Welcome to “Fresh Off the Boat,” Episode 8, “Phillip Goldstein.” My first thought watching last night’s show was: “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua must have really eaten this up.
In it, Eddie gets conscripted to be the one-person welcome committee for a new arrival in school. The new kid, Phillip, happens to be Chinese as well, and Principal Hunter assumes that’s sufficient common ground for the two kids to become friends. Eddie questions that premise, and, using a tactic I’ve never had the guts to use myself, goads his principal into admitting that he’s reduced Phillip and Eddie both to their superficial Asianness.
I am inclined to sympathize with the Principal Hunters of the world. White, well-meaning, ignorant. Are people defined by their racial identities or aren’t they? If your answer is yes, how much does phenotype and biology determine a person’s racial identity, and how much of it is the product of community, tradition, culture? And whatever that answer, if you’re one of two Asian kids in a school, wouldn’t it stand to follow that you’d share more common ground than you would with other, non-Asian kids? The short answer to that last question: no.
Phillip is Chinese, yes. He’s also the adopted son of Jewish parents. He happens to be a neatly coiffed, blazer-wearing, cello-playing obedient boy with perfect diction. In other words, he’s Eddie’s polar opposite. The lone thing they can bond over is smelly lunches. Eddie gets stinky tofu, Phillip gefilte fish. Beyond that, they’re living on separate planets. Eddie desperately wants to go to a Beastie Boys show. Phillip? “Les Misérables.”
After Shabbat dinner at the Goldsteins,’ where Phillip sends Eddie’s mom, Jessica, into a reverie with a cello recital, Phillip and Eddie hatch a Saturday night plan for their mutual benefit. Who among us hasn’t met their parents’ ideal child and had to suffer through the inevitable comparisons between themselves and an idealized fiction?
I couldn’t help but think about Amy Chua, who co-wrote The New York Times bestseller “The Triple Package,” with her husband Jed Rubenfeld, about the supposed self-fulfilling cultural superiority complex of certain groups, including East Asians, Jews, Nigerians and Mormons. Chua’s only the latest public thinker to reinforce such faulty tropes. Here, that cultural debate is played for laughs. Of course the people able to out-do Jessica Huang’s stereotypically Asian parenting would be Jewish.
Eddie, with angelic Phillip as a friend-chaperone, agrees to go see
“Les Misérables” if he’ll return the favor and join him at a Beastie Boys show. Eddie’s mom prohibits Eddie from going to hip-hop shows unless it’s with children she absolutely trusts, but Shabbat prohibits Phillip’s parents from driving him to the musical, or being able to handle money to get tickets. Come Saturday afternoon though, Phillip bounces after Les Mis wraps up, sending Eddie on a desperate search for the cherubic child he’s supposed to be looking out for.
Jessica whips herself into a frenzy. How could Eddie let potential harm come to such a perfect Chinese boy? They search around town for him, and eventually find him at home. He ditched Eddie once he realized he’d gotten what he needed from him. Jessica, who’d spent the better part of the episode holding up Phillip as her fantasy son, comes down hard.
“You are very selfish,” Jessica says. And in the ultimate burn: “You are not a good Chinese boy. Eddie is.”
A look of surprise comes over Eddie’s face. “Now drop the mic and let’s go,” Eddie urges his mom as they run off.
“Drop the mic? Who is Mike?” Jessica asks.
There’s more to good parenting than hard discipline, it turns out. And there’s more to being a good child (nay, person) than hitting every mark with superficial qualities of goodness. In the end Jessica acknowledges that Phillip’s practicing cello five times a week only goes so far.
And by the end? Who in his white-as-cream school does Eddie get to share his love of the Beastie Boys with? Walter, the school’s lone black student.