‘Fresh Off the Boat’: Chinese Numerology 101

By Julianne Hing Apr 08, 2015

We’re down to the final episodes on season 1 of "Fresh Off the Boat," the first Asian-American family sitcom to come around in 20 years. I’ve been thinking lately that if this is it, if there’s no season 2, I’ll feel good about what the show’s creators were able to produce. I’ll buy the DVD (do they still sell DVDs?), and maybe even take it down from the shelf for sporadic nostalgic viewings in the possible decades that pass before the next Asian-American family gets to be on television again. 

It’s impossible to gauge the show’s unfulfilled potential–there’s so little to compare it against, for starters. But there’s plenty of evidence of how bad a job Hollywood’s done with representation of Asians on television in the 20 years of waiting between Margaret Cho’s "All-American Girl" and "Fresh Off the Boat." That doesn’t mean the real-life Eddie Huang’s not going to keep reaching for more.

On Tuesday night Huang, whose identically named memoir inspired the sitcom, took to Twitter to sound off about the TV show. (It’s not the first or even second time Huang’s publicly criticized the show which credits him as a producer.)

Huang let it be known that he doesn’t watch the show out of frustration that it doesn’t draw more of its humor from the real pain and violence that sat at the core of his journey through childhood. It’s a fair critique–the show’s main characters and rough story arcs are after all named after and inspired by Eddie and his real-life family. It’s also buoyed by a cheery disconnect from reality. But this is also network TV we’re talking about. I look forward to the Huang family story told in the form of a cinematically shot, hyper-realistic, suspense-filled arch drama, but I doubt that the kind of show Huang’s envisioning will find a home on a major network in the form of a half-hour family comedy. 

Which brings us to episode 11 of "Fresh Off the Boat," entitled "Very Superstitious." There have been moments while watching this show when I’ve sat slack-jawed staring at the television wondering to myself: Are they really talking about this in public? Last night was one of those moments.

This episode was less about advancing the story arc for any of the show’s characters and more about a specific cultural concept: numerology, the superstitious ideas which guide so much of many Chinese people’s life. Wider society never acknowledges (let alone comprehends) so many parts of Chinese and Asian-American people’s experiences that I was stunned that TV audiences got this mini lesson in numerology last night.

In Chinese culture, superstition about fortune and tragedy, combined with a language in which homonyms abound, makes for an endless list of potential life potholes to navigate. As the janitor at Jessica Huang’s new real estate job explains in a perfect aside, in Chinese the word for "four" sounds very much like the word for "death." The number four is therefore avoided at all costs. (The number eight, however, rhymes with the word for wealth or fortune and so eight is a very lucky number.)

Numerology plays out in big and small ways: When giving gifts, for example, never give four of anything. Bring three or five oranges to your Chinese auntie’s dinner, but never four. In college when I spent a summer in China and had to get a cell phone, numbers with 4’s in them were dirt cheap while those with 8’s in them were out of my price range. It’s best not to get married on April 4 if you can help it. In 2006 the New York Times published a story on the cutthroat economy of license plate auctions in China–including the sale of a plate stacked with 8’s which sold for $10,000. 

Imagine, then, Jessica’s horror when she gets assigned to sell a house that’s been on the market for years with the address: 44 West 44th Street, a home with four bedrooms and four baths. The usual family sitcom hijinks ensue, with plenty of delightful surprises, including the rare opportunity to see Randall Park break out of his unflappable cheesy dad role to show his rubber-faced range; the adorableness that is Ian Chen, who plays Evan Huang; and the actual Scottie Pippen, who is a good sport playing himself (with a more-than-decent deadpan delivery) in several bits where he still can’t get any respect. 

Like the rest of this past season, Tuesday night’s episode was one I could dish about with my Chinese family, and would also recommend to a non-Chinese person who asks me to explain why my landlord has given my roommate and me eight–always eight, never fewer–tangerines to celebrate Lunar New Year. And that’s perhaps "Fresh Off the Boat’s greatest strength. It’s funny and familiar for insiders, and not at all painful to share with outsiders.