During World Cultures Day at Eddie’s school, each student is assigned a different country to study. Unsurprisingly, the kids don’t end up studying their respective locales as much as they latch on to a stereotype on which they can base their entire presentation. That’s usually how World Cultures Day—or whatever your region’s version of World Cultures Day is—goes. Some of the stereotypes are rooted in truth (yes, there are Jamaicans who wear the colors of their flag) and some are not (no, Kokomo is not an actual island in the Caribbean). Regardless of the level of fact-checking, none of the displays show any kind of real depth in exploring another part of the world. They’re more or less bastardizations of what we think these countries are supposed to be like.
This idea of pigeonholing a culture subtly connects to “So Chineez”’s central storyline. When Marvin and Honey invite Jessica and Louis to join their country club, the Huangs couldn’t be happier. It would allow Louis to make some good business connections, plus he and his wife have grown tired of playing tennis at a destitute court overrun by stray dogs. Jessica also points out how they’ll be the first Asian-American members, something that Marvin says didn’t even cross his mind. “Sometimes I forget you guys are Chinese,” he tells them. He means this good-naturedly, of course—a way to let the Huangs know that race never factors into their friendship—but the remark sends Jessica into a panic over her family having lost their cultural identity. Never mind that Louis reminds her it’s nice to be viewed simply as Americans.
Jessica, being Jessica, however, immediately starts overcompensating for her family’s perceived assimilation, cutting herself off from Melrose Place, enrolling her children in militaristic Mandarin classes, and swapping out her beloved macaroni and cheese (with bacon bits!) for chicken feet. And when Louis—after a chummy tennis session with Marvin—excitedly tells her he signed up the entire family for a country-club membership, she asks him to cancel it.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this if it comes from a sincere place, but as we discover, Jessica is taking all these drastic actions because she feels like she has to, not because she actually wants to. Even worse, she herself is grasping for the first traits that come to mind when a lot of people think of China, cutting away everything that makes her a unique Chinese-American and letting herself rigidly be defined by nothing more than the traditions of her country. In a way, she becomes a walking example of superficial nationalism, similar to Eddie’s classmate Brock impressing Principal Hunter with a Russian squat dance.
Louis finally breaks down and points out the flaws in Jessica’s logic after a period of both of them enjoying their “American” vices without telling the other—Louis blows his cover by wearing Aqua Velva aftershave from the country club and Jessica confesses to still watching Melrose Place as Louis goes to check if the TV is warm. He tells Jessica it’s possible to enjoy American things—the country club, the soap operas, the processed food—while still staying connected to Chinese culture.
But it’s not until the next day that Jessica wholeheartedly believes this. While visiting the school for the World Cultures Day presentation, she witnesses Eddie passionately defending China to his friend Trent (“What’s cool about pandas?” the kid snorts), rattling off facts about the country’s advancements, manufacturers, and history. He ends up getting an F since he was too busy standing up for China to do a report on his assigned Jamaica, but Jessica proudly puts his paper up on the fridge—much to the envy of Evan and Emery, who spend the better part of the episode trying to get their own work displayed in the Huang household. Her son, so embedded in hip-hop and the NBA, still feels a connection to the Huangs’ homeland. There’s no reason you can’t be a part of both worlds.
“So Chineez” isn’t perfect and, even at the end of its first season, neither is Fresh Off The Boat. Eddie, or more accurately, the way Eddie’s written, can still be annoying: we got another “sup girl” nod towards Nicole, and his early statement about being his school’s “first black president” was terrible for a lot of reasons. Also, the show’s been inconsistent in its use of narration, which makes for a glaring structural and thematic inconsistency since it only sometimes bookends an episode.
But these flaws mainly stem from it being the show’s first season, a time when it’s notoriously hard for a sitcom to nail down its voice. And as “So Chineez” and a handful of other episodes have proven, Fresh Off The Boat is at least interested in exploring the more complex side of racial and cultural identity, albeit in a lighthearted way that’s characteristic for ABC. As it turns out, the writers have plenty to say. They’re just still figuring out the best way to say it.
- One of the episode’s best gags came from the kids who were assigned Switzerland. “Should we get involved?” asks one of them when they see Eddie yelling at Trent. “Stay out of it. Stay out of it,” warns the other.
- While sitting in Mandarin class, did Eddie say “Amazing. They found a way to make Tampa worse?” I watched a screener of this episode that didn’t have subtitles. It would be pretty crazy if Jessica is driving her kids all the way from Orlando to Tampa for a foreign-language course.
- So has anyone out there tried chicken feet? If so, what’s the verdict?
- I’m sure I’m not alone on this, but I’m really glad Eddie didn’t start officially dating Nicole when we saw her at the end. As much as I’m sure that’s where things are headed if there’s a second season, having it take place tonight would have been too easy.
- “Eat your feet!”
- “You know what’s a white thing? Hanging up a Buddha picture.”
- And that’s it for the first season of Fresh Off The Boat. There’s still no confirmation on whether it’s coming back for a second, but I’m hoping it does. I’ve had a lot of fun reviewing it and talking with you all in the comments section when I can. Hope to see you next year! Thanks for reading.