Two Im­mi­grants Walk Into a Bar

Newsweek International - - CONTENT - ABI­GAIL JONES @Abi­gaildj

Im­mi­grants founded Hol­ly­wood (East­ern Euro­peans named Mayer and Zukor and Laemmle), but you can count the TV shows about them on two hands— and for a long time, not even on one hand. At the dawn of TV, you had a Cuban named Ricky on I Love Lucy.

Then decades of white sub­ur­ban fam­i­lies named Bunker and Brady and Bundy. Oc­ca­sion­ally, a black fam­ily would bust through the Cau­casian clut­ter—the Evans fam­ily of Good Times, the Jef­fer­sons, the Huxta­bles, the John­sons of

Black-ish—but im­mi­grant fam­i­lies? It wasn’t un­til 1994 that a show was built around such a fam­ily. That sit­com,

All-amer­i­can Girl, starred Mar­garet Cho as the daugh­ter of Korean-born par­ents. It lasted one sea­son. The

Ge­orge Lopez show, which be­gan in 2002, hung around for six.

Here we are in 2017, with roughly 48 mil­lion im­mi­grants in this coun­try, and we have a grand to­tal of four shows fea­tur­ing im­mi­grant fam­i­lies: the CW’S Jane the Vir­gin (His­panic daugh­ter of an im­mi­grant mother), Net­flix’s Cuban-amer­i­can re­boot of

One Day at a Time, Aziz An­sari’s Mas­ter of None and Fresh Off the Boat, based on celebrity chef Ed­die Huang’s epony­mous mem­oir, which de­buted on ABC in 2015. The fic­tional ver­sion of his Tai­wanese fam­ily is nav­i­gat­ing life in Or­lando, Florida, where Tiger mom Jes­sica (Con­stance Wu) and hus­band Louis (Ran­dall Park) own a steak­house, Cat­tle­man’s Ranch, while rais­ing three sons. FOTB be­gan its fourth sea­son Oc­to­ber 3, and what were threats when the se­ries ended in the spring have deep­ened into harsh laws. Most re­cently, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump be­gan to dis­man­tle the Obama era’s De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals pro­gram. DACA pro­tects 800,000 young, un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants from be­ing de­ported. The show, which has one of the most di­verse writ­ing staffs in TV, is set in the ’90s, and you might think that can­cels out top­i­cal­ity. But Nah­natchka Khan, the show’s cre­ator and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, says, “When we re­searched the hot-but­ton is­sues [back then], we were sur­prised at how we’re still talk­ing about the same things.” So, for ex­am­ple, in an episode that aired a week be­fore Trump

was elected, Jes­sica learns that the restau­rant’s cook might be an un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant; she calls the U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Ser­vice, only to learn her own sta­tus is in ques­tion be­cause she failed to re­new her green card. “That episode was a per­fect way to talk about now,” says Khan.

Khan is a first-gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­can; her par­ents were born in Iran, and she grew up in Las Ve­gas. “You spend your child­hood trans­lat­ing, and ex­plain­ing to par­ents why you need those Air Jor­dans,” she says. “My dad is here legally, but he’s not an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen. What if I’d been born in Iran, not Ve­gas, and my par­ents had brought me here? What’s hap­pen­ing now is all very per­sonal for us.”

Writer rooms in Hol­ly­wood, long a bas­tion of white male Ivy Lea­guers, are fi­nally be­gin­ning to re­flect the di­ver­sity of Amer­ica. Of Khan’s staff of 15, seven are women, three are gay, and seven are non­white, in­clud­ing In­dian, Tai­wanese, Ja­panese, half-chi­nese and Asian-hawai­ian-chi­nese. “It’s Amer­ica!” she says of her writ­ers. “This is how we change the game from the in­side.”

Ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Melvin Mar grew up in Los An­ge­les, in the only Asian fam­ily in a pre­dom­i­nantly Latino neigh­bor­hood, where he was dan­gled up­side down on the play­ground like Long Duk Dong, the stereo­typ­i­cal for­eign ex­change stu­dent in Six­teen Can­dles. “In my own fam­ily back­ground, there’s a his­tory of il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion to Amer­ica at the turn of the cen­tury,” Mar says. “Since then, it’s been rec­ti­fied, but the DACA thing still hit home in a crazy way. The show has to be that voice on tele­vi­sion. It needs to be there. There are kids try­ing to fig­ure out if they’re go­ing to be sent away to a place that’s not their home. That’s not the way the coun­try was built.” A new book ad­dresses that. Six Words Fresh Off the Boat: Sto­ries of Im­mi­gra­tion, Iden­tity, and Com­ing to Amer­ica is the ninth in Larry Smith’s

Six-word Mem­oirs fran­chise, which has turned brevity into a best-sell­ing art form. In ad­di­tion to con­tri­bu­tions from the show’s cast and writ­ers, the book in­cludes six-word mem­oirs from some of Amer­ica’s most fa­mous im­mi­grants, in­clud­ing Madeleine Al­bright (“In 1948, I was a refugee”), di­rec­tor M. Night Shya­malan (“My ac­cent has be­come my voice”), Huff­in­g­ton Post founder Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton (“An­other Greek odyssey, thriv­ing in Amer­ica”) and fash­ion designer Nar­ciso Ro­driguez (“Im­mi­grant son proudly dresses First Lady”).

Back in 1971, with All in the Fam­ily, Nor­man Lear proved that hot-to-thetouch cul­tural is­sues go down eas­ier with com­edy. Khan is one of his TV cre­ator de­scen­dants. “It’s a sit­com— you’re mak­ing peo­ple laugh—but you’re mak­ing them laugh by show­ing them char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tions they haven’t con­sid­ered be­fore,” she says. “Or they take away from it, ‘Wow, I don’t share their back­ground or cul­ture, but I re­late to them.’ Find­ing that com­mon ground and uni­ver­sal­ity is at the core of these de­bates: What does it mean to be an Amer­i­can?”

The an­swer can be found in Six

Words Fresh Off the Boat mem­oirs like this: “Refugee went from burkas to bach­e­lors.” And this: “Sal­vado­ran im­mi­grant raises US Navy diver.” And this: “From farm worker to NASA.”

You might think a show set in the ’90s can­cels out top­i­cal­ity, but “we’re still talk­ing about the same things.”

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