Fresh Off the Boat
Any dedicated viewer of Fresh Off the Boat understands that family comes before everything. Family is what you have to fall back on. Family is what you have when there’s nothing else left. As I write this, I’m sitting in my mother’s house listening to the sweet sound of my three sisters screaming at each other while my very own Jessica Huang makes lemon-ricotta pancakes.
If we all make it out of here alive and are still speaking to each other, I will make sure they watch this season finale, because family is the one thing that matters. Even though they’re terrible half the time, keeping your family on your side works out for you in the end.
It’s the summer of 1996, school’s out, and Eddie really wants to watch Chris Rock’s seminal HBO special Bring the Pain. If you think, even for one second, that Jessica Huang would pay for HBO and let her child watch Chris Rock say a bunch of swear words on television, you are sorely mistaken. Besides, the cable is cancelled because Jessica subscribed under an assumed name. Instead of sitting down to watch Square One like a good older brother who has clearly lost the fight, he does that thing older siblings do when they know their younger siblings are correct, but they still want to get their way: He resorts to physical violence!
Let the record show that in two seasons of this television program, I have never seen the Huang children act like actual children. I have never seen them fight. I’ve never seen Eddie do anything other than act vaguely annoying while Emery and Evan go on special adventures. Watching the Huang children scrap on the couch over the remote control filled me with a rare, peculiar joy.
Louis breaks it up and tells his ungrateful children that they’re all they’ve got. “It’s you against the world,” he says. In the same breath, he tells Jessica to tell his brother, Gene (?!), to go to hell. So brotherly! So kind.
So, Louis has a brother. His name is Gene, he’s younger than Louis, and they haven’t spoken to each other for ten years presumably for petty reasons. If love is the steady, chugging engine that keeps families moving forward and united, pettiness is the wrench tossed carelessly into the gears, grinding everything to a halt.
Grandma, perhaps wanting more from life than Garfield and Slim Jims, wants her kids to get along. More important, she wants them to make up. Louis is the adult! He has to set an example for his sons, who are engaged in some sort of troll scrum on the couch, the remote control buried under their squabbling bodies. Jessica breaks up these shenanigans. Eddie’s certainly not watching Bring the Pain, even if it means his relationship with Alison will suffer. She’s not waking up to a race riot in her house, which is precisely the kind of thing a mom who doesn’t understand the meaning of “race riot” would say when she sees her children scrapping on the couch.
Jessica and Gene have their own unresolved issues that she has desperately tried to resolve. When she and Louis got engaged, Gene lent her $200 to buy a wedding ring because she blew all her money at a night market in Taipei on fake Jordache. And now he won’t let her pay him back, which directly violates some unwritten code of Chinese culture that dictates no one likes to owe anyone any money — or anything — ever.
Eddie, by the way, won’t drop this Bring the Pain thing. All his friends saw it. Allison saw it, and seeing as she’s leaving for band camp for the entire summer, Eddie’s running out of time! But when he tries to watch it again, Evan and Emery, acting as “deputy moms,” can’t quite let that happen. They’re keeping him honest, which is fine in theory. In practice, it is so irritating that I found myself getting annoyed at the younger Huangs and they are fictional characters.
Ugh, at least it’s time to meet Gene. It’s Ken Jeong! Grandma looks happy to see her youngest child. Jessica is attempting to pay back the money she owes by offering him a Chevy Lumina rental for two days. Louis seems miserable. Standard stuff! Gene’s here because he’s marrying someone named Margaret and his life is getting together and everyone should be happy about that. So, like just-reunited Taiwanese brothers, Gene and Louis engage in the first of many “Chinese polite fights,” wrestling for control over a roller bag while saying “No, no, no, no, no,” like very polite octopi.
Over lunch at Orlando’s, the Orlando-themed restaurant that Gene picks, we learn a little bit more about the incident that caused the brothers to not speak to each other for ten years. Something happened at some hot springs, and they haven’t been able to move forward from it. Jessica tries to pay for lunch, by the way. For those of you keeping score, this is her second attempt to pay Gene back and the cause for the second Chinese polite fight. After Gene catches her slitting a hole in the lining of his suitcase with a butter knife so she can stuff $200 in there, he takes the cash off her hands.
When Louis catches his wife looking genuinely happy, she confesses everything: the wedding ring, the fake Jordache, the night market. Instead of being happy that his wife is happy, Louis is incredulous. Joke’s on you, Jessica! You got scammed! Gene’s been borrowing money from Louis for years and Louis lets it happen because that’s apparently what you do with family, though I beg to differ. Anyway, Gene also somehow breaks their piano. After that happens — and as a sneaky Eddie checks to make sure the VCR is recording Bring the Pain — we finally learn what happened at the hot springs.
Louis and Gene’s father worked hard to make enough money to send one of his children to America. The trouble is, he didn’t choose; he let them decide. So, the two brothers engaged in the age-old tradition of the Chinese polite fight, but Louis eventually won. America and a bright future were his. Seizing upon the opportunity presented to him, Louis pushed himself to make a successful life. Gene, in direct opposition, took the decision as an opportunity to not succeed.
Eddie, that tiny troll lurking in the corner to learn about his family’s history, is inspired by the story. He wants to end the pettiness between his brothers. Louis also wants to mend bridges with his brother and set an example for his children, but Grandma and Gene are missing! They went back to Taiwan, disinvited the Huangs from the wedding, and set in motion what I hope will be a Very Special Episode of the Huang children eating dou hua while zipping through the streets of Taipei on a motor scooter.
Will they find Gene? Will they make up? Will Eddie and Allison break up? How will they handle Emery’s changing voice and the fact that Evan might be six-feet tall by the end of the summer? Will the Huang family actually leave Orlando?! We’ll have to wait and see.
- +50 Tami suitcases for Evan’s very valid question to his Uncle Gene: “You live in Taiwan. Why don’t you have an accent?” Great question! Why does a man who lives in Taiwan not have an accent when a family that has lived in the United States for quite some time does?
- +8,889 pairs of bootleg Jordache jeans for Jessica’s astute observation that nobody likes to owe anyone anything in Chinese families. If you’re going to borrow $50 or a pair of shoes or a piece of gum, understand that you will have to pay that debt back in some way, small or large.
- +22 consecutive weekends of HBO previews for Jessica’s continual gaming of the system. I see you with that fake-name subscription for the cable, Jessica. I see you and I respect you.