We’re here, folks. We’ve come to the end of season 1 of “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first network sitcom about an Asian-American family to come along in two decades. After 13 episodes and nearly as many recaps, I find myself almost at a loss for words.
I’ve been racking my brain searching for the what-it-all-means nugget since watching last night’s finale, and it’s eluded me. I finally realized why: strip away all the trumped up stakes around putting an entire Asian family on screen and “Fresh Off the Boat” was just good television.
“Fresh Off the Boat” was historic, but it made an effort not to obsess over that fact. The show was a groundbreaking rarity, but thankfully didn’t try to underline its own exoticism. “Fresh Off the Boat” was as concerned with making people laugh as it was intentional about not repeating the worst offenses in typical Hollywood depictions of Asians and Asian-Americans. But it was, all in all, 13 episodes of funny. So right now, I’m mostly feeling gratitude. Gratitude to the show’s creators, producers, writers, actors for the already rare gift that is plain old funny TV.
Last night’s season finale, “So Chineez,” was no exception. In it, things get real right away, when Louis and Jessica sit down to dinner with their friends Marvin and Honey, who try to give Jessica an assist and convince Louis to sign up for a membership at their tony (read: white) country club. With her weekly Melrose Place viewing parties and love of Stephen King, Jessica is excited at the outset by the prospect of another symbol of new Americanness: tennis club membership. Louis is circumspect, mainly because he’s cheap.
“Oh hey and we can be your first Asian-American members!” Jessica realizes.
“I didn’t even think about that,” Marvin says with a smile. “You know, sometimes I forget that you guys are Chinese.”
Come again, Jessica asks? “You are just like regular old Americans to us,” Honey says. It’s Honey’s attempt to smooth things over but her words only further unsettle Jessica. Jessica Huang, who’s generally hard-driving and overbearing and more interested in her family’s survival than other people’s acceptance, is stopped into self-reflection when she hears how others see her and her family. When you’re as proud of your cultural heritage as Jessica Huang is, is it a compliment when white people are able to put aside your outsider status?
And so begins a 22-minute meditation on cultural identity and what it means to want desperately both to belong in a new place and to hold on to a distinct cultural heritage. All of a sudden Jessica can see the tradeoffs she’s made in welcoming American products and ideas into her home: the miracle of instant mac and cheese (“It’s so easy to make,” Jessica says, incredulous. “You just add water. It’s cheese–from water.”) in exchange for the previously unimaginable act of wearing shoes in the house. Melrose Place in exchange for Chinese sons who balk at a snack of chicken feet.
“Marvin says sometimes he forgets we’re Chinese,” Jessica laments later, once they’re home. “Maybe he’s forgetting because we’re forgetting.” In a panic she over-corrects, waking up the next morning to put on the most Chinese outfit she’s got and announcing new house rules and new family schedules, including the introduction of mandatory Chinese language school for the boys. Of course, Jessica’s version of Chinese clothes looks just like the character Chun Li from “Street Fighter.”
Eddie, meanwhile, suffers through the run-up to a World Cultures Day at school in which everyone’s got to pick a country to report on. Eddie and his friends have got it in their slacker heads that anything Caribbean must be chill. “It’s just sand, sun, and reggae, mon,” one of Eddie’s friends tells him. Eddie turns to Walter, who’s black. “Can you believe what they’re saying about your people?” But Walter won’t join him in protest. “My people are from Colorado,” Walter says.
In other moments, this episode reminded me that “Fresh Off the Boat” still has some work to do when it comes to its handling of blackness and queer identity. One of my favorite episodes this season, “Success Perm,” was marred by an unfunny OJ Simpson/don’t-all-bald-black-men-look-alike joke, and the show has struggled to suss out for viewers that the fictional Eddie’s love of hip-hop was inspired by the real-life Eddie Huang’s love of hip-hop, a relationship grounded in more than a youthful fascination with black culture. I’m not so concerned with historical accuracy as I am with what the fictional Eddie’s love of hip-hop ends up boiling down to, which is a superficial appropriation of commodified black culture.
Last night at the final episode of “Fresh Off the Show,” the unofficial post-show chat hosted by blogger Phil Yu and comedian Jenny Yang, an audience member named Akemi asked: Why not explain that for many Asians growing up in the U.S. in the 1990s, there weren’t Asian pop icons to identify with and many Asian kids latched on to hip-hop and r&b because it was closer to their reality than the offerings of white artists? It’s a great question.
Back at school, Jessica marches in to Eddie’s school with her born-again zealotry and demands that Eddie be assigned to report on China. (We will put aside for the moment the fact that the real-life Eddie is Taiwanese, and proudly so. Perhaps the show’s writers figured that was too much geopolitics for American television audiences to handle.) Still, Eddie resists. There’s nothing cool about China, especially next to Jamaica. That is, until report day rolls around and one of Eddie’s friends joins him in teasing China. You can guess how that goes.
For all the zingers in this episode, the themes it explored rang deep and true to me, and I do not come from an immigrant family. I am fifth-generation, and my family still deals with these questions, if from the other end. Most of it we can laugh about: Despite my mother’s best attempts–and years of compulsory Chinese school five days a week–the Cantonese I’ve retained is what I call Home Chinese. (Phrases like “Make your bed,” “Brush your teeth,” and “Set the table,” are firmly in my comfort zone.) My mom used to jokingly called my dad “the weak link” because he speaks a country dialect of Cantonese, which diluted my parents’ ability to pass on more Chinese to my siblings and me.
But once, when I was in high school, a classmate asked me if I spoke Chinese. I sheepishly said I didn’t and she glanced at me and said, “Yeah, you don’t look like you would.” Stunned, I had nothing to say in response. That was some 15 years ago, and I have no idea where she is and what she’s doing today, and I’ve still never forgotten her words.
Is Chineseness something you carry within you? How much is determined by other people’s perceptions of you? If there’s such a thing as being more Chinese than the person next to you, does that at all correspond to a hierarchy which says anything about your or your neighbor’s worth as people? Is your cultural identity about how you dress, or the food you eat? What if Chineseness is about less tangible things that one can’t consume? Last night “Fresh Off the Boat” raised these heady questions (the answers to which are, I believe: e) all of the above.) and somehow did it with crackling humor.
And that’s where we find ourselves, basking in a season well done and waiting on word for the show’s fate. I want more “Fresh Off the Show” not because it happens to be a history-making work of pop culture.
I want a second season because the show’s earned its fans with smart writing, and crazed and endearing characters. Along the way the show has woven smart social commentary in to episodes exploring actual ideas about love and culture and belonging. ”Fresh Off the Show” has not been perfect. Not every joke has landed, and it’s clear the show’s got some work to do. But all in all, it’s a show Asian-Americans–and even the rest of the country–deserve.