Interview: Eddie Huang
A Vice TV host with a law degree, a hip-hop obsession, and a NYC restaurant called Baohaus (serving Taiwanese buns, named for his favorite architects), Eddie Huang is a walking culture clash. In his memoir Fresh Off the Boat, he charts the circumstances that conspired to make it so: a Florida childhood in a soulless suburb, restrictive Asian-American stereotypes and repressive parenting, street fights, racism, football, drugs, trips to Taiwan, a family restaurant business and Tupac. His search for identity led him to law school, a stint as a streetwear impresario, and a trial run as a standup comic before he settled on food as his primary vehicle for expression.
Yet Fresh Off the Boat proves that what he has to say is just as compelling as the way he says it. In this surprisingly moving story of self-invention, Huang gives even the most familiar tropes of the American immigrant experience his own original flavor, spiced with equal dashes of ’90s hip-hop lyrics and postmodern literary references and finished with a huge dollop of swagu. While Huang admits that it’s all very “idiosyncratic and personal,” his singular voice is speaking to plenty of people: On the day he talked with eMusic contributor Elisa Ludwig, he’d just found out the book hit The New York Times extended bestseller list.
Huang also gave us a list of his top 5 hip-hop records of all time. Find out which ’90s album made him proud to be a Chinese hip-hop head here.
What were your inspirations for writing this book?
My main inspiration was that I didn’t think this story was getting told enough, and that includes the multiple parts of my identity. No. 1 was being Asian in America — there’s no [The Brief Wondrous Life of] Oscar Wao for Asian people, no coming-of-age story that represented what I went through. No. 2 was the whole hip-hop story — there are plenty of books and bad movies about the hip-hop generation, but none that represented what the music meant to me, how it got me through the tougher times in my life. I also just wanted to talk about identity politics and culture. Writing this book was like Professor X putting on the Cerebro to find the mutants — I’m trying to speak to the other people like me out there.
You mention Junot Diaz. Is there a particular literary tradition you’d like it to fit into?
I never read his work until I finished this book and my editor was like, “Dude, you should really check out Junot.” My writing is influenced by lyrics, by hip-hop more than anything, but it’s also influenced by Shakespeare and Jonathan Swift. My audience tends to be people in their 20s, or at least those are the people that are coming out to events.
The cover of this book really sets it apart from just about anything out there. What’s the story behind it?
We worked on it for a long time. I brought in my boy Justin Thomas Kay to design it. I wanted it to be very ’90s hip-hop magazine-looking. We used the family photo to show the three generations of Chinese migration: my grandparents from China, my parents from Taiwan, and me and my brothers, American cats.
Your use of language is very fluid, mixing dialects and slang — is this true of your cooking, too?
If you’re a real artist, your personality permeates everything you do. If you come to my restaurant, it’s very loud and there’s always one of my playlists on. It’s rough around the edges, but everyone’s having a good time, telling jokes. Noise is important to me. I need fire trucks and cop cars and the TV in the background to sleep. My food is very soulful, in your face and full of flavor, and I think I write the same way — rhythmically, with a lot of flow and start and stop, a lot of movement in the words.
You can see that in the structure of the book; it’s not always linear.
For the most part we wanted it to be linear, but there are flashbacks, tangents and footnotes where I’m trying to connect the dots for readers. It’s a lot of vernacular that older people aren’t going to understand but I want them to be part of it, even if it’s not their language. My editor and I made the conscious decision not to clean up the slang or translate the Chinese or do anything that would disturb the flow. We wanted it to be unique and idiosyncratic; we didn’t want it to be about the “supposed-to’s.”
It’s obvious that the question of authenticity — in food, identity, culture — is an important one for you. How do you know when another chef’s food is for real?
When I say “authentic,” I’m not judging someone’s food, like, asking whether it’s what real Chinese people eat or whatever. I’m wondering whether the experience is authentic to this chef and if what he’s doing is telling his own story. Lots of restaurants I go to, it’s not necessarily for the food. I like the experience of eating there, the energy of the room. There might be a cat walking on the counter, but you feel like you’re home.
Between your blog and the book and your Vice show, you’re selling yourself as the product as much as the food — how much of that is deliberate?
I’ll be honest: I don’t think I actually market myself well. I mean, it’s not much of a strategy, trying to sell Eddie Huang, the short fat Chinaman. But the thing I do market is my ideology and opinions. I’m a very unlikely TV host, but on Vice I just try to drop a few gems in every episode and make people think about culture and the world. My generation, it’s like this embarrassment of riches, all the stuff we have: Internet and organic markets and wine and cheese shops on every corner. We could be doing more, but having everything at our fingertips desensitizes us and we’re letting other people do our thinking for us. I want to wake people up from the midsummer night’s slumber situation.
So is this it for you, the writer/chef/TV host niche? Or do you think you’ll continue to reinvent yourself?
I was just emailing my parents to tell them that I found out today that my book hit the bestseller list. That’s very fulfilling — when I think of everything I went through and all the people that counted me out, it’s like Tupac “Picture Me Rollin’.” But I’m 33 years old, and I’m really excited. I’m teaching a winter class at my old college, making sweatsuits with my friend for fun. I’m interested in film, so maybe I’ll do some screenwriting. I remember how big it was for me to read coming-of-age stories when I was a kid so if I wasn’t a chef or writing or hosting Vice TV, I’d go teach high school. I have no idea. But either way, people are going to be surprised.