Are my unabashedly positive feelings about “Fresh Off the Boat” colored by a desperation to see Asian faces on television? How much is due to the fact that it genuinely makes me laugh? Then again am I only laughing so hard because the Huang family reminds me of my own Chinese family? Is it possible that this show really is as good as it seems?
That’s what I’ve been asking myself the last four weeks that ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” has been on the air. As the show continues, and I continue to laugh, I’m no better able to answer those questions today than I was a month ago. Mine is an incredulity born of a lifetime of jaded pop culture consumption where crap TV is the norm and Asian invisibility is the standard. Last night’s Episode 6, “Fajita Man,” was no different.
In it, young Eddie, NBA and hip-hop obsessed, finds a new item through which to channel his combined loves: the impending release of Shaq Fu, a video game released in 1994 starring Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq Fu’s since been panned as one of the worst games ever created. But Eddie has no way of knowing that then. The video is almost like Mortal Kombat, Eddie explains, but it actually stars a bonafide basketball star. Except, at $50 a pop, the game’s way too expensive for him to afford on his own.
When his pining turns to whining, his dad Louis puts him to work at the family’s Western-themed steakhouse, Cattleman’s Ranch. It’s the mid-1990s, and sizzling fajitas are just coming on to the mainstream dining scene. Eddie’s anointed Fajita Boy. “There are no handouts in the Huang family,” Louis tells Eddie, recalling his own Taiwanese father who worked his whole life, and who was similarly hard on him. “The only time your grandfather got anything without working for it was on his birthday,” Eddie’s father tells him. “You know what he got? An egg. One egg.”
“To eat or to play with?”
“Now you see his dilemma.”
When Eddie realizes his first week of work still won’t make him enough money to buy Shaq Fu, he skips out. Louis, ready to come down hard on Eddie, is pulled back by Grandma. “And how was your relationship with your father?” she asks him, reminding Louis that his own father wasn’t just a hard worker, “He was also a hard man.”
The two both end up learning something–Louis to give a little, Eddie to step up and work for what he wants. The storyline is ostensibly about a father instilling in his son an appreciation for hard work. But it’s also about how fathers can learn from their own childhoods. It’s possible to do things differently with the next generation. The arc is sweet, and clearly fictionalized. (Ask any Asian adult for whom Amy Chua’s brand of parenting is not merely an arch comedy routine but the source of lasting scars.) Real life Eddie’s relationship with his father was far rougher.
But I didn’t mind the softened sitcom version. As comedian Jenny Yang said last night on Fresh Off the Show, the unofficial post-show chat hosted by Yang and blogger Phil Yu, the show gave audiences an aspirational moment. The kind of sweetness that, were she a young Asian-American kid watching today, would give her hope about the possibilities of parent-child relationships.
When I first saw the pilot last fall, I went into it tightly wound, bracing for the usual anti-Asian racial ignorance, flat jokes, a TV show starring Chinese characters and ridiculing Chinese people. And when “Fresh Off the Boat” wasn’t that, and then when it made me laugh, and then when the subsequent episodes featured honest and even barbed race humor, I decided to give myself occasional breaks from sussing out the finer layers of it. It was time to just enjoy it all.
Last night was one of those moments of relish. I’d also be lying if I said there wasn’t some catharsis to it as well. I never had the childhood Eddie Huang describes in his memoir, but neither did I have the softer relationship with my parents depicted in last night’s episode.
Amidst the sweetness was the usual funny that “Fresh Off the Boat” is so good at. Taking refuge from the swampy Orlando subtropics in air-conditioned grocery stores, laying still in heat-soaked clothes instead of turning on the A/C. And Jessica Huang, always.
Speaking of catharsis, the best line in the episode probably goes to young Eddie in the opening scenes.
“Aren’t you Japanese?” a white kid asks him in the school cafeteria.
“Shut your damn mouth,” says Eddie.