America’s first Asian-American family sitcom in 20 years got its first gay character last night. Oscar Chow, played by Rex Lee, stopped by the Huang household to visit his old college flame(s), Jessica, whom he dated briefly, and Louis, his real crush.
It’s easy to be unmoved by this TV event. We are, after all, living in the age of “ethnic castings.” I don’t claim to have an exhaustive knowledge of television, but I’ve sat here a good while racking my brain, and still can’t name another openly gay Asian man currently on television. Perhaps the most notable ever is a character Lee himself played—as the endlessly patient Hollywood assistant Lloyd on HBO’s “Entourage.” When Asian men do appear on television, they’re asked to squeeze themselves into extremely limited archetypes. Alex Jung, writing for Vulture last year, canvassed an enormous swath of contemporary television to find just a handful of scenarios in which Asian male characters are allowed to have a sexual identity on television.
At the episode’s start Jessica’s eagerly awaiting her college ex’s visit, in part because she’s anticipating the boost in attention from her husband Louis. “We were like Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in ‘Ghost,’ except we were alive, and in college,” Jessica gushes to Louis.
At first she’s pleasantly surprised that Louis is so welcoming to Oscar and unbothered by his visit, but later, when Louis denies her the flattery of his jealousy, she gets annoyed. Jessica fumes: does Louis take her for granted? Why doesn’t he mind that her former flame will be staying over in their home?
Louis, for his part, is not so much secure in his relationship with Jessica as he is attuned to something that Jessica’s clueless about: Oscar is gay. The hints are everywhere. Oscar shows up wearing a ’90s Versace-inspired leopard and gold filigree-print blouse and bearing a croquembouche—but Jessica’s not particularly aware of people’s sexuality in general. It takes her the better part of the episode to figure this out, and by the end of it Louis learns that he’s also pretty dense when it comes to attraction and flirtation as well.
With the dearth of Asian and gay Asian characters on television, I was actually relieved at the non-event event that was Oscar Chow’s entrance into sitcom life. Is his sole defining characteristic his gayness? Yes. Is he a walking compendium of cliched gay stereotypes? You got it. Does the show at one point feature Lee dressed up in faux geisha getup? Mhm. But at no point in the episode is his being gay ever made to be a problem, or a source of fear or a justification for hatred. His personhood, however flat, is absolute. What with all the attendant firsts and milestones of Oscar’s arrival, I appreciated that on at least that note, “Fresh Off the Boat” didn’t miss.
By now the writers of “Fresh Off the Boat” have innoculated me against the fear that they’d pass off subtly racist or blatantly homophobic material as comedy. But this is an Asian immigrant family we’re talking about. I’ve encountered as much shameful homophobia as open-minded sensitivity among the Chinese people I’ve met (though far more likely than either is plain ignorance). A flash of homophobic insecurity on the part of either Jessica or Louis would not have surprised me in the least if this exact same storyline happened in real life. “Fresh Off the Boat” is never more idealized American family sitcom than when it’s confronting parent-child relationships, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Last night the show got to add gay loved ones to that list of sanitized story arcs.
And, lastly, I can’t end this week’s recap without a shoutout to the show’s writers, who found room in the episode to mention two quintessentially Chinese household items: oyster sauce, the cornerstone of many a Chinese cook’s pantry, and white flower oil (bak fa yau, or bai hua you for you Mandarin speakers).
For those who have no cultural reference point for white flower oil, the closest I can offer is that scene from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” when Nia Vardalos’ father uses Windex as a Neosporin-like cure-all for aches, cuts, and pains. Bak fa yau (excuse my Cantonese romanization—I’ve never used its English name before) is like that—but it’s not a gag. Just about every Chinese immigrant home I’ve ever been in has at least one of these tiny glass bottles, filled with sharply mentholated medicinal oil whose myriad uses are legion. Sore muscles? Bak fa yau. Mosquito bites? Bak fa yau. Hives? Bak fa yau. Sprained ankle? Bak fa yau. Headache? Bak fa yau. It’s efficacy is debatable. But its ubiquity is unquestioned.
Somehow, in some strange way, the mention of bak fa yau on network television last night seemed as big a deal as Oscar’s introduction.