Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The FOB in "Chan is Missing"

What I thought would be a film about a detective search turned out to be a serious questioning of Asian American identity, a mystery much broader than one man’s disappearance. I found Wayne Wang’s approach in Chan is Missing to be very fresh and thought-provoking, in spite of (or perhaps, as a result of) the film having been shot in such a rough format, with few cinematic frills.

Of the many ideas presented in the movie, the concept of the “Fresh-off-the-Boat” (FOB) Chinese is the one I am most eager to discuss. I suppose I learned the term “FOB” relatively late, (When I asked, as high school freshman, what FOB meant, my Asian American friends who tossed the word around expressed disbelief at my naiveté). I thought it was a term used by youth of our generation to describe our parents, many of who had emigrated from East Asian homelands. It holds some degree of endearment, but I certainly sensed a great deal of disdain in its use—what person would want to be called a misfit, an accented and unfashionable foreigner? Alternatively, do FOBs think the concept is appropriately, humorously fitting? And—God forbid—might I be a FOB?

Now, armed with broader knowledge (through relationships with so-called “FOBs” and even a scholarly work that addresses the term’s origins), I feel more comfortable articulating my feelings about the term. Feng, in “Being Chinese American, Becoming Asian American,” states that FOB is a creation of the Asian-Born Chinese (ABC) to stabilize his own identity. Chan is Missing gives us plenty of opportunities to realize the truth in this idea, surprising me by using “FOB” throughout. Any character who criticizes Chan Hung’s refusal to assimilate is one who has strived to find a niche within Mainstream America at the expense of their own Chinese-ness, his wife and the businessman Mr. Li are two examples. Meanwhile, those who recognize his alternative traits, his patriotism or “hot-headed political activist” (Feng, 205) leanings, afford him greater respect and dimension. Steve expresses frustration with Chan Hung’s FOB-like antics, yet it is Chan Hung who plays up this FOB idea and teases Steve with exaggerations. The various accounts of Chan Hung in the film indicate that he is a truly complicated character.

To some, “FOBs” are Asian immigrants clueless in the American setting, hopeless foreigners. Using the word is a tool for distancing oneself from a potentially embarrassing, long-standing stereotype. But perhaps it is worse to be an ABC uncomfortable in your own skin than a FOB who truly exists beyond simplifying assumptions.

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