Thursday, October 20, 2016

Fresh off the Boat 3.01: "Coming From America"

“Stop being soft, American eggs and start being thousand-year-old, Taiwanese eggs.”

In the third season premiere of “Fresh off the Boat,” the Huangs went to Taiwan, and much hilarity and soul searching ensued. While the fictional television Huang family of “Fresh off the Boat” may be more functional and less abusive than the family the real Eddie Huang wrote about in his memoir of the same name (Huang has criticized the show for glossing over the more difficult aspects of his childhood), I think this episode really touched on the issues of identity specific to first and second generation immigrants that is a central theme to Huang’s book. All of the Huangs struggle in different ways to reconcile what parts of them are American and what parts or Taiwanese. There are also several nods to the notion that they don’t stand out, and they aren’t second class citizens in Taiwan. These are very central themes to the real Eddie Huang’s writings (there’s some depth underneath all the expletives and hip hop lingo, I promise!). This is a story that, right now at least, only “Fresh off the Boat” can tell.

The episode opens with the Huangs arriving in Taiwan. An immigration officer asks both Louis and Jessica why they are traveling to Taiwan, and when Jessica says it’s to get $200 back from her brother-in-law who wronged her, the immigration officer points out that “brother-in-law who wronged me” is an option she can check off on her entry form. A very happy Jessica breathily says “I’m home!” And that’s really the last moment that Jessica feels truly comfortable in Taiwan. When the family heads outside, she’s dismayed to see her sons acting like tourists. Evan went to AAA and packed a bag full of toilet paper and cereal, since that’s what the AAA pamphlet told him to take to Taiwan. All the kids are also complaining that the weather is too hot, and it’s mosquito season. Jessica sternly tells the boys that they’re home now, and she continues to insist that Taiwan is their home, even when they point out that they’ve never been to Taiwan before.

The family arrives at Big Auntie’s house (she’s Grandma Huang’s younger sister), where Big Auntie informs Louis that Gene is at the wedding venue finalizing some details. Louis jokes that the wedding is probably just in a city park, but it’s actually at the Grand Hotel. Louis goes to the hotel, and he and Gene briefly reconcile when Gene realizes what Louis went through to make it to the wedding (a direct flight, economy plus). He’s very happy to have more family supporting the wedding. He takes Louis to a commercial set to meet his fiancée, Margaret. Louis at first can’t figure out who Margaret is, because she’s way younger and more beautiful than anyone he would have predicted Gene marrying. Margaret is played by a famous Taiwanese actress, Ann Hsu, who is very game for all the ridiculousness this episode requires.

Meanwhile, Jessica is taking the boys out for one of her favorite things in Taipei – swordfish soup from a particular vendor. Unfortunately, when they arrive at the swordfish stall, the vendor is all out of soup. He suggests Jessica take the boys to McDonald’s down the street, and the boys of course think that sounds like a great idea. Later at dinner, Big Auntie shows her disapproval of this in a rather passive aggressive way. The real “you can’t go home again” moment for Jessica happens later in the episode when she takes the boys shopping at the Night Markets. Eddie sees some sneakers that he really wants, and Jessica buys them after an appropriate amount of haggling. The shoes fall apart immediately, though, and Jessica is reminded that if she had really done the haggling correctly, she would have been taken to a second location for the “good” fakes.

Meanwhile, Louis is rather dismayed when he learns what a great life Gene has been living in Taiwan. He has a beautiful wife, and they live in a super swanky house with a downstairs apartment for Big Auntie. Gene went through some tough times for sure, but he’s settled down now and has a rather awesome life. The kids even want to know why they can’t live as fancy as Gene and Margaret. They want to be “Taiwanese poor,” too. Louis is jealous of what Gene has, so much so that during the pre-wedding festivities, he writes a nasty message on a lantern that is meant to be released instead of something nice like “I wish you happiness.” Gene is very upset about this, because he did truly hope that his brother would be happy for him.

Everything comes to a head at the wedding reception. Louis admits that he can’t understand why Gene was so upset about missing his chance to go to America when he has such a great life in Taiwan. Gene reminds Louis that until recently, he really struggled too. The two brothers do end up reconciling, and Louis makes a new lantern for Gene that does indeed wish him happiness. More interestingly, Louis and Jessica have a really insightful discussion about how they aren’t fully at home in either Taiwan or Orlando. This is prompted by a video played at the reception where Gene and Margaret reenact scenes from “Ghost.” Louis is considering moving back to Taiwan because it seems like life would be easier. As he puts it, “We’re the white people of here.” Jessica feels differently. There are a lot of things she misses about Orlando, and she has realized that she is not fully of Taiwan anymore, either. All of the jokes about “Ghost” that popped up throughout the episode, culminating in the wedding video, work as a rather fantastic metaphor for the status of an immigrant, or anybody who no longer lives where they grew up. They are in two worlds but fully part of neither. I only moved three hours away, and it’s been ten years, but I still feel a bit of that too. Hence why I always call myself a “Baltidelphian.” Philadelphia is my roots, but Baltimore was my young adulthood. Both are important, but I’m not fully one or the other. I imagine this is even stronger when your competing homes are different country.

For the Huang kids, although they do have their own question of identity, there is ultimately no question of where “home” is. It’s Orlando. They may have been influenced by their parents’ Chinese-Taiwanese culture, but they are American at their core. Emery gets eaten alive by the mosquitos and scares off the girl a relative tries to set him up with. Evan goes to school with his cousin Hennessey and freaks out at the sight of corporal punishment. He demands to go home to the United States immediately. Eddie just spends the whole time (when not wanting cool fake sneakers) wishing he could fax Allison back home, which never does work out. Thankfully, when he gets home, Eddie explains what happened and Allison understands. She has bad news for him, though. Shaq is leaving the Magic for the Lakers. Eddie’s life may never be the same!

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