F.O.B., or "Fresh Off the Boat," is a witty play about the Chinese emigrant experience. Dale is a second-generation Chinese emigrant and is well Americanized. He explains to the audience in the opening act what an F.O.B. is. They are newly arrived immigrants who, Dale believes, have failed before even trying. He describes F.O.B.’s as ugly and stupid. This contrasts with his idea of himself, an A.B.C. (an American Born Chinese). Dale is seen wearing prep school clothes teaching this lesson to the audience. In opposition to Dale are Grace and Steve. Grace is Dale’s cousin, who was born in Taiwan. She works as a waitress at her parent’s restaurant while going to school at UCLA. She moved to America a long time ago but is still immersed in Chinese culture. She and Dale must come to terms with their differing views of their roots. Steve is an F.O.B. from Hong Kong. He walks into Grace’s family’s restaurant asking for bing, a Chinese pancake. Grace is frustrated trying to put together a package and tells him they are closed. The two dramatically battle with the tape and come to have a long discussion about Gwan Gung, the god of warriors, writers, and prostitutes. Steve claims to be Gwan Gung. This is where a subplot begins. The characters take on the roles of mythical characters. Grace becomes Fa Mu Lan (known as Mulan). This is a mythic character who avenges the death of her father by taking his place in war. Grace (as Fa Mu Lan), Steve (as Gwan Gung), and Dale all have dinner together in her family’s restaurant. The boys rival one another in attempts to win Grace’s attention. Dale shows off his American-ness while Steve pursues Grace. Grace is stuck between the two worlds. She has been living in America for some time and has made home here. However, she is more connected to her Chinese roots. The question is asked: is she an F.O.B.? Over the course of the dinner, Steve goes from being a poor Chinese immigrant to being the son of millionaires. Dale disapproves of both versions. Ultimately, Steve wins Grace’s affection, and the two leave to go dancing. Dale is left alone.
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...
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