in the area (so it’s been a bit weird to see how affectionate Louis & Jessica can be, since they are an immigrant generation – while a little less weird seeing Ken & Allison on Dr. Ken being so affectionate, since I think we can infer that their characters were both born and grew up in the U.S.) So not having any personal experiences seeing my parents showing affection probably also shaped by views on dating.

Lastly, I think in middle school and high school, I was always a little bit self-conscious of being one of the few Asian Americans in school, but never really experienced any bad overt racism. But there weren’t exactly a lot of interracial couples dating in school since my school and town were pretty white as role models. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to observe that in pop culture, most mixed race Asian American couples are portrayed as Asian Female / White Male (AF/WM) in television (especially commercials) and movies.

After high school, I remember one time driving back to college with my dad to be dropped off for a new academic year, he brought up the topic of relationships and marriage. Let me tell you, that was one of the most uncomfortable situations with my dad, and I only listened. But basically, he hoped that I would one day marry a Taiwanese or Chinese woman, and if not, at least another Asian. That is probably the self-expectation I had of myself anyways, but I think subconsciously while growing up in Massachusetts, that is kind of reinforced – and I think that is definitely how I felt after attending the Love Boat after graduating from college, being surrounded by fairly socio-economically like-minded Taiwanese Americans for six weeks 24 x 7 in Taiwan.

So that is why I feel that these two examples on Dr. Ken and Fresh Off The Boat are pretty groundbreaking – at least to me. The easiest analogy I can make would be to state that nobody thought of an Asian American NBA basketball player could exist until Jeremy Lin came along. Now that I reflect on these episodes and shows, I really wished there were shows like Dr. Ken and Fresh Off The Boat when I was growing up.

As I’ve said, at least from my time growing up in the 1980s, unless you grew up in California (and of course, Hawaii), Asian Americans didn’t necessarily see themselves in the mainstream or in mainstream media represented and kind of stuck, at least for me, in the “Model Minority” mentality/role. As many had theorized, there probably wouldn’t have been a President Barack Obama if it hadn’t been for The Cosby Show and 24. Who knows, maybe if Dr. Ken or Fresh Off The Boat had been around in the 1980s, I might have even thought of the possibility of dating or even allowing myself to date a non-Asian American. I’m sure there is a segment of Americans out there that despise these “ethnic” cast television shows, but they are important – as America is diverse and popular culture should reflect reality.

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About John

I'm a Taiwanese-American and was born & raised in Western Massachusetts, went to college in upstate New York, worked in Connecticut, went to grad school in North Carolina and then moved out to the Bay Area in 1999 and have been living here ever since - love the weather and almost everything about the area (except the high cost of housing...)
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