‘It Was Like Watching At Home’: ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Makes History With Funny, Touching Chinese New Year Episode
The Chinese New Year begins on Monday, February 8, ushering in the Year of the cheerful and playful Monkey. But last night, the Year of the Rat arrived fresh off the boat…in 1996. The second season of the hit ABC sitcom, “Fresh off the Boat,” found the Chinese-Floridian Huang family struggling to properly celebrate the New Year. lunar. in Orlando. The kids are hoping for firecrackers, dragon dancing and lots of red envelopes filled with cash. Instead, they find themselves at the headquarters of the “Asian American Association of Orlando,” Florida’s ’90s version of the Asian Republican Coalition.
To the dismay of the Huangs, the “Triple A, double O!” is run by an extremely white guy named Rick, who claims to be Asian because he was born on a layover in Thailand. Rick greets the Huangs with a cheerful “Ni Hao!” bows to them at the waist, then explains to them in white the meaning of the bow. The whole Huang family looks at him as if he has a new face. When the “dancing dragon” turns out to be a stripper in a plush gator mascot costume hopping around to a synth-pop soundtrack, the Huangs lose hope of anything remotely resembling a celebration. “Chinese” at the AAAOO.
Because this is the first time Chinese New Year has been featured as a major holiday on American television, it has not only received a lot of press, but generated all the excitement. “I immigrated with my family from Taiwan when I was six, and this episode was something I never imagined I would see as a kid,” Cindy Pon wrote to me in an email. Author of young adult fantasies such as “Serpentine” and “Silver Phoenix”, Pon points out that “Chinese celebrations are always about food and family. And yes, the red envelopes! I remember keeping my stash in a pretty moon cake mold.
Cantonese author Ki-Wing Merlin, whose mid-level novel will be out next year, also remembers “loving red envelopes” as a child. Today, from a mixed family with her own children, she celebrates the Chinese New Year by preserving traditions as best as possible. She remembers going to celebrations in New York’s Chinatown – it was ‘a big deal’, she says, and on the day of the parade, ‘they were skipping school’ to be part of the crowd . Her grandmother spent weeks preparing a special feast. Today, Merlin buys the traditional sweet rice cake from local Asian markets and cooks it herself or the whole family goes out for dim sum. “Every year, I choose between feeling guilty or cheating,” she sighs. “The guilt usually wins out.”
There are many different experiences of being Chinese in America; the Florida Huangs are just one family among thousands. Among other things, what is crucial about this holiday is that it is able to briefly unify Chinese Americans into a single social entity made up of Taiwanese and Cantonese Chinese, to begin with, while reminding slightly that Asia is not America precisely because the Chinese New Year begins in February.
In “Culture of Time and Space”, historian Stephen Kern noted that the one thing every child learns quickly is that “there is only one time”. Except that at the end of the 19th century, this belief ceased to be valid, when the global consciousness began to understand that it was possible for a single event to occur in two months or even two years, like twins born one minute before, and one minute after, midnight on New Year’s Eve. Even as railroads and armies pushed to establish standard time around the world, Kern says, telegraph companies in China lined up on Shanghai, foreigners in Chinese coastal ports used local time taken from solar readings, and everyone in the country used sundials. It was in 1899, at the dawn of the 20th century.
Standard time is now taken for granted, but should be understood as one of the great inventions of the modern period. Chronologically speaking, the year 2016 started at more or less the same time for everyone on the planet. Culturally speaking, however, New Year/Chinese New Year retains cherished topographical markers of difference precisely because a homogenizing armature called “standard time” imposes its regulative structure beneath the scintillating theater of everyday life. Hence the enduring significance of the parade, the most public element of the celebration, which entangles all participants in a vernacular web of social practices that we understand to be part of a delicate and increasingly vulnerable cultural continuum. .
Accordingly, the episode “The Year of the Rat” begins and ends with memories of the parade. Louis Huang (Randall Park) introduces the story by telling the staff of his steakhouse restaurant, “If you can breathe properly the next day, you weren’t there.” “For me,” says second-generation San Franciscan poet Jennifer Liu, “it wasn’t the firecrackers that took my breath away, but the drums that accompanied the lion dancers. The drums always drowned out my own heart and I feel my chest pounding to the beat of their performance. It was never too loud, the crowd seemed louder, but like heavy bass in an intimate concert hall, the drums took me in a chokehold and sent me thinking of a another place where dancers would transform from a costume into a fantastical creature that stole the show from the streets.It was hard to look away, even for stilt walkers, because the drums were so demanding.
And so, says Liu, when the drums started beating in the last scene of the Chinese New Year episode “Fresh off the Boat,” “I was surprised to realize that relief washed over me. As the camera pans up and shows us the festive red backdrop, then the dancing lion, it was like looking at home, the reality of my youth and community.
Yet this “reality” is made possible by the white employees of Louis Huang’s steakhouse, who work together to give their boss’ family a “Chinese” celebration. Mitch and Nancy get a lion costume from Epcot and practice all day learning the lion dance, Carol sneaks into (illegal) fireworks, and Hector makes dumplings. In the feel-good assimilationist finale, it’s a whole happy family sharing a Chinese meal together, with eyes rolled from Jessica Huang (Constance Wu) and a plug for Panda Express. I can’t be more American than that.