‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Celebrated American TV’s First Chinese New Year

Fresh Off the Boat was celebrated last year as the first American network TV show in over twenty years to center around an Asian-American family.  Last night, it became the first to make the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins this year on February 7, a meaningful part of an episode’s story.

As Ada Tseng points out, the holiday celebrated by millions of Asian descent in the United States and was recently recognized as a school holiday in New York City, has only been seen on American TV and movies in limited contexts — as a joke on The Simpsons, in children shows as a means of promoting diversity, and Asian-themed films like The Joy Luck Club.

“Obviously every holiday has been done a thousand times. There’s been a million Christmases, a million Thanksgivings, a million Halloweens,” showrunner Nahnatchka Khan said. “But I’d be surprised if there was a show that has ever done Chinese New Year because there just hasn’t been the opportunity or awareness that we have on our show.”

The episode, penned by Taiwanese-American Sheng Wang, explores the meaning significance of the holiday and traditions as it tells how the Taiwanese (but maybe Chinese) Huang family tries to celebrate the holiday in 1996 Orlando, Florida (“We just did a quick little Google image search of Chinatown in Orlando, and it was a sad-looking little plaza that has some Chinese on the signs and non-Chinese stores“), replicating perhaps many Asian-Americans’ experiences explaining the holiday and adapting traditional customs with their western lifestyles.  He told the Los Angeles Times, “It started out with so many elements. We were going to try to introduce another Chinese family that they might have come across at a Costco.  There was going to be a karaoke element.”  Show creator Nahnatchka Khan added, “There were so many permutations because we wanted to get it right. This is something that hasn’t been represented in a meaningful way on American TV and we wanted to make sure we really hit the marks on it.”

Costance Wu, who plays the family’s disapproving matriarch, appreciates how the show embraced the holiday.  “I know that it’s historic, but one of the great things about our show is that we try and celebrate the Asian-American perspective instead of saying, ‘We’re just like every American’ and neutralizing our race,” she says.  “So it’s special because it happens, but it’s not special because Nahnatchka and the writers try really hard to normalize it — as in, this isn’t an exotic holiday.”

Khan hopes the story will make a mark, “How cool would it be the day after this episode aired if kids on the playground were like, ‘do you really do that?’ That’s really exciting.”

She is eager for it to be an annual event, like the holiday itself: “Hopefully, this will become part of our show’s canon; every year, we’ll do our Chinese New Year episode.”

Watch the episode on Hulu.  If anybody’s wondering about accuracy and authenticity, the Huangs are celebrating the Year of the Rat because it’s 1996, not 2016 on the show.  1996 Orlando didn’t diverge from Chinese customs that much.

Image: Ron Tom/ABC