Fresh Off the Boat
It’s the Chinese New Year episode! Unlike last year’s episode, which saw the Huangs celebrating an “authentic” Chinese New Year at Cattleman’s Ranch complete with lion dancers and illegal fireworks, this year’s episode feels a little more subdued. Halfway through this third season, it’s clear that Fresh Off the Boat is changing. It’s less and less a story about how the Huangs are a Taiwanese-American family, and more about how they’re a family, full stop. No need to cover everything in red and greet every neighbor by saying “Happy New Year!” in Mandarin — they’ve already done the work of establishing themselves and their identity. Now, they’re figuring out how to exist as both a Taiwanese family and an American family. So far, so good.
Instead of laser focusing on tradition, the Huangs are doing their best to enter the New Year with a clean slate. (Hence the episode title.) By airing out their dirty laundry and clearing away all debts and grudges, you can begin the year with an empty heart and mind, ready to be filled with new debt, new grudges and new crap! Jessica spearheads the movement by sitting her children around the kitchen table and asking them about their baggage and the steps they’ve taken to resolve it. For the most part, everyone’s done a pretty okay job of cleaning their psychic slates — except for Jessica, who never really had a clean slate in the first place. Loose cannons don’t have clean slates, you see. As a corrective measure, she decides to put herself on lockdown. If she doesn’t leave the house, she can’t get into any fights … right?
As a part of this baggage-handling, Grandma Huang has finally resolved her 30-year fight with Cousin Susan. In exchange for that resolution, Cousin Susan’s grand-nephew Simon is staying with them for the New Year. Jessica is less than thrilled about this development, of course, and would normally launch a counteroffensive so psychologically damaging it would leave this man in tears, but in the interest of being a better person, he becomes Eddie’s responsibility instead.
Even though everyone made a big show about clearing their respective slates, there are still some, uh, minor problems. After a disastrous haircut from his father’s barber, Ruben, Evan is left with an unfortunate mullet and enough fire in his young heart to write him some hate mail. Jessica sent the letter because she’s the kind of mom who sees something sitting on a dresser and buses it to the post office, regardless if it needed to be bused or not. Bad move. If Ruben opens the hate mail, Louis’s relationship with his barber will be ruined forever.
Enter the great Hate Mail Caper, a plan that involves catching Ruben while he’s eating his lunch yogurt and going through the mail. Seems totally foolproof, except that Ruben spots them in the barber shop and assumes that Evan wants another haircut, so the youngest Huang’s mullet is replaced with a flattop that leaves him looking like Grace Jones. You’d think at this point, Louis would act like normal adult and ask for the letter back or tell Ruben that Evan doesn’t like his haircut. That is not what happens. What happens is that Louis gently harasses the mailman, gets called out by the police for doing so, and then has a quiet heart-to-heart with his youngest. Even though Ruben might not be the best barber, Louis tells Evan, he keeps going to him because he’s nice and that’s what you do.
Eddie’s thing in this episode is freestyling in his driveway in front of his friends because he’s been watching a lot of Yo! MTV Raps, probably. While that’s a fine use of his time, it certainly isn’t what he should be doing, which is hanging out with his cousin Simon. He tries playing video games with him, but Grandma wheels in and suggests that they, you know, leave the house. To do something. Something “American,” which leads Eddie to leave his cousin at the Build-a-Bear Workshop in the Orlando Galleria, so he can continue his painfully embarrassing cipher in the food court. Simon interrupts said “event” with a bear he built that looks like Eddie. Eddie’s friends roast him gently and in turn, Eddie roasts his cousin via a very rude freestyle that is not at all in keeping with the Chinese New Year tradition of no grudges.
Joke’s on Eddie, though! Simon is actually better at freestyling than Eddie is. At first, he’s salty that his cousin showed up and showed out, but in the end, he embraces this for what it really is — common ground.
Meanwhile, Jessica’s self-imposed lockdown is not going as planned. Her lucky red dress is at the dry cleaners, and since her husband is off making plans to commit mail fraud with their youngest child, she turns to Emery. As her kindness sherpa, he will accompany her to the dry cleaner so she doesn’t get into a fight with the dry cleaning people, a lamppost or a random passerby. Three steps out of the house, and they’re already running into problems. Marvin and Honey are finishing up the installation on a comically large set of wind chimes. No one — absolutely no one— likes wind chimes, but I’m pretty sure Jessica’s hate for them is pathological. She considers cutting them down with her meat scissors, but kindhearted Emery stops her.
At the dry cleaner, Emery knows what he needs to do: lock his mother in the car with the soothing sounds of NPR on the radio. Perhaps because he’s so nice, or because the dry cleaner is a jerk, Emery takes longer than he should. Jessica exits the car to find her middle son and the dry cleaning man arguing over $5. Instead of popping off like you know she wants to, she keeps her cool and tells Emery to pay the nice man what he says he’s owed and move on. Congrats to Jessica for keeping her temper in check, but I fear for the life whomever finds themselves at the receiving end of her next inevitable outburst.
Here’s the bummer: Emery’s pissed because she didn’t stick up for him. This is the one time she needed to be mad on his behalf and she didn’t do it. Is starting off the New Year on the right foot more important than her relationship with the middle son she often ignores? Jessica wants to be more like Emery and less like herself, something that warms his little heart and lights the fire under her butt to drive back to the dry cleaner and lay into him like she knows he deserves. Clean slate or not, no one talks to Jessica Huang’s child like that and gets away with it!
At the end, everyone wears red, sits around the table, and eats food with big grins on their faces. Happy hong bao season and happy new year to you!