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.
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.