Fresh Off the Boat
In 2015, Eddie Huang wrote a lengthy and excoriating piece for Vulture about the making of Fresh Off the Boat. Huang voiced his frustrations with how the show watered down its source material to make a family-friendly version of his life, without the nuance and the grit he’d expected. For the past couple of seasons, I’ve quietly agreed. But coming off of last week’s strong premiere, “Breaking Chains” sees the fictional Huang family and the strong writers room at Fresh Off the Boat getting a little more comfortable in their skin. I don’t know if this episode would pass Eddie Huang’s muster, but for me, it worked.
Change is afoot in the Huang household. Business is booming at Cattleman’s Ranch, thanks to a TV above the bar and (possibly) free dessert. And the little angels are moving on up in school, too. Eddie’s an eighth grader now, imbued with the specific brand of hubris unique to 13-year-old boys. Emery, sweet boy that he is, graduated from elementary school and is prepared to enter the wild and woolly world of the sixth grade. Each child responds to this in their own way: Emery’s excited, Evan is in deep mourning, and Eddie … well, Eddie has some tricks up his sleeve to help his little brother navigate sixth grade and its attendant horrors.
Emery’s optimism is shattered by the presence of Eddie’s binder. The binder, you see, is a detailed account of the lies Eddie has told over the years, a gentle “stretching” of the truth about their cultural heritage. Essentially a primer for getting by via the exploitation of ignorant white people, it’s an essential document that has made Eddie’s life easier and will hopefully do the same for Emery. If this hammock of lies weren’t so problematic for Emery, it would actually be genius. There’s the celebration of Harvest Day, a holiday that doesn’t exist; double tater tots instead of green beans because Chinese people can’t process chlorophyll; a better locker that doesn’t involve the number four because it’s bad luck; a 1:15 p.m. nap on a desk facing west, to better sense if China is coming for Taiwan, and my personal favorite, a succinct explanation for Eddie’s preference to do things at the last minute, as per Chinese superstition. Great! The path is clear; the map well-written and exceedingly easy to follow. In the words of RuPaul, don’t fuck it up, Emery.
Here’s the thing: Eddie and Emery are not the same people. Emery is basically a Goldendoodle puppy, all good cheer and fluffy hair and sweet earnestness. He wants to do stuff like sign up for karate club, learn photography, and maybe even take on the violin. But, as explained by Eddie in one of the first actual fights I’ve seen these children have, that’s what white people expect him to be. Eddie’s first day in middle school was a nightmare: People made fun of what he was eating, he ate lunch with the janitor, and everyone treated him like an alien because he was the first one. He broke the chains. His suffering cleared the way for his brothers to flourish, but he didn’t consider the possibility that they wouldn’t want to flourish in the same way that he did. Eddie did the work to fight against the model minority stereotypes and Emery, poor sweet Emery, is trying to ruin it.
Leave it to Evan to straighten this out. In what is perhaps my favorite scene this week, Evan screams at Eddie for ruining Emery’s life before he even had a chance to start it. Eddie, scared straight by his youngest brother, yells, “Everything you touch turns to dog doo!” at him in the middle of the street, and signs Emery up for karate the next day.
While Jessica’s children grapple with complex issues related to identity, she’s dealing with something similar. For starters, her house is a mess. Like, an actual mess. Louis tries to help by hiring Mary, a well-intentioned “cleaning tutor” to help out around the house. You’d think that Jessica’s complaints about the cleanliness of her home mean that she wanted a cleaning lady, right? You are mistaken. You are sadly mistaken. Mary’s first day on the job goes … great! Jessica micromanages her in a way that brought to mind my mother instructing me how to clean the floors, and Mary, bless her, can’t hang. She quits, Jessica drives her home, shakes her down for gas money, and is done with it. Jessica Huang said she’d clean the house herself. And she probably would have if it were not for Louis diverting her to the Cattleman’s while Mary did the job instead.
Lo and behold, Mary the house cleaner does a bang-up job! The bleach stain on the couch is gone. She touched up the rhubarb with model paint on Jessica’s beloved collection of colonial mice figurines. But despite how good the house looks, Jessica’s still sad. Of course she hates cleaning — no one really cares for it — but a family is supposed to take care of things themselves. Hiring out strangers to handle tasks like cleaning means you’re running the house like a business. Even if they can afford it, Jessica wants to clean because she wants to feel like she’s needed. Taking care of her family and resenting them afterwards is normal. Perfectly normal.
A change is also afoot for the show itself, possibly rendering the authenticity index obsolete. It seems like the Huangs have finally found their footing and are really digging into issues without having to sprinkle bits and bobs of Chinese things around as a nod to viewers like me who will cry out in happy recognition. Regardless, there was a lot in here that rings true, but none so much as Jessica’s entire arc. As I mentioned above, watching her breathe over the cleaning lady’s shoulder gave me flashbacks to cleaning the floor on my hands and knees as my mom offered “gentle suggestions” for my technique. Hearing Jessica plainly express that cleaning the house makes her feel needed made me cry. And Eddie expertly exploiting the tiny throwaway bits about Chinese culture, like the number four being bad luck, at the gentle expense of white people’s ignorance is brilliant. So, the entire episode gets five years’ worth of Harvest Day celebrations for nailing just about everything right on the head.