‘Fresh Off the Boat’: What Are You If You’re Not the Best?

By Julianne Hing Mar 25, 2015

Welcome to "Fresh Off the Boat" episode 11. With just a few more weeks left this season, Eddie’s chasing the girl of his dreams, and Jessica’s facing the limits of her self confidence. Both story lines are, at their heart, about how much work we put in to maintain the fictions that keep us afloat. Sometimes, it turns out, that work isn’t worth it. 

Perhaps because Jessica Huang (played by Constance Wu) is the most charismatic character on "Fresh Off the Boat," and perhaps because I’m a Chinese woman, too, the story lines involving her are invariably my favorites. (For the record, my favorite episode of this season continues to be "Success Perms," where Jessica duked it out with her sister for their mom’s attentions. It’s the episode I suggest newcomers start with to ease into this show.)

This week, Eddie’s dad Louis gives him flirting advice built largely off of restaurant metaphors. Louis is, after all, the owner of the family’s faux-Western themed steakhouse. Eddie interprets the messages to mean that he ought to commit an offense at school–which, incidentally, is blaspheming Oprah–in order to follow his crush Nicole into detention. There, Nicole tells Eddie that she doesn’t need school anyway because she’s got beauty school dreams, and Eddie agrees to be her guinea pig. Anything to get close to this older, mysterious, often moody crush.

Jessica’s real estate dreams, meanwhile, stall after she gets spooked out of taking her licensing exam. As someone who doesn’t embark on something without the aim to be the absolute best, she can’t handle meeting Kim, a star real estate agent bigheaded enough to carry a laminated newspaper clipping hailing her. It’s frankly the kind of move Jessica would pull herself, if she had Kim’s 10 years of experience.

Instead, Jessica hightails it out of the testing center and lies to her family for days. It’s not until Louis catches her in the lie that she’s forced to sort through a deep fear: What does it mean if she’s not able to be the brightest star in her field?

It’s all played for laughs, but the internal pressure Jessica puts on herself rang true to me. Plenty of people (Asian and not, I want to stress) grow up internalizing ideas that if you’re not the best, you’re not worth anything. You either perch yourself at the top of the heap or, one step away, swim in the dregs of failure. Faced with those kinds of odds, why not just run away from the race altogether?

Eddie, meanwhile, submits himself to Nicole’s various beauty experiments–including an ear piercing–just to be in her company. Along the way he loses some self-respect, and it turns out that when he says he’s not going to be her test subject anymore, Nicole’s able to see him on his own terms.

At this point, I’m certain I’d be totally over this show if the same messages were packaged in a white family sitcom. But they’re not. The show’s richer for the layers that the Huangs’ immigrant background and Chinese-ness bring to it. And for this viewer, every week of "Fresh Off the Boat" turns out to be entertainment, and unexpectedly comforting catharsis.

A few of the other gems in this episode:

-the utterly ’90s appearance of Troll dolls.

-a man’s commitment to good hair.

-People blurting out "I love you," in this show, is always a hint that something’s amiss.

-the ending sequence with Louis Huang’s starship fantasies. Can someone cast Randall Park in the next Star Trek sequel, please? Why should John Cho get to have all the fun? (Our movie theater film projectors won’t break if two Asian men appear on screen at the same time, promise.)