And now, back to our regular programming. Sort of. I don’t mean just a return to my television reviews, either: to my surprise, tonight’s Fresh Off the Boat brought up the issue of racism again, after a few episodes without any conflict in that dimension. To nobody’s surprise, this is thanks to Jessica, whose suspicious mind jumps immediately to ‘racist hate crime’ when she sees that the new billboard for her husband’s restaurant has been graffitied with the word ‘THIEF’ in large yellow letters.
“They are calling us sneaky Asians!” she says furiously. “We are being targeted!” But there’s more to the story. In this season’s biggest twist so far, Eddie reveals via voiceover and flashback that the subtle jokes about how Louis’ precious Cattleman’s Ranch Steakhouse strongly resembles the Golden Saddle Steakhouse franchise in everything from menu to decor have their basis in a more sinister truth. Louis actually stole the confidential operations manual from the beefy Golden Saddle owner, Finnegan, when he realized he couldn’t front his absurd fifty grand fee for opening a new branch, then used it to model Cattleman’s, with a few minor adjustments like the salad bar and the black bear (not brown!). He confesses this to his wife in order to prevent her from storming off to alert the city councilman, and then “Mr. and Mrs. Thief” themselves get into a verbal altercation with Mr. Golden Saddle (and Mitch, who jumped ship! No!), who turns out to be the implied billboard vandal. This thorny plot ends with no real resolution, but Louis and Jessica do manage to take an eye for an eye — or should I say, a sign for a sign.
Let’s dive right in. Is there a stereotype that Asians are sneaky at business and ruthless in economic competition? Yes. Look at Samsung vs. Apple, the latest and greatest turmoil over perceived copyright infringement conducted by an Asian conglomerate. It looks like ideas and designs are freely taken from ‘true innovators’ in the West and reproduced for greater profit on the other side of the world.
Also, fakes and knockoffs are an indisputable part of the black markets in Asia. I mean, of course, piracy of media and consumer goods occurs all over the world, but it has just seemed so patently obvious — to me personally — that it happens more often in East and Southeast Asia. It doesn’t help that my childhood friends who visited family in China or Taiwan over the summer holidays would always return with DVDs of questionable quality with unremovable subtitles, shiny new “Adidos” sneakers, and stationery bedizened with sort-of-Disney characters. (Nowadays we get all the cheap/free crap we want from the Internet.)
This sort of economic and cultural theft has been associated with our cultures for decades, and it has played out in endless forms: Asian markets stealing merchandise from American brands. Asian companies stealing productivity from America’s workforce. Asian Americans stealing success from America’s Americans.
So does Jessica have a right to be angry when her husband’s success with the restaurant is met with a spray-painted epithet undermining his hard work? Yes, and she speaks the truth: “Some people just can’t stand to see minorities succeed.” However, this time, the theft was real. And after Louis confesses this, with all the puppy-dog-eyes and about a quarter of the shame I would have expected, her reaction is odd but infinitely analyzable. She tells Louis that what he did was smart, and that he was a good businessman to take the ideas and then make them his own.
What do we make of this? Either Jessica doesn’t think her husband committed a crime, or she knows it was morally objectionable but supports it anyway. I’m leaning more towards the latter. Why? Because more than anything else, she knows that she needs to support her family. What her husband did may have been wrong, but it brought them financial success, and that’s what’s keeping the Huangs afloat, so that is what is right. Voiceover Eddie is on board with this, too, praising both of his parents for doing whatever it takes to get their piece of the American Dream.
Excuse me for a minute while I change the definition of ‘American Dream’ in my Orlando English Dictionary to “piggybacking off of others and playing the system to get rich.”
But I can still root for the Huangs, because they’re tough and, as Jessica reasons, they “stuck it to a rich guy.” That’s not usually an ingredient in the recipe for success, but if you’re starting out as an underprivileged underdog, it’s sometimes a welcome addition, like the pinch of nutmeg that makes one’s sweet victory just a bit better to savor.
Elsewhere in Orlando… Young Eddie gets sick of riding a bus full of chaotic eighth-graders and wants to impress his literal girl-next-door crush Nicole with Ice Cube’s latest rap album. (Two side notes: I chuckled audibly when he held it up for his friends to see, only to realize a split second later that they were all pretending to sleep on the bus so as not to attract unwanted attention from the aforementioned eighth graders. And the spontaneous a capella-plus-autotune cover of “Check Yo Self” was just… the weirdest thing.) The solution: a neighborhood carpool! Except Nicole is fine with the bus. But Nicole is then invited over for dinner by Moms! Except she’s actually going to be the boys’ babysitter while the parents are out; hopefully she can remember that bedtime is at nine and that if the boys feel warm, Evan and Emery can take orange Flintstones chewables, but Eddie prefers grape. Aah, what a throwback. Throughout the course of the evening, Eddie pulls some stupid cute sitcommy stuff and ends up stuck to the toilet all night, while Nicole does actually listen to the album and enjoys it. Finally, the plot advances! I hope we get to see a bit more continuity from week to week from this point forward, as we are already about halfway through the season.
A propos nothing, I saw a restaurant called Cattlemens while driving through Livermore last week and did a major double take. I now know that this is a Californian chain, but I’d never noticed it before. Funny!
Jessica (trying to decide on a dress): Which one says, ‘I am rich enough to be invited, but not rich enough that you can ask me to donate money’?
Louis: How could you do this? We were a family!
Mitch: Yeah, he offered to double my salary. But if you guys want to —
Louis: Goodbye forever, Mitch.
And before I sign off, an honest question: did Finnegan call Louis and Jessica ‘dirty cinephiles’ or ‘dirty Sinophiles’? Was the insult a reference to their love of gangster/crime films or his earlier sleazy comment about Louis having an Asian fetish? Hm…