Fresh Off the Boat
Bringing bae home to meet the parents is hell when you’re an adult, but it must be so much worse for a preteen like Eddie Huang. After all, his mom is Jessica Huang, a woman who wants nothing but the best for her children and will go to the ends of the Earth to get it.
In that nice way that television coordinates with the real world, the Huang children are winding down the school year and preparing for summer break. Elementary school graduation presents weren’t a thing when I was a kid, but a nice dinner with your parents while clutching a bouquet of bodega carnations seems a classy way to celebrate the fact that your child has successfully moved from one grade to the next. This, minus the bodega flowers, is what the Huang children will get. But instead of a fancy dinner at a new restaurant, they get a chicken buffet at Cattleman’s Ranch, which is kind of like eating takeout food at home. It’s nothing special. And rather than actual presents, each kid gets to bring a guest!
This is Eddie’s opportunity to finally introduce his mom to Allison. Remember her? She’s the plot device/piccolo player whom Eddie’s been dating this entire season. They want to that dance together? Sometimes she calls him on the phone? Yeah, her. There’s one tiny problem, though. Jessica dreams that Eddie will date a Chinese girl. I’d imagine that she dreams all of her children will eventually date nice Chinese girls, but as Eddie is the oldest, the pressure falls on him to fall in line and do what the parents say.
Allison is decidedly not Chinese, and Eddie, being the dope that he is, tells her about Jessica’s preference the next day. Allison, being a much smarter person than her boyfriend, no longer wants to meet Eddie’s mom at this Cattleman’s dinner. And so, Eddie orchestrates a “casual hang” to get the two ladies in his life to like each other.
If I know stereotypical assumptions about Chinese moms, then I know there’s nothing they love more than a supervised study date! Eddie’s clearly hoping that his mom will be impressed by his newfound studiousness, enough so that she’ll ignore the fact that his girlfriend is a white girl. Louis asks Jessica to not be too judgmental, which is kind of like telling her, “Hey, stop breathing for a bit, okay?” Before it all goes to crap, the doorbell rings, Eddie opens the door and there stands … a nice Chinese girl with a smile and a giant crate of oranges. Excuse me?
Faux-llison is perfect, smoothly handing Jessica the oranges while deftly removing her shoes at the front door. While Jessica nearly faints from joy, the Huang men are very confused. They have met the real Allison. They know that she’s white. What gives? The real Allison is waiting by the phone with an explanation: Faux-llison is actually Aubrey, second-chair piccolo in the youth orchestra and the perfect decoy Chinese girlfriend. And yeah, she’s perfect. Like, really perfect. So perfect that Jessica serves homemade dumplings and flashcards instead of whatever kind of white-people food she planned to make for this study date.
The next day at school, Eddie realizes that the situation is, as per his vocal flashcards, untenable, dawg. So, they hatch a new plan: Jessica’s passion for a young Denzel is widely known, so a Malcolm X movie night will ease the two-fold tragedy of her lying-ass son dating a white girl. When they go to enact this scheme, who do they see sitting at the kitchen table, playing mahjong? Turns out Jessica took it upon herself to invite Faux-llison over. Eddie and Allison’s great reveal is ruined.
Listen up, young Huang: Don’t tell your mom that your actual girlfriend is a Girl Scout hawking Samoas! Man up! Life is not easy. This was your first lesson and you blew it.
Sensing that he didn’t actually do what he should have done, Eddie locks the bathroom door, turns on the water, and hightails it out the window to talk to Allison, who is very upset. He knows that he needs to right this wrong. It all comes out at Emery’s fifth-grade graduation ceremony, where Eddie is subject to the baleful gaze of his actual girlfriend, sitting onstage with the youth orchestra as she rips sweet Tupac riffs on her piccolo. He confesses, which leads to a sweet Eddie-Jessica moment, something that we don’t often see on this show.
Faux-llison is great on paper, but she’s actually just tofu, a bland and spongy base for flavor with none of her own. Eddie wanted to make his mom happy, but in the end, Jessica wants her kid to be with someone who’s good for him! As long as the real Allison is Chinese in her heart — a statement that would require an essay to unpack in full — that’s all that really matters.
The other Huang kids are arguably more interesting, but their stories in “The Manchurian Dinner Date” are floppy by comparison. Evan wants a new suit; Grandma makes him a new suit. He’s adorable, she’s great, and I wish that they’d get their own spinoff on my fantasy ABC channel that features all of the child actors currently on ABC, because each and every one of them is killing the game. Emery’s story is a little better, but only because Louis gets a chance to showcase his flair for the dramatic.
Watching a show like Fresh Off the Boat every week makes you absorb the subtleties of character development without question, so perhaps I’m the dummy for just now realizing that Louis loves drama, but here we are. Emery should have been the star of this episode! He’s the fifth-grade valedictorian! But Emery is a little like tofu, bland and flavorless, because his defining characteristic is “nice.” He’s nice. His valedictorian speech will be … nice.
Niceness is the opposite of drama. Niceness doesn’t make for good speeches. Louis knows this. And if there’s one more thing Louis knows, it’s how to give a good speech. He coaches Emery by ripping up the speech that he labored over, then advising him to deliver an impromptu one from the heart. Emery follows his dad’s advice and delivers a heartwarming speech that recognizes his family for all their hard work and for making him who he is. Coupled with “Pomp and Circumstance,” this is enough to make me cry.
By episode’s end, everyone’s happy! Jessica is obsessed with Allison because she knows that piccolo scholarships are out there for the taking. Evan gets his suit, handmade by Grandma. And Emery invites Faux-llison to Cattleman’s Ranch as his date, because they’re actually perfect for each other. Looks like Jessica gets her way after all.
- +90 homemade dumplings for everything about Faux-llison, the ideal Chinese girlfriend. She takes her shoes off at the door. She understands the power of a good deal because she bought those oranges wholesale, duh. For a Chinese mother who fears that her sons are losing their culture and becoming more American, she’s perfect.
- +9,000 steaming pots of pork bone stew for Jessica’s go-big-or-go-Chinese attitude about her sons’ dating lives. Bringing home a white partner when you’re not white feels the teensiest bit like a rejection of the way you were raised.
- + A lifetime supply of SAT prep cards for Jessica’s throwaway line: “Does she do CLC?” I have been waiting for a Chinese school episode, but this mere acknowledgement will tide me over until that day comes.