Chinese New Year, with its fireworks and its lion dancers and its glorious displays of food, is a holiday tailor-made for television. We’ve just never been privy to it because, until very recently, there has never been a show like Fresh Off the Boat. It’s both unabashedly Chinese and unafraid to show an important part of its culture to a wide swath of America.
The best thing about the show is that moments that should and could feel like teachable moments — laborious, exhausting, pedantic — are handled with the same levity and commitment as any joke. It’s a testament to the talent of the writing staff and the actors that this episode, “Year of the Rat,” feels less like an after-school special and more like something that belongs right where it is.
So! It’s Chinese New Year, and the Huangs are planning to go to Washington, D.C., to hang with friends and family and celebrate the New Year the right way — with fireworks, lots of food, and the ceaseless chatter and gentle judgement of family. The plane tickets are purchased, as are the various travel-size toiletries. Eddie got his New Year’s haircut, but anyone who understands the importance of this holiday knows that what counts the most are the red envelopes, those potential cash cows all Chinese kids look forward to every February. Emery wants to buy a fedora. Evan wants to buy a Snoopy snow-cone machine. Eddie wants Jordans. Very on-brand.
With their bags packed full of fireworks, Evan armed with his travel neck pillow, and Grandma on “airplane relaxation drugs,” the Huangs ford a freeway and multiple parking lots to arrive at the ticket counter … only to discover that, despite Jessica’s best efforts, they’ve missed their flight. It looks like Chinese New Year will be spent in Orlando this year. It’s too expensive to buy last-minute tickets. Grandma is despondent. Louis has to tell Big Auntie and the rest of the fam that they can’t make it. Eddie, Emery, and Evan are left with the prospect of parental red envelopes, which are empty and inscribed with inspirational messages. There is nothing more disappointing than an empty red envelope. Nothing.
The kids immediately recognize that Grandma is despondent because Chinese New Year is her time to turn up. After deducing that they need to make the New Year right so she can be happy — and also so they can get money — they trot out Evan to run through a quick stand-up set, but she’s not having it. Not even a TV tray generously laden with her favorite snacks, Mountain Dew and Combos, can cheer her up. Chinese New Year is ruined! Or it will be — unless Jessica and Louis fix it.
There aren’t that many Chinese people in Orlando, save that deaf Chinese guy Jessica and Louis yelled at through a bus window, so they take to the phone book. There are no Yangs, Mas, Liangs, or Leungs, but there is an Asian-American Association of Orlando. The nice man who answers the phone has been looking for them for months. It turns out they’re having a Chinese New Year party. The Huangs will be able to celebrate Chinese New Year after all. Jackpot!
I know what you’re thinking: Surely this will net some fruitful results. Surely this organization won’t be run by a white man named Rick (Rob Huebel) who dresses in traditional garb and bows for, like, an hour as the Huangs stare at a motley crew of Russians, Indians, and white dudes with Chinese characters for toaster tattooed onto their biceps. Surely there will be Chinese people other than the Huangs, right?
Give credit where credit is due: Rick, the head of the AAAOO, means well, but every single thing about this celebration is off. Yes, there’s a dragon dancer, but it’s actually a male stripper named Mark, dressed as a high-school mascot, leading a bunch of cheerleaders in a sad approximation of a high-school pep rally. Yes, there’s a nod to the year of the rat, but nowhere in the handbook of Chinese culture does it say that one must lower a rat stuffed animal at the stroke of midnight, Beijing time. This is Chinese New Year as seen through the eyes of someone who simply read that a rat, dragons, and the color red are involved, then made a lot of guesses as to what is actually correct. No one cared to pick up an Encyclopedia Britannica and really get it right.
Now, the worst part: A sad Huang family, glumly eating food and trying to talk to relatives in D.C., who are setting off so many fireworks that they can’t hear them on the phone. Even jelly doughnuts — similar in construction to pork buns, but not actually pork buns — can’t save the day. But Louis owns a restaurant. At least he can take his family out to dinner. Personal pan pizzas aren’t a substitute for dumplings consumed with family in great quantities, but at least Jessica doesn’t have to cook.
Surprise! Cattleman’s Ranch is dressed up for the Year of the Rat. It looks a little bit like your favorite dim sum place, but with more taxidermied bears. They really went all out. There’s lion dancers with very well-articulated eyeballs, a table full of dumplings and whole fish, lanterns stolen from the set of Janet Jackson’s “If,” illegal fireworks, and red, red, red everywhere. If they can’t make it to Chinese New Year, Chinese New Year will make it to them. Jessica’s crying, and now I’m crying, too. Everyone pitched in because, as Louis says, “It’s not that people didn’t care to get it right, it’s because they didn’t know.”
+900 dumplings for Jessica’s insistence that Eddie cut his hair at home using a Flowbee. A generation of Chinese children who went to elementary school with choppy bangs sighs in solidarity.
+50 cans of condensed milk for Evan’s innocent dream of a Snoopy snow-cone machine. We had one, and we used it to make shaved ice.
+20 hong bao for the unfettered greed of the Huang children, who understand that Chinese New Year is a time for hanging out with your family … but mostly think of it as the one time of year you get money from your relatives. That includes birthdays.
+a lifetime supply of citrus fruits for Jessica rightfully acknowledging that basically every New Year’s tradition is for wealth and good fortune, because “we like wealth and good fortune.”
+1,000,000 illegal fireworks for the first time I have ever heard “Happy New Year” in Mandarin on national television.
+10,000 whole fish cooked with ginger and scallion for Jessica’s initial enthusiasm at explaining everything about Chinese New Year to everyone, which quickly turns to exhaustion. Teachable moments are fun and all, but sometimes all you want to just be quiet and eat. Xin nian kuai le!