Sunday, February 14, 2016

Fresh off the Boat 2.11: "Year of the Rat"

“You guys have your own New Year?”

I’ve been saying for a while that I’d love to see the “Fresh off the Boat” creative team take on a Chinese holiday, and with this episode, I got my wish. It went in a direction I definitely wasn’t expecting. The problem the Huangs face in trying to celebrate Chinese New Year is that nobody else in their community celebrates it or has any idea how to help them set up the festivities. The holiday is something the Huangs look forward to every year, and the prospect of going a year without it devastates them. Could we mainstream, Christian Americans contemplate going a year without Christmas, after all (granted, sometimes circumstances indeed cause us to miss Christmas, and it is always a big deal)? I definitely felt for the Huangs in this episode, even if my instinct is that the actual lack of Asians in the greater Orlando area in the mid-1990’s was likely exaggerated for comedic effect. Nevertheless, it was fun to see the creative team take on a holiday that likely hasn’t been seen on network television before. Can we have a mid-Autumn festival episode next year, please? From the one time I had the chance to celebrate, I came away with the impression that it’s pretty much Chinese Thanksgiving. Good conversation, too much food, everybody in a food coma afterwards – you know the drill.

The Huang family is excited because they are about to take a trip to Washington, DC to celebrate Chinese New Year with Jessica’s family in Chinatown. In Chinatown, they say, you can do Chinese New Year right and not be able to breathe properly the next day from the fireworks. To be honest, I’m a little doubtful of this. There are many amazing Chinatowns in this country, but DC’s Chinatown isn’t especially Chinese. The Rita’s I went to for my first day of Spring water ice (you can take the girl out of Philly for almost ten years, but you can’t take the Philly out of the girl) during the year I lived just outside the city had a sign in Chinese. So there’s that, I guess. Anyway, everyone is frantically pakcing and Jessica is doing her best to make sure everything is prepared just right. Jessica and Louis are happy to spend time with family and engage in their cultural traditions, and the boys are excited about getting their red envelopes of money. They are already planning how to spend this year’s haul.

Jessica makes everyone get up about nine hours before their flight, because she wants to make sure they get to the airport in plenty of time. When they arrive at the airport, though, there’s a problem Jessica didn’t foresee. The plane tickets were actually for the day before. I’m a bit confused here why the Huangs can’t just exchange the tickets for new ones, even for a small fee. Maybe because it’s also supposed to be President’s Day weekend, and flights to DC are popular then? I’ve always lived within driving distance of DC, so I wouldn’t know. Anyway, because new tickets to DC would be prohibitively expensive, the Huangs resign themselves to spending the New Year in Orlando. Jessica and Louis then have the fun task of explaining to their family exactly why they won’t be visiting. Jessica keeps handing the phone over to Louis for him to say that he bought tickets for the wrong day, which I thought was totally appropriate.

Louis tries to cheer Jessica up by suggesting they try to find other Chinese folks with which to spend the holiday. First they try the phone book, but they can’t find anyone with a typical Chinese last name in the entire Orlando area. Then they try calling the Asian-American Association of Orlando. They have a very polite and enthusiastic conversation with the man who answers the phone, and they are invited to the group’s Chinese New Year Party. Jessica and Louis think their mission is accomplished. At first, they are hopeful, because they can see and smell smoke coming from the building, so they assume there is going to be the traditional disregard for fire code that they expect of the holiday. Inside, though, everything is all wrong. There are a few Asians (an Indian family and a Russian family), but no Chinese. Worse than that, the people gathered to celebrate (mostly Caucasian) don’t seem to really care about getting the holiday right. The food is all wrong, and the “dragon dance” is a pep routine by the dragon mascot from a local school. The Huangs leave disappointed. An autographed photo of Short Round does not make for an authentic Asian experience. Sorry AAAoO!

The Huangs are pretty dejected and have resigned themselves to a pizza dinner. Louis then gets an idea, and he goes to Cattleman’s Ranch to put the idea into action. When Jessica and the boys arrive later, they see the restaurant decorated in Chinese lanterns (courtesy of Honey, who took them from a Janet Jackson music video), authentic food (that the chef learned how to cook), and a decent Lion Dance courtesy of Mitch and Nancy. Once their friends realized their predicament, everyone rallied to help the Huangs celebrate the holiday. Things do start to go downhill a bit when well-meaning friends start asking Jessica about the meaning behind every detail of the celebration. She’s happy to explain at first, but she quickly gets exhausted. I imagine that must be a tough needle to thread when being a fish out of water, so-to-speak. Threading that needle between being nice to well-meaning people who genuinely want to know about your traditions and feeling like you shouldn’t have to play the representative of your cultural group.

By the end of the episode, though, everyone seems reasonably happy. Grandma is glad she got to celebrate, so she gives all the boys money. This turns out to be a good thing because the Huang parents tend to just write messages on (instead of place money in) the red envelopes, and that’s what Louis had told his staff to do. Louis eases Jessica’s displeasure with being the explainer by observing that at least their friends, once they know about the traditions, care enough to do them right.

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