Fresh Off the Boat
There’s a new rule for television shows featuring diverse casts that requires them to address their diversity. Black-ish opened its second season with a thoughtful and well-done look at the N-word, and it’s continued to take on various topics concerning the nuances of race and identity. I’ve been waiting for Fresh Off the Boat to do the same. This week’s episode addressed the issue of representation in a way that felt organic despite the limitations of a sitcom. The parents on this show, like in real life, are doing the heavy lifting, dealing with the strife of how a Chinese family in white Orlando should be, while Eddie and his bros are discovering the vagaries of young love through the smeary lens of hormones and the seventh grade.
Eddie and his friends have girlfriends, I guess. The Fall Ball was a heady time for everyone, but the biggest news out of that mess was the fact that Eddie and his gang are all boo’d up. They learn this via Ned, Abraham Lincoln Middle School’s very own Master of Whispers, who exists solely to deliver handwritten notes and bad news. Eddie’s “dating” Allison, the pretty piccolo player who grabbed his heart and his hand and dragged him into the mosh pit; the rest of his friends are dating a variety of Beccas and Sarahs. The problem here, you see, is that no one really knows who’s dating whom, or if they really are at all.
This is how relationships work in seventh grade, and also possibly in adulthood: Boy meets girl; girl decides they’re “dating” via criteria only she is privy to; boy flounders in weird stasis wondering what the hell is going on. Neither party communicates, save for messages delivered via reliable yet indecipherable methods. If you’re grown, that’s a text. If you’re a 12-year-old, it’s Ned, the corporeal manifestation of that very same text that doesn’t make any goddamn sense.
What you do with girlfriends, though, is go on dates to show that your love is real. Ned arranges a mall date with Eddie and his friends, who wait by the escalators for their maidens to arrive. The girls wait at the top of the escalators, Eddie and his friends at the bottom. Because every single person in this scenario is entirely clueless, the boys go up while the girls head down. Like ships in the night, they pass, each group bleating out a nervous hello. This is just preparation for the real world, kids, so buckle up.
These blessed unions don’t last for long. When Ned delivers a breakup message to Dave — the short one — it becomes clear that no one has any idea whom they’re dating. After consulting a Homeland-style evidence board, they finally figure out that the only person who’s sort of secure in their ship is Eddie, even though he’s not 100 percent clear on this either. Don’t worry, they have a plan: to go to the roller rink and fall down at the same time to see which girl skates over to help them up. This is … not the best plan. But Eddie finally listens to Emery, who tells him to actually talk to Allison. She likes him, he likes her, and just like that, they’re together.
While Eddie is navigating his 12-year-old emotions, Louis and Jessica are dealing something a little more serious. After Louis wows Gus and Mey-Mey, the hosts of Good Morning Orlando!, with his Donald Duck and Sylvester Stallone impressions, they invite him on the show to shine a Gus-light on Cattleman’s Ranch. He uses his time in the spotlight to do his impressions but neglects to really prove anything beyond the fact that he’s a funny guy who does a decent Donald Duck. Is Jessica into this? Nah.
Here’s where shit got real. Louis was himself on TV — goofy, corny, prone to rambling about directions — but for Jessica, that wasn’t good enough. She makes a valid point that the representation of Chinese people on television in the ’90s was basically nonexistent. To hop on a morning show and get by via jazz hands and a bad Rocky impression isn’t good enough.
“We don’t get opportunities to be on TV. That’s why when we do: We need to present our best faces, not clown around,” Jessica yells, neatly summarizing that strange feeling you get when you’re a bright spot of color in a sea of white. You want to be yourself, whatever that is, but a part of you understands that your role is to serve as representative for your entire race. Why play the jester when you can be the strong, successful businessman? What good does that do anybody?
The backstory here is that the specter of Long Duk Dong, that rascally racist caricature from Sixteen Candles, has haunted Louis his entire adult life. One Long Duk Dong imitation coming from a Chinese dude in an attempt to break the ice and make people laugh is funny at first, but that’s really all it takes for everyone to pin that on you for life. Plus, that character was racist as hell. Like, really racist. #Problematic. Acting like an idiot on TV only brings back waves of Long Duk Dong–related flashbacks. It’s time to nip this in the bud.
Louis’s fear and love for his wife and her wrath means that his next appearance on the show is that of a college student fresh out of Institutional Racism 101. There are no jokes. There is the righteous indignation of someone trying very hard to do right by all their people. “CHINESE PEOPLE EAT ALL KINDS OF FOOD,” he bellows at Mey-Mey, who gamely offers that she once made pot stickers “from frozen.” Too far? Too far.
“Don’t make waves, but be interesting. Be pleasant and be smart,” Jessica tells her husband, proposing a one-size-fits-all solution for introducing the greater Orlando area to Chinese culture. It’s a lot for one person to handle. But Louis realizes that it’s not his responsibility to represent his people as a monolith. All he can do is be himself without falling into the role of a court jester, yawping in broken English. So that’s exactly what he does, grabbing the mic from a reporter in the field and moonwalking his way into the hearts of Orlandians everywhere.
+60 for the tea set on the lazy Susan, the various touches of red throughout the house, and the fact that every single available surface is covered in trinkets, jade statues, trophies, and general dust-gathering garbage. Find me the prop stylists, I want to talk to them, they’re doing great.
+infinity for Jessica’s ability to hear and participate in a conversation from across the room while reading a field guide to North American insects.