Fresh Off The Boat’s episode “Year of the Rat” accomplished yet another first--the first time Chinese New Year has been featured on network television. As an avid fan of the show, I’ve laughed and cried along with the Huangs since the very beginning when they began to settle in Suburban America. The Huang’s process of assimilating into the suburban community reminded myself of my move from my comfortable Vietnamese community in Houston to rural Minnesota for college. While in college, the show became important so much that each release of a new episode became an event for me, similar to the spectacle of sports.
My Asian-American friends and I gathered to watch the Huangs and cheered when the show successfully accomplished what mainstream television cannot. When we saw ourselves on screen, when we could find ways to relate to the characters, we won. We cheered when the Huangs pulled out Chinese plates and bowls to eat breakfast and when the Huang children poured Pert shampoo into Pert Plus bottles. Yet, these were the little things. Beyond the small customs and characteristics the Huangs introduced to their viewers are big ideas and nuanced identities that are easily overlooked.
That being said, the “Year of the Rat” episode was a big deal. It presented many opportunities for the Fresh Off The Boat team, who were asking: what would be the storyline for network television’s first Chinese New Year themed episode? And yet, after watching this episode, the story seemed to me to be perfect--maybe even the only way to go. It brought to the forefront of American entertainment an issue we Asian-Americans, who celebrate Lunar New Year, are familiar with; creating the Lunar New Year experience. This requires effort, especially in a land not exactly fit for the celebration.
For the Huangs, it seemed as if Chinese New Year simply could not happen in suburban Florida. Throughout the episode, Jessica and Louis made remarks regarding what needed to be present for Chinese New Year to be authentic. Some items such as the fireworks and drums seem standard. Chinese New Year celebrations in US Chinatowns all include such things, so to be surrounded by vibrant red and loud celebratory fireworks and drums might appear to be what we Asian Americans seek when it comes to this time of year .
Though true, Jessica and Louis’s search for Chinese people truly tugged at my heart. I laughed out loud at their discovery of the Asian American Association of Orlando because I’ve been through that dreadful moment, that realization that I needed Google to find other Asian Americans in Minnesota. It was my second year of college (up until then, my denial of missing Asian America had sufficed). Right in the dead of Minnesota winter, I began my search for Minnesota’s Asian-America. They had to be out there right? I thought.
All this to say, we don’t want to have to celebrate the Lunar New Year in these circumstances. Like Jessica, I’ve had my “I just want this day to be over” moments. Or rather… “I just want this month to be over with” because I wanted to be home in Houston, TX with my Vietnamese-American family. I wanted the red envelopes, firecrackers and fireworks, the parades, pork buns, drums, lions, dragons, and red lanterns. I wanted the chocolate coins wrapped in gold paper and the water dumplings that bring you great fortune. Most importantly, I wanted to have a New Year’s celebration with people who “cared to get it right.”
The Huang’s Chinese New Year party was more than a gathering of good friends and family. It was more than Louis’s makeshift creativity. I guess to me, it offered hope. Like Louis says, “It’s not that people don’t care enough to get it right. It’s that people didn’t know.”
Growing up in America and learning to celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween as my own holidays and tweaking my Asian-American habits to fit the celebrations was expected. When Lunar New Year rolled around, I never expected that a holiday so special to my family and my community would be one that anyone would care to celebrate with us. That wasn’t a problem, necessarily. It was a normal part of being an Asian-American who celebrated the holiday. Yet here was a Chinese-American family celebrating Chinese New Year on network television!
Thank you Nahnatchka Khan and the Fresh Off The Boat crew for pulling Asian-America out of invisibility by writing us into the American story.
Kathy Trieu will graduate from St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN with a BA in Asian Studies. She is currently residing in her hometown, Houston, TX.