You must be a specific type of person for the name Eddie Huang to register. Chances increase if you: 1) live in New York, 2) are plugged into the restaurant scene and read food gossip blogs, 3) are active on social media sites like Twitter, and 4) are Asian, younger than 25 and can recite the lyrics to Ghostface Killah's "Apollo Kids."
These parameters likely rule out 99.993 percent of you, but that's how a star is born in these 2010s. And those folks invariably receive book deals — except that in Huang's case, the guy actually has an interesting story to tell.
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Huang came onto New York's food scene in 2009 when he opened Baohaus, a sliver of a storefront on Manhattan's Lower East Side serving the meat-filled baos and Asian drinks of Huang's Taiwanese-American upbringing. But what attracted viral attention was his hilarious, if profane, blog skewering food culture and Asian cliches, which gained sufficient buzz to earn Huang a starring role on a hilarious, if profane, Web series on Vice.com. The show, though yet another food travelogue, is novel in that it's the Chinese lovechild of Anthony Bourdain and Dr. Dre. One memorable episode had Huang visiting his ancestral Taiwan, where he eats a phallic waffle in a Taipei night market, then two segments later, kowtows to his dead grandfather's ashes. Huang shows his grandfather's urn the cover image to his new book, as if to say, look how far I've come. That's a hell of a formula in any medium: Uproariously funny, relatable to the millennials and emotionally honest.
All those traits can be said of his memoir, "Fresh Off the Boat," due out Tuesday. It's a story of an American-born Taiwanese assimilating into Western culture through the prism of hip-hop, basketball and Chinese food. It's an unexpectedly moving book about growing up and feeling different. You're reminded that though he's known as a loose-lipped blogerati target, Huang does possess a law degree, and he's acutely self-aware and reflective of how he got here and where he's going. Reading the book, you get the sense that Huang is every positive and negative Asian stereotype packaged into one. That in itself lends a certain authenticity.
Q: Let's talk about your writing style. Who did you read growing up?
A: Growing up, I liked Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. And I liked Shakespeare too, but those are all old people you read in high school. I didn't have any young modern writers I read. I was a troublemaker in school, and my teachers suggested I read "Catcher in the Rye." I couldn't relate to it. I thought, this guy is such a loser. So most of my stuff comes from hip-hop. That's where my writing style comes from; it's very rhythmic and it's got a flow.
Q: Now that you're older, do you relate to those classic books more?
A: One book I went back to read was the autobiography of Malcolm X. I read the book after I wrote my memoir. He was really nonchalant talking about his father being killed and his mother going to the crazy house. He said it very matter-of-factly, and I was inspired by that.
Q: If your writing is inspired by hip-hop, does that mean you listen to it at the writing desk?
A: Definitely. Sometimes it'll be one song that I loop. Whatever the theme line of that chapter, I try to get in that mood and mindset, how I felt in that moment of my life and think of a song that's the parallel.
Q: What songs get you in that writing mood?
A: I always loop Dr. Dre's "Lil' Ghetto Boy" (from The Chronic), that's the easiest one for me to write over. Kanye West's "Can't Tell Me Nothing" (from Graduation), Bobby Womack ... Nina Simone has this one song, "That's Him Over There," that I wrote multiple chapters to. I don't know why certain songs hit you, but that song stuck in my head.
Q: Your blog, Web series and memoir are all titled "Fresh Off the Boat." That term is often a pejorative to describe unassimilated Asians, but you've embraced that title. Why?
A: I embrace it because I don't want to forget where I came from. There are people who've told me, "You're not fresh off the boat," and I'll say, "Don't try to cut me off from my history."
Q: You write in the book how as a kid, you were sometimes embarrassed to be Asian and wished you were white. Was there a moment when that changed?
A: This one incident where this kid in elementary class called me a "chink." When that happened, it forced me to decide if I was going to be embarrassed, or fight. So I beat the kid up. Another time, I went to a white friend's house, and I realized my parents cooked better. I just liked my culture better. My parents cared about homework and my future. And especially in college when you leave home, when your parents aren't there to advocate for your culture — that's when you start to advocate for them, and it's why college was formative for me. I remember when it came to Chinese New Year, we always didn't go to (elementary or high) school that day. But in college, every other culture seems to get their holiday off. And we didn't. So I wrote about it in my newspaper, and it was the first piece of writing I did.
Q: That article must have been easy to write.
A: Writing is easy for me. It's easy in the sense that I work hard and spend a lot of time and sit there for 13 straight hours, but it comes out easy and I don't have to force anything. If you have something to say and you're passionate, it comes easy.
Q: Going back to that word "chink," what's your relationship with the word today?
A: I'm influenced by the way black people use the "N-word." My black friends will call me the N-word to show that I'm one of them, though I don't feel comfortable using it. With the word "chink," it's an ugly word, but you can't erase a word. I don't believe in ignoring it. I use that word when I want to be self-deprecating, or remind people of the stereotype. At the end of a dinner for Chinese people, they always argue over paying the bill. Like, you fight to pay for it, and it's almost shameful if you lose. So I'll say, "We look like such chinks now."
Q: I have to ask: Are you angry that the most famous Asian in America is that guy who does Gangnam Style?
A: I'm not angry. But he's a caricature, and it's annoying. It's just funny how PSY was embraced by Americans. They're laughing at him, not with him. Anytime Asian culture gets big in America, it's a huge burst, then you crash from it. I think guys like (fashion designers) Alexander Wang and Jason Wu ... we need Asian leaders like them, more voices. And I hope this book inspires.
Q: Food is the main thread of your memoir. And there's a difference between liking to eat and appreciating food. When did you discover the latter?
A: You have bad versions of a food, then you have a good one. I eat burritos, but I never had a burrito until I went to El Farolito in San Francisco. In the book I talk about soup dumplings (xiao long bao), and I learned to appreciate soup dumplings by eating bad soup dumplings. You know, you learn more from idiots sometimes.
Q: What do people not understand about Taiwanese food?
A: I don't think a lot of Chinese people even know what Taiwanese food is. There's a large canon of dishes and a diversity of influences. It was occupied by Japan, and you had the Chinese, the Hakka people and the island aboriginals. Taiwanese cooking has the precision of Japanese food, but with the soul and griminess of Chinese flavors. There's lots of proletariat food — stinky tofu, bean curd, preserved bamboo, stock made from pig intestines. I believe there are places where food goes to die, and places where food gets redefined — cities like Tokyo or Taipei. Look at soup dumplings. Even though they're a Shanghainese dish, it came to Taiwan and (a restaurant chain called) Din Tai Fung perfected it. And soup dumplings are the most precise thing. Can any of those famous French chefs make a better soup dumpling? They can't.
Q: What about Chinese food freaks out Westerners the most?
A: Texture. They don't like the gelatinous, oozy, jellyfish-like mouthfeel. Thing is, Chinese and Taiwanese people for the most part eat for texture. Americans eat for flavor.
Q: What's the difference between Chinese food that Westerners like versus Chinese food Chinese people like?
A: Chinese food for Chinese people is very delicate and simple and subdued. If Americans ate it, they'd think it's bland. I went to a dim sum restaurant and ordered super-expensive abalone with goose web, with this brown sauce made from rock sugar and wine. My friend asked me, why would you want that? Because we find it luxurious. It was ethereal. When Americans eat Chinese food, they want pull-your-hair-out Szechuan sex.
Q: Like it or not, you've become a food celebrity. What do you think of that title?
A: I think it's pretty corny. Then again, chefs are cool. It's cool that kids want to be chefs.
If I wasn't doing the restaurant and writing, I'd like to be a high school teacher. So much of what I talk about is for young kids, 14- to 20-year-olds. The best part is during the holidays, tons of kids will come to Baohaus, and their parents will go, "Why are they playing this loud music?" and the kids will get all embarrassed. And then those kids will tell me, "I read the blog, you tell the truth." That's my favorite part of it.
Kevin Pang is a features reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
"Fresh Off the Boat"
By Eddie Huang, Spiegel & Grau, 288 pages, $26Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun