Meeting Philip Goldstein: The Adoptee Enters Abraham Lincoln Middle School

Adoptees on Twitter and Facebook were abuzz about Fresh Off the Boat’s episode eight, “Philip Goldstein,” which aired on primetime Tuesday, March 10. While excited about seeing an adoptee entering this Asian American production, a palpable disappointment seemed to be felt by folks who thought it failed to accurately portray the nuances of adoptee identity.

I suggest that the disappointment over the episode is similar to communities of color regarding the one-dimensional portrayals of Walter and the school janitor in previous episodes. Viewers are only privy to Eddie’s perspective. My hope is that we will see more of Albert Tsai’s character (Philip Goldstein). (Note: I loved him as Bert in Trophy Wife. He’s one of the younger representations of male Asian adoptees seen in television as both Bert and Philip).

I will grant you that the episode was not perfect regarding its representation of adoption. However, I do think it did get some things right. They exposed stereotypes/archetypes that plague Asian Americans.

  • We pretend race doesn’t exist. Case in point, Principal Hunter does not want to say that Philip is Chinese in his office as he’s talking with Eddie about the new student
  • We believe all Asians look the same
  • All Asians are best friends with one another
  • Racial microaggressions may be perpetuated by those in power (e.g. Principal Hunter’s idea of the Pacific Rim Club)

But more importantly we witnessed an exploration of cultural identity and how adoptees become enmeshed in the culture of their adoptive families. We also see how Philip conflates Jewish religious identity with whiteness. In other words, the traditions of Judaism serve as an avenue for the adoptee – Philip – to claim and exercise his culturally white identity.[1] Philip serves as an exaggerated archetype for adoptees’ cultural whiteness. I contend that Philip embodies adoptees’ desire for acceptance within their adoptive families. Lacking access to Chinese culture, Philip latches on to the one culture that he is exposed to – Jewish culture and whiteness. In doing so, Philip seeks to be that perfectionist adoptee, becoming the model adoptee – one that believes in his (cultural) whiteness in order to mask the visible racial difference. By performing Jewishness, Philip presents viewers an over-the-top, in your face portrayal of adoption as the erasure of positive ethnic/racial identity.

In their performance of “whiteness,” adoptees represent what Butler describes as “an ideal that no one can embody” as the parody of “whiteness” fails in its mimicry.[2] For the adoptee can never be white in that he/she will never gain “white” physical countenance, even if he/she obtains cultural whiteness. To this end, Tobias Hübinette contends that adoptees’ pastiche of whiteness is similar to the performances of “ethnic drags and cross-dressers, transvestites or even transsexuals or the transgendered who are troubling, mocking and parodying supposedly fixed racial, ethnic, and national identities and belongings.”[3] I locate my analysis of Philip within this understanding of adoptees’ whiteness. Viewers are left with a palpable discomfort by his dis-identification with Eddie and more importantly, Chinese culture. The juxtaposition between Eddie Huang and Philip is never more evident than when Philip rejects Eddie’s food in favor of gefilte fish and then Jessica Huang’s snack that she included in her son’s lunch. Due to this performance of whiteness, Kevin Vollmers suggests that in this particular episode, Fresh off the Boat underscores how adoptees are not “Asian enough, ” for example.

Even as his performance of whiteness fails, all is not initially lost. Philip is read as the perfect Chinese son in the eyes of Jessica Huang, even if he does eat her food. His musical prowess and academic success make him more of a match for her than Eddie. But this honorary “Asianness” comes crashing down when Philip leaves Eddie alone at a theatre believing that he lost his new friend. Coming face to face with Philip at the Goldstein home, Jessica Huang proclaims: “You’re not a good Chinese boy.” Nicole Soojung Callahan notes, “[T]hat is a really loaded line when it’s directed at an adoptee.” Specifically it addresses adoptees’ insecurities concerning their authenticity as Asian Americans. In other words, that because of his adoption, Philip is not really Asian. While we know that this is not the case, these words can have damaging effects on adoptees’ psyches. Yet this inauthenticity also may arise for Asian Americans who find consider themselves to be culturally white or American and are called twinkies or bananas.

We cannot believe a single show will capture the nuances of all Asian American experiences. However, I remain hopeful that Fresh off the Boat will further develop Philip, so viewers can witness the tensions and complexities of adoption. Viewers have witnessed the writers tackle whiteness head on, so perhaps there is a chance to see the whiteness associated with adoption unpacked. After all, viewers finally saw the sliver of character growth with Walter as the episode ended with him and Eddie bonding over the Beastie Boys.

[1] In her memoir Invisible Privilege (2000), Paula Rothenberg deconstructs whiteness and Jewish identity.

[2] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 139.

[3] Tobias Hübinette, “Disembedded and Free-floating Bodies Out-of-place and Out-of-control: Examining the Borderline Existence of Adopted Koreans,” Adoption & Culture: The Interdisciplinary Journal of the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture 1, no. 1 (2007): 143.

Why “Fresh Off the Boat” Matters to Adoptees

Prior to the February 4, 2015 premiere of Fresh Off the Boat the show’s buzz was making waves in American popular culture from interviews with the cast and Eddie Huang’s reflections on seeing his memoir on screen to Jeff Yang’s reflection on why the show is long overdue. Even if the show ends up the way of Selfie (2014-2015), its premiere is a seminal moment in Asian American history. Younger generations of Asian Americans lack the historical memory of the groundbreaking Margaret Cho comedy, All American Girl (1994-1995).[1] As a Korean American I remember watching All American Girl, excited to see someone who looked like me in Hollywood. More importantly, as an adoptee, Cho was one of the few Asian Americans entering my life, even if it was on screen. Besides All American Girl, I only had three other female Asian American role models – Connie Chung, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Michelle Kwan. The only male Asian Americans I remember seeing on television were Gedde Watanabe (Sixteen Candles, ER) and B.D. Wong (Law and Order: Special Victims Unit). This is not to say that my experiences are dissimilar to other Asian Americans. Rather, my goal is to highlight why diversity on television is critical in the lives of adoptees.

Many international adoptees like myself were adopted transracially into white American families. For example, a study conducted of attendees at the First International Korean Adoptee Association Gathering found that three-quarters of adoptees entered white families.[2] In many cases, adoptees entered predominately white communities encountering few people of color in their daily lives. The lack of diversity in representation of people of color shapes adoptees sense of who they are within their racial and ethnic communities. This is clearly articulated in adult adoptee autobiographical writings and film.[3]

Leading up to the premiere of Fresh Off the Boat and the days after, my Facebook news feed was filled with friends discussing their reactions to the show. For many of us, the show allowed us to consider and re-process our childhoods. Personally, it made me recall the first time I was called a chink. Eighth grade. The show exposed mainstream America to the daily racial microaggressions Asian Americans continue to experience in their interactions with the world. But most importantly, it made white viewers uncomfortable. No longer are Asian Americans the (quiet, passive) model minority or perpetual foreigner on screen. Rather, Eddie Huang and his family point out the idiosyncrasies of white American culture. The #FreshOfftheBoat revealed the success of the show as individuals, including myself, tweeted their favorite Eddie Huang and company quotes:

  • “There’s a lot of white people here.”
  • “The white people didn’t welcome you with open arms. Whaaat.”
  • “I need white people lunch…that gives me a seat at the table.”
  • “That boy called our son a chink. You think that’s okay?”

The show’s success in capturing these lived realities for Asian Americans was evident in reviews posted the day after its premiere. E. Alex Jung discussed the positive reactions by the audience at the live screening of the show at Circle nightclub in New York City. Jen Ho reflected on the burdens of cultural representation and the experience at the Los Angeles live screening. But, what best reflects the feelings of many Asian Americans is the Colorlines article headline, “‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Won’t Make You Cringe!” Yes not all Asian Americans were totally happy regarding the depiction of the community and will wait to see what the upcoming episodes reveal. However, Asian Americans recognize that without this show another generation of Asian Americans will only see themselves represented as Orientalist caricatures that fit into a one-dimensional script of what it means to be Asian in the United States.

So let me return to why this show is significant to adoptees and their families. Not only does it open the door for honest conversation concerning racism and microaggressions, it also provides new role models and shows the Huang family as an American family. Adoptive parents’ dismissal of the show out of discomfort for having the Asian American gaze (and more broadly the gaze of people of color) resting on white Americans is troublesome. Their disregard signals to adoptees that the lines of communication are closed. In other words, adoptive parents need to sit with the unease and consider why they feel a particular way. Consider why you believe the show is “un-funny” or why it “won’t last.” Through acknowledging their dis-ease, adoptive parents gain access to a new lens to ruminate how their adopted child or adult negotiates the everyday slights of being a person of color in a race conscious society.

When I consider my own parents’ reactions to the incident in eighth grade when I was called a chink, I can only imagine what it must be like to have parents who dismiss these slurs as mere accidents. My parents were supportive. When I publicly disclosed my experiences as an adoptee in Yell-OH Girls!: Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing up Asian American (2001), my parents were receptive to this news, albeit surprised. I submitted my essay without their knowledge. Yet they were proud when I spoke at a book signing with the editor, Vickie Nam. However, I know that many other parents may not have been as responsive. And so, when I hear adoptive parents express their discomfort, I wonder if I would be here as a scholar in the fields of Adoption Studies, Asian American Studies and Gender Studies writing to you if it were not for encouragement from my parents. Or would I have taken a different path not exploring my multiple intersecting identities? What would I have thought if my parents stifled my interests in adoption and Asian American issue and activism? While I will never know the answers because I cannot time travel, I can say with certainty that having parents who were willing to be vulnerable with me carried weight. I share these personal memories with you in a conscious effort to reach out to adoptive parents and others experiencing dis-ease and ask them to grapple with why they changed the channel, turned off the television, or decided the will not tune into episode three.

There is a reason why when Jane the Virgin actress Gina Rodriguez won the Golden Globe for Best Actress on a Television Series, she said: “This award is so much more than myself. It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.” Asian Americans young and old are excited about seeing themselves as Americans as individuals as people who are not your Lotus Blossom or Bruce Lee. The three-dimensional nature of the Huang family reveals the complexities of Asian America.

When I solicited advice from friends and colleagues about what my first blog post should be about, they suggested I tell you more about who I am and why I am doing the work I do. I hope you have gained a glimpse into why I am passionate about Asian American Studies and Adoption Studies. This blog will be a site to ruminate about my research, popular culture (I watch a lot of television), and reflections on the academy.

[1] For more information, please see: Woo, Michelle. (2014, September 15) “20 Years Later, Margaret Cho Looks Back on ‘All-American Girl’.” KoreAm. Available at:

[2] Madelyn Freundlich and Joy Kim Lieberthal, Survey of Adult Korean Adoptees: Report on the Findings, report (New York: Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 1999).

[3] For more information, please see: Tonya Bishoff and Jo Rankin, eds., Seeds From a Silent Tree: An Anthology by Korean Adoptees (San Diego: Pandal Press, 1997); Susan Soon-Keum Cox, Voices from Another Place: A Collection of Works from a Generation Born in Korea and Adopted to Other Countries (St. Paul: Yeong & Yeong Book, 1999); First Person Plural, dir. Deann Borshay Liem (San Francisco: Center for Asian American Media, 2000), DVD; Hei Sook Park Wilkinson and Nancy Fox, eds., After the Morning Calm: Reflections of Korean Adoptees (Bloomfield Hills: Sunrise Ventures, 2002); Korean Culture Network, I Didn’t Know Who I Was; and Ellen Lee, Marilyn Lammert, and Mary Anne. Hess, eds., Once They Hear My Name: Korean Adoptees and Their Journeys toward Identity (Silver Spring, MD: Tamarisk Books, 2008); Somewhere Between, dir. Linda Goldstein Knowlton (New York: Long Shot Factory, 2011).