The play’s title is explained by the character Dale in the first lines: “F-O-B. Fresh Off the Boat. F.O.B.,” which are also the play’s closing lines. Dale continues his speech by describing the characteristics of F.O.B.’s, Asian people who are recent immigrants to the United States. He calls them “clumsy, ugly, greasy” and “loud, stupid, four-eyed.” Dale himself is an A.B.C., an “American Born Chinese,” and traditionally the relationship between A.B.C.’s and F.O.B.’s has been anything but pleasant.
The play, which has only three characters, traces the difficulty of assimilation for Asian newcomers to the United States and the hostility they receive from Americans of Asian descent. There is the added conflict of jealousy when Dale’s cousin, Grace, a first-generation Chinese American, shows a friendly interest in Steve, an F.O.B., but the jealousy is played out in a way that is more comic than tragic. The play delineates a hierarchy of importance and power, self-assurance and self-delusion, within various immigrant groups of Chinese Americans, overlaid with sexual jealousy and identity in flux. Hwang has said that in F.O.B., he is exploring how much of a person’s identity is inherited and to what extent a person is shaped by surrounding influences. Because he is himself a person of Chinese descent born in America, Hwang thus uses his characters to explore his personal issues of identity.
A second-generation Chinese American, Dale stands at a blackboard dressed in preppie clothes and lectures “like a university professor” about the meaning of the initials F.O.B. He explains that the initials stand for “fresh off the boat,” referring to a newly arrived immigrant, especially of Asian descent. Such F.O.B.’s, he asserts, are clumsy in appearance and dress and represent an embarrassment to an “A.B.C.”: an American-born Chinese.
Steve enters through the back door of a small Chinese restaurant that is not yet open for the day. There, he meets Grace, a waitress in her family’s restaurant who is also a student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Grace is in a bad temper because she is having difficulty taping a package closed and is being forced to deal with obnoxious customers. Over the course of the scene, Steve’s identity shifts: At first he and Grace are strangers, and he is a poor immigrant attempting to enter the United States; later, he takes on the identities of the Chinese god Gwan Gung and of the son of a wealthy Shanghai and Hong Kong family who has come to the United States to attend college. In the latter identity, he and Grace have already met each other at a Chinese American dance.
Steve insistently asks Grace whether the restaurant serves bing, a type of Chinese pancake, while Grace hostilely tells Steve that the restaurant is closed and that he should scrutinize a menu for the answer to his question. The hostility escalates to physicality, as Grace sticks the ill-working tape to Steve’s forehead, Steve grabs the package, Grace picks up a telephone to call the police, and Steve slams the telephone down. Thereafter, their contention modulates into an argument about Steve’s assertion that he is Gwan Gung, god of warriors, writers, and prostitutes. The two discuss Gwan Gung’s actions and reputation in China and the contemporary United States, as well as the level of knowledge of the god among Chinese Americans. Grace asserts that the only Chinese Americans who know about Gwan Gung are those few who are enrolled as students in Chinese ethnic studies classes at universities such as UCLA. She challenges Steve to test this assertion, and he leaves.
Grace metamorphoses into Fa Mu Lan, a mythical woman warrior better known as Hua Mulan, or simply Mulan. In this woman warrior identity, she has no difficulty with the package she has been trying to wrap. She then shifts back to her identity as Grace and telephones her cousin Dale to invite him to a last-minute dinner and movie with friends. In the conversation, she receives news that Frank, a rejected romantic admirer of Grace and a friend of Dale, is going to engage in the melodramatic gesture of lying down on railroad tracks.
Steve returns from confirming Grace’s assertions about Gwan Gung’s reputation among Chinese Americans. He discovers that Grace is a journalism major and thus comes under his supposed divine jurisdiction as god of writers. He asks Grace out on a date, but she replies that dinner and a movie must include her cousin Dale. Sulkily, Steve returns to his query about bing, is handed a menu by Grace, and exits. Grace again metamorphoses into Fa Mu Lan, now at the site of a massacre of the kind boasted of by Steve as Gwan Gung, and when Dale enters and taps her on the shoulder she knocks him to the ground.
Grace apologizes to Dale for her violence, for not having the friends available for the last-minute date, and for including Steve in their outing. She says she met Steve at a Chinese dance at UCLA. After a brief, humorous interchange about the hapless Frank,...