After watching this week’s episode, I realized that Fresh Off the Boat works best when the narrative focuses on the entire family. I’d still love to watch any number of spinoffs featuring Jessica and Evan going to Costco or Jessica and Honey flipping houses or even just Jessica going through her day while barely hiding her contempt for society at large, but it’s the standout episodes like the season premiere that saw the Huangs taking Taiwan that really do it for me. The show is about family, after all, so what better way to illustrate that than by featuring the family operating as a unit?
Despite my preference, “How to Be an American” hones in on the origin of Jessica and Louis, framed nicely by Jessica’s journey to becoming a citizen. That’s not to say it’s a weak episode, though. It’s a sweet bit of world-building: Now we know that Jessica has a heart, even if it’s buried under thick layers of protective coating.
The day starts out innocently enough. Jessica and Louis are on their way to immigration so Jessica can cross her t’s, dot her i’s and become a freaking citizen. Eddie, Emery, and Evan are off from school owing to teacher training, so they’re left under Grandma’s care. Here’s what they do, so that I might get this part out of the way: Emery and Evan want to get a jump start on their homework, like the big nerds that they are. Eddie has another plan and that plan is to take the minivan for a spin. He’s supposedly a great driver because he’s really good at Mario Kart, a theory that I am sad to say I’ve tested and found to be extremely false.
Ignoring the fact that their grandmother is somewhere in the house, I feared the car would roll crash before reaching the end of the cul-de-sac, but I was wrong! It didn’t even make it that far, but instead rolled gently down their driveway, keys in the ignition and door locked. Thank God for Evan’s seven-year-strong AAA membership! They were oh-so-close to getting away with it, but Grandma Huang’s got the receipts, so the rest of their afternoon is spent helping her organize her perfume collection. That’s what you get, kids.
On to the good stuff! It’s been exceedingly clear from the jump that Louis and Jessica love each other very much, but Jessica is less willing to express her feelings because feelings are messy and they chip away at the very strong wall she’s built to shield her heart. The immigration interview is her undoing, because everything about her past is out on the table — including things she’s never told her husband. Here’s what we learn.
(1) Despite her hatred for the profession, Jessica’s first job in the United States was teaching, an occupation secured so that she could remain here. She was fired for spanking a kid. Whoops!
(2) It turns out that the United States government doesn’t really consider a passable ventriloquist cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” an “extraordinary talent,” so that’s why Jessica couldn’t get that visa either.
(3) When Jessica accepted Louis’s sixth and final attempt at asking for her hand in marriage, she said yes — but it was also right after she realized that she couldn’t get the aforementioned extraordinary-talent visa.
Look at it this way: While Jessica’s practical above everything else, Louis is a smoothie of emotions dressed in a nice sport coat. He loved Jessica from the moment he saw her, and what we soon find out is that Jessica did too. We learn this from the final wrench in her carefully laid plan, a.k.a. her criminal background. The charge for property damage on Jessica’s permanent record has a very sweet origin: The fateful night when she and Louis met in line for the bathroom after eating bad octopus po’ boys, Jessica knew she wanted to marry Louis, too. When he gives her his number, she acts like she’s memorizing it, realizes that she can’t, and jacks a permanent marker from a waitress. “I’ve just met the man I want to marry,” she says, before writing his number down on the bar. That’s the property damage! It’s a criminal charge, but she did it out of love. Jessica loves Louis! She does have emotions!
Louis has gone through a lot of feelings in the time they’ve spent sitting in the immigration office, but Jessica lays it all out on the line. Yes, she’s hidden the truth about the circumstances of their marriage, and yes, of course, the timing of her acceptance of his proposal is suspect. But Jessica hustled so hard to become a citizen because she wanted to enter their relationship on equal footing. She wasn’t trying to run a low-level immigration scam. She just wanted to enter a relationship with her husband that was balanced. Her lack of citizenship has been her greatest burden and Jessica is a woman of great pride. Joining her life with a man to whom she doesn’t feel equal makes her feel like a burden instead of a strong and valuable life partner.
Nothing about Jessica Huang’s characterization makes me think that she’s a cold and unfeeling woman, but it’s nice to see glimpses of humanity every now and again. Of course she loves Louis! It’s evident in everything she does, even if she doesn’t show it in the most conventional ways. Her strength as a character lies in the way she conceals her emotions just under the surface, working against the threat that they will bubble up at any time.
So! Jessica is finally approved to become a citizen and the episode closes with a citizenship ceremony, complete with tiny American flags and the ominous language in the vow of citizenship that renounces the country from whence you came. Welcome to America!