Imagine trying to celebrate the biggest holiday of the year with a bunch of strangers instead of family. Imagine instead of a traditional lion dance, you got a high school alligator mascot and a bunch of peppy cheerleaders. Imagine instead of eating delicious pork steam buns you get jelly donuts. Confused? Can’t even begin to picture it? Check out last week’s episode of Fresh Off the Boat.
For those of you unfamiliar with ABC’s hit show, Fresh Off the Boat, the show centers around a Chinese family, the Huangs, who move from their Chinese-friendly community in Washington DC to Orlando, FL, so the dad, Louis, can open up a restaurant in his effort to achieve the “American dream”.
This past week’s episode centers around the upcoming celebration of Chinese New Year. The Huangs are returning to Washington DC to celebrate with the rest of their family, as Chinese New Year traditionally also serves as a massive family reunion. The episode begins with Louis instructing the staff on how to keep the restaurant running in his absence. His employees immediately mistake Louis’s reference to “the holiday” for President’s Day or Valentine’s Day, a mistake that is carried on through the episode by several others to emphasize the lack of awareness about Chinese New Year. Meanwhile, Jessica enthusiastically cleans their house, which points to another tradition; Chinese people extensively clean their homes in order to invite good fortune in for the new year. The sons, Eddie, Evan, and Emery, are excited about the tradition of receiving red envelopes from older relatives. According to New Year custom, children receive these envelopes filled with money as a symbol of good fortune and prosperity.
While the episode gives a decent overview of some of the important traditions associated with the holiday, it also expresses the struggle of conveying the significance of the holiday to non-Chinese people. The Huangs, in a classic sitcom plot twist, fail to make it to DC because of a mistake with the tickets. Instead, they are left to spend the holiday in Orlando without family and tradition. In an effort to make the most of the holiday, Louis and Jessica come across the Asian American Organization of Orlando whose spokesperson excitedly encourages them to come to their celebration.
When the Huangs arrive though, they find Indians, Russians, and white people and unsurprisingly no Chinese people at the party. The head of the organization welcomes the horrified Huangs and tells them of the festivities to celebrate the Year of the Rat. Jessica expresses her frustration that no one cares enough to get any of the traditions right, and the Huangs return home once again disappointed.
While the Asian American Association of Orlando had some glaring mistakes in the execution of their Chinese New Year celebration, is it wrong that they wanted to take part in another culture’s holiday? As a member of Davidson’s Asian Culture Awareness Association, we are always encouraging non-Asian members of our community to come to our events. We put in the effort though to make the events educational and celebratory. In order to promote awareness, one needs to be aware in the first place, which seems obvious but clearly is not to some people. There needs to be a healthy amount of appreciation for the traditions of another culture rather than the commercialization that surrounds several American holidays such as Valentine’s Day or the New Year in January.
In a last ditch effort to save the day, Louis organizes a more traditional party at his restaurant with the help of his staff and neighbors. They perform on a lion dance, make dumplings, and decorate the restaurant with red paper lanterns. Jessica and the rest of the family arrive completely surprised, and the holiday begins to look up as their friends showed the Huangs they care. Their caring though turns into Jessica answering their numerous questions for the rest of the night, thus ruining her dinner, but the boys finally receive their money from their stingy grandma, whom they’ve been trying to butter up in the subplot of the episode.
This episode expresses the frustration of wanting to share one’s cultural but not wanting to become an authority on it. While the meanings behind traditions are significant, no one wants to keep explaining something during a celebration. Celebrating a holiday is a time for appreciating a culture. Learning about the significance should occur before you try to partake otherwise you’re not really celebrating. It’s all about the timing and the context. If you don’t know about Chinese New Year, then learn about it, but don’t expect a Chinese person to stop their celebration to teach it to you. Educate yourself before the celebration, and don’t rely on someone to do the work for you.
On the other hand, it’s nice to see such an important holiday for some Asian countries to be explored on television. Fresh Off the Boat isn’t just about an Asian American family fitting into America; they’re Asian American, and that means equal attention on their Asian roots as well as the American dream trope. For me, one of the great things about watching FOB is that they don’t step around the stupid things white people ask about Chinese culture. The writers come right out and say it, which can be a little rough to watch for some people, but the reality is that people do say these things, and it’s high time they realize it’s not okay even if they don’t mean it in a malicious way. Ignorance is not an excuse anymore. So while this week’s episode of Fresh Off the Boat may have hurt a little to watch as the people in the Orlando area destroyed Chinese New Year, the writers still continue to teach white audiences to think about the way Asian culture is treated and provide an outlet to express frustrations from the Chinese community.