Fresh Off the Boat
Most Chinese kids have a Chinese name. Even if they don’t use it, it’s still there. My Chinese name is Lu Liang Yi, and though I speak very little Chinese, it is the one thing I know how to pronounce correctly. According to my parents, it means pleasant, happy, contented, full of joy.
“I guess that’s what we were hoping for,” my father said when I asked him about it. That’s what a name is, really: hope for who your child might become. Your name is the first thing your parents give you. It has meaning, and, as the littlest Huang finds out in this week’s episode, it is very important.
“Hi, My Name Is … ” functions much like a bottle episode, existing not to advance the overall plot but to provide context for some of the issues I’ve accused the show of glossing over in the past. Set mostly in the lobby of a bank on Saturday morning and in Louis and Jessica’s flashbacks, it’s one of this season’s strongest yet.
It all starts with a toaster in the Huang’s kitchen, broken after Eddie’s attempt to toast a breakfast sandwich made of two waffles and a bagel — a beautiful breakfast-carb sandwich. The toaster is broken, but luckily, free toasters come from the bank. It’s Evan’s turn to open a bank account and as the only Huang child with disposable income, the entire family heads out to resolve the issue. Grandma loves the bank because of all the free stuff, and sweet, adorable Evan appreciates how adult it feels to walk into a financial institution and sign his name on an official piece of paper.
Faced with the paperwork, he has a choice to sign the name he thinks has been his real name all along or to go with his Chinese name. The significance of this decision is not lost on him, especially when his mother tells him the real story of his name: Evan was named Evan because Emery and Eddie have E names, and they wanted to create some sort of consistency. You know, like the Kardashians, but for boys from Orlando. Same thing, really.
Evan’s American name doesn’t actually “mean” anything. It was just the name of the nurse that delivered him. His horror at this revelation is relatable; my name was almost Dagmar, picked out at random by my mother from a baby-name book, as the story goes. My father named me Megan because Dagmar felt like cruel and unusual punishment. I am grateful for his swift judgement.
Naturally, Evan is horrified by this idea that names have meaning. To learn that your family picked your name off a passing nurse because it seemed appropriate is harsh, I’m sure. And so, in what appears to be a trend (remember Lao Ban Santa?), Evan prepares to learn yet another harsh truth about the world around him.
“I thought you picked Evan just for me. I thought you looked into my little baby eyes and knew I was an Evan,” he says, much to the chagrin of Frank the bank teller, who probably wishes he were literally anywhere else. “It’s no big deal, names are meaningless,” Jessica says to her son, who probably will need therapy for years. After recognizing his heartbreak, Jessica shares her story.
Cue flashback, featuring Jessica, her sister Connie, and an Allman Brothers record. Her sister picked out “Connie” for herself after finding a robe with that name, but Jessica decided to keep her Chinese name, Chou Tsai Cha — a decision that quickly works against her favor once she gets to college. Chou Tsai Cha is lobbed like a beach ball into her very white college classroom — populated by Marvin, Honey, and Deidre, because all white people look the same — where it’s immediately broken down and sold for parts.
These three white people represent very specific problems that anyone faces when they have a name that isn’t distinctly American or easy to pronounce. In Jessica’s retelling, Marvin is a lax bro, helpful as a golden retriever, who suggests nicknames like Mitzy as a means of quick and easy assimilation. Honey, bless her heart, can’t pronounce Jessica’s name, but will certainly die trying. Deidre asks what Chou Tsai Cha means — “colorful sunset glow” — and upon hearing its meaning, gloms onto one part that could be a name and hammers that point home. “Maybe we can call you ‘Glow,’ which everyone can pronounce,” she simpers.
In a business class, Jessica learns the importance of a name: What would have happened if Just Butte Juice never re-branded itself as Geyser Mist? After realizing that her professor never calls on her because he doesn’t know how to pronounce her name, Jessica balks. “It’s my name. People should learn how to say it,” she says. “Yes, but they probably won’t,” he replies. And so, Chou Tsai Cha became Bob who then became Jessica. It was a simple re-branding — just like Butte Juice.
Ah, but we’re still at the bank! Frank the bank teller can’t pronounce Evan’s Chinese name and Evan is very nervous. The stories behind the other kids’ American names are just as pedestrian: Eddie is named after the “child villain” in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Emery is named after a nail file. As far as Jessica and Louis are concerned, the lack of thought that went into their kids’ names is fine. At least they won’t have to spend years correcting strangers for mangling the only name they know.
Evan, however, is nearing a nervous breakdown. This poor 8-year-old just wants to sign the papers and get his family a toaster! So, Louis explains his name, first by saying that he was inspired by Lou Ferrigno, the Incredible Hulk — not entirely true, but not untrue either. The real story goes a little something like this: Louis and “Uncle” Barry (J.B. Smoove) met at a diner where they were both working. This particular diner was also frequented by Louis, an aquarium owner and all-around fish boss. He was cool in a way that felt accessible, especially to someone who was still unaccustomed to American mores. And so, he took Louis the fish boss’s name, winning it in a fight in a dark alley after eating too many octopus po’ boys at a $4.99 all-you-can-eat seafood buffet and projectile vomiting in an impressive stream. Armed with the spoils of victory, he used his prize to spit game at a pretty lady who had also fallen victim to the scourge of bad seafood. Her name was Jessica.
Oh, also: Eddie’s got his own opinion, because of course he does. Sure, you can use your government name or the name you got from your culture, but consider the third option: The name you got from the “streets.” Eddie’s street name is Topaz. In the future he envisions, Shaq is president, Charles Barkley is the VP, and soldiers wear army uniforms that are suitable both for fighting and dancing. Busta Rhymes is there, too, arguing against playing a concert on the moon.
So, there you have it. Three stories, two helpful and one not so much, about the meaning of a name. Evan’s nervous breakdown has turned into what I can only presume to be an anxiety attack, until all is allayed by Grandma’s wisdom. Her American name is Jenny — an alias used to “check out” (i.e. steal) Garfield books from the library — but that doesn’t matter. Your name doesn’t make you, after all. You make your name.
- +900 free bank lollipops for Jessica’s comment about how all white people look the same.
- +1,000,000 bank pens for the cavalier way Jessica and Louis pick out their American names. My mother’s American name, inexplicably, is Lolita. She never uses it and I have no idea how she chose it, but I imagine the story is just as ridiculous as hearing the Allman Brothers song and leaning in.
- +10,000 pilfered bank envelopes for Jessica rightfully noting that Evan’s name doesn’t matter. The signature on his check is illegible, which means he’ll definitely be a doctor, so everyone will just call him Dr. Huang. Nothing sounds better than that.