Reflecting on The Family Law
If you asked me a few years ago if I could name a show that resonated with my Chinese-Australian upbringing, I couldn’t have even imagined it. As a fairly Westernised kid with religious devotions to 7am cartoons and 3pm teen dramas, it never occurred to me that there weren’t many Asians on television. In fact, practically none. But you can’t question something if you don’t see it any other way. For me, it just seemed to be the way things were.
I wasn’t the only Asian in my town, but Australian TV was full of white people. I wanted to be like them, because they seemed to epitomise the beauty and racial standards that made you famous – tall and pale, with perfectly curled blonde hair, hair I would try but fail to recreate in my straight black locks. Occasionally, there would be the token ethnic friend, sacrificing their happiness so the white protagonist could find love, or the dark-faced villain who would be swiftly defeated by the end of the episode due to their idiocy or arrogance or implied cultural inferiority. It wasn’t until I was much older, and learned about ‘representation’ and ‘appropriation’, that I realised I was nothing like these characters. But with a million shows about the complex and dramatic lives of the white suburban family, who wanted to write about a plucky Chinese kid from Springvale? In all the TV shows I watched growing up, the Asian-faced ‘me’ was nowhere to be found. The ‘Asian-Australian’ me was almost non-existent.
Then it was 2015 and there was Fresh Off the Boat. Hailed as the first Asian-American sitcom since Margaret Cho’s one-season All American Girl in 1994, there was plenty of hype about a show that was finally getting Asian-Americans back onto the silver screen. Okay, so this wasn’t set in Australia, but it had an Asian family, so close enough, right? It was the first time I had even considered a Western TV network portraying Asians not as foreigners, but as your next-door neighbours. But when it came out, I quickly came to realise it didn’t portray my experiences at all.
In fact, I found it kind of embarrassing to watch. I mean, did they really have to dig into how different Asian-Americans were from the white American family? Did they have to portray the parents as out-of-touch immigrants alternating wildly between bumbling and agitated? Even if that was the case, it felt like less of an inside joke between Asians and more of a ploy to humour non-Asian viewers. Instead of feeling included in the dialogue as a Westernised Asian, I felt alienated.
This was compounded by the creator of Fresh Off the Boat, Eddie Huang, slamming the TV adaptation of his memoir, calling it a “universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan”. There are Asian-Americans who rave about it, and I think it’s important to point out that this is just one show with its own voice. But it would be wrong to say I could relate to this show just because I’m also Asian, because I didn’t. So I kept looking.
A year later, Benjamin Law made the first Asian-Australian family sitcom, The Family Law, and I loved it because I could relate so much to it. It was touching, funny and insightful, but most importantly, realistic. The cultural differences didn’t feel exoticised or sanitised to make the show easier to digest – they were simply presented as is, broken Cantonese and all. The parents weren’t ‘eccentric and Asian’, just ‘eccentric’. If you transposed their personality into white characters, it would have still been strange to watch. I saw my own cultural reflection in the show, not just in face and location, but also in the subtle complexities of having an overseas Asian identity. It was a story that could only be told by someone who had lived through it.
And it keeps getting better, with a growing number of TV shows, here and abroad, featuring Asians who have grown up in the West with their stories untold for so long. They are not just telling their story, but creating it, with many producing, directing and acting in their own series. Aziz Ansari’s Master of None is another great example, bringing South Asian representation to the fore and examining how, in the midst of cultural gaffes and microaggressions, an Asian person is not a slave to their upbringing or minority status. They, and everybody who is watching, can live a rich, full and perfectly imperfect life on the silver screen, the way white people have enjoyed seeing themselves on TV for decades. In the future, it would be awesome to see a female Asian-Australian getting their own show.
Maybe I should put my hand up? I definitely have some of my own stories to tell.
Shannon Ly is a writer who doesn’t watch a lot of TV, but when she does, she gets a little too emotionally invested. You can find her other assorted ravings at medium.com/@shannonly.
Image Credit: SBS