Fresh Off the Boat and the Elusiveness of Home

The sitcom’s season-three premiere, along with NBC’s The Good Place, shows how geography raises questions of belonging.


The following contains spoilers through the most recent episodes of  Fresh Off the Boat and The Good Place.

Late in Tuesday’s season-three premiere of Fresh Off the Boat, Louis and Jessica Huang had an epiphany near the end of their trip to see family in Taiwan. Earlier, Jessica (Constance Wu)—who’d been the most excited about the visit—had told her three American-born sons, “You’re not tourists. You’re home.” But as the vacation unfolded, she began to feel things were a little off. The “night markets” she’d loved when she lived in Taiwan seemed to operate by new rules. The man who once sold her swordfish soup every day treated her like a stranger. Everyone—everyone—kept making outdated references to the 1990 film Ghost.

Later, this gave Louis (Randall Park) some insight into the couple’s disillusionment with their homeland. “We are Patrick Swayze in Ghost,” he said to his Jessica, looking a little surprised by the analogy. “Stuck between two worlds. Part of both, belonging to neither.” Their Taiwanese American immigrant experience in a nutshell.

The couple ostensibly came to this powerful conclusion after less than 22 minutes of screen time. But the ’90s-set Fresh Off the Boat had really been building to that moment for two years. It spent its first and second seasons following the Huangs’ new lives in Orlando, Florida, after they moved south from Washington, D.C. As only the second-ever sitcom to star an Asian American family, the show has mapped thoughtful explorations of race and culture onto more familiar sitcom storylines. But Tuesday’s episode, “Coming From America,” offered its most straightforward and original confrontation yet of the the way immigrants, their children, and many people of color in the U.S. often find themselves feeling like perennial outsiders.

The notion of “belonging” can be an abstract one, so the particular wisdom of Fresh Off the Boat’s latest episode was connecting it to a physical sense of place—something another fall sitcom, NBC’s The Good Place, has also done recently, if by more philosophical and subtle means. Capturing this tension between identity and location was so crucial to Fresh Off the Boat’s creators and producers that they shot “Coming From America” on location in Taiwan—the first time a U.S. network show has filmed in Asia. The decision helped with authenticity, but also with storytelling: It’s easier for viewers of different backgrounds to empathize with Jessica and Louis’s internal identity crisis when they can actually see all the specific ways in which the couple no longer fit in.

In Louis’s case, his feeling of estrangement from his home is embodied by relationship with his brother, Gene (Ken Jeong), who stayed in Taiwan instead of moving to America. Louis’s view of himself as a success story who’s achieved the American dream is deflated by his brother’s comparative wealth. (In one exchange, his youngest son asks, “Dad, are we poor?” “What? No. American middle-class is like Taiwan rich, ” Louis explains, to which his middle son replies, “I’d rather be Taiwan rich!”) But Louis eventually expresses regret about his decision to leave Taiwan and the advantages, connections, and social capital he had there. As he tells Gene: “We’re the white people of here.” The trip only throws into relief for Louis the vastly different social statuses Taiwan and America each confers on him; who he is depends a great deal on where he is.

Even when the Huangs were back in Orlando, Fresh Off the Boat explored the concept of competing identities, as well as the myriad small ways the family’s race made them stand out in a mostly white suburban community. In season one, the show’s young protagonist Eddie (Hudson Yang) was briefly paired by his school with a new Chinese-Jewish student, Phillip Goldstein, because they were both Asian—despite the fact that they had nothing else in common. The season-two episode “Good Morning Orlando” found Louis struggling with the burden of being a good representative for all Asian people when he was given the rare chance to appear on a local talk show. After agonizing over the “right” way to present himself, he finally acknowledged, “One person can’t be everything.” But Tuesday’s “Coming From America” marked the show’s most direct effort to portray the Huangs as being stuck between two cultures.

Like Fresh Off the Boat, The Good Place also has ideas of belonging, geography, and identity baked into its premise. The sitcom takes place in a nondenominational heaven and centers on Eleanor (Kristen Bell), who accidentally ended up there despite a lifetime of misdeeds and is trying to become a better person to earn her place. But the character whose situation has most relevance to the Huangs is Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), who’s introduced in the pilot as a Buddhist monk who’s taken a vow of silence. After almost three full episodes of not speaking and placid nodding,“Jianyu” is revealed to actually be Jason Mendoza: a slightly dim amateur DJ who loves EDM, sold fake drugs to college kids, and hails from Jacksonville, Florida. He, like Eleanor, ended up in The Good Place by mistake, only his not-belonging has another dimension from the start. “Everyone here thinks I’m Taiwanese. I’m Filipino,” Jason told Eleanor after confiding in her his true identity. “That’s racist. Heaven is so racist.”

His comment is especially apt considering the nature of The Good Place: It’s a supernaturally perfect world, both highly inclusive and highly individualistic in a way that overlaps with typical understandings of America. Jianyu and Eleanor’s neighborhood is a cosmopolitan planned community where everything—houses, food, soul mates—are chosen to custom-fit the person, and language barriers don’t exist. And yet despite the utopian promises of The Good Place’s organizers, Jason has to pretend to be the silent, nodding Buddhist monk for all of eternity if he doesn’t want to risk being banished. That is, he can’t be himself.

The arc of the episode “Jason Mendoza,” which tells the character’s backstory isn’t specifically about Asianness in the way “Coming From America” was, but The Good Place is certainly racially and culturally aware. At one point in the episode, Eleanor and Jason attended a dinner where everyone’s favorite dishes on earth were magically recreated; Jason lifted the lid on his plate to find a slab of plain wet tofu. In reality, his favorite meal was “the buffalo wings at Stupid Nick’s Wing Dump in Gainesville,” but Eleanor begged him to keep quiet so he wouldn’t blow both of their covers. Jason pushed back: “No! I’m sick of pretending to be Jianyu the tofu man!” The Good Place cleverly shows how alienating it can be for Asian people to be expected to identify with wholeheartedly with things of “their culture,” and revels in Jason’s deviation from expected norms.

Both Fresh Off the Boat and The Good Place also understand how geography, as it relates to identity, is often deeply aspirational—where you are or where you want to be reflects on the kind of person you are. “We did it, Louis. We moved to America, and we made it,” Jessica told her husband comfortingly, while also confessing that she was homesick for Orlando. During his lifetime, too, Jason Mendoza tied his sense of self to place. “I don’t want to be a DJ in Jacksonville forever,” he told his friend, in a flashback. “I wanna DJ in Daytona. Tallahassee. Tampa, even. I want it all.”

By investing so many of their storylines in physical space, both shows are able to better dramatize the feelings of loss that come with being away from home. Jason spent much of his episode recalling (via flashbacks) his life in Jacksonville, and his decision to never pretend to be someone else again—a decision that’s thwarted, of course, when he dies, and is sent to The Good Place, where he has to be both Jianyu and Jason at all times. He’s literally a ghost, part of both “heaven” and “hell,” but tragically belonging to neither. Likewise, Fresh Off the Boat set high emotional stakes for the Huangs’ family visit to Taiwan, making it that much more bittersweet to see Jessica and Louis accept that, though they’ll never feel fully at home anywhere, their connections to both worlds can still be meaningful.

That Fresh Off the Boat and The Good Place explored such similar territory within mere weeks of each other, but through totally different narrative and stylistic means, is a testament to the richness of the experiences of people of color—and in this case specifically, Asian Americans. For all the discussion of 2015 being an important year for the group in terms of small-screen representation, just 6 percent of network TV shows featured main characters of Asian descent, and casual racism crops up in the medium with some regularity.

And so when shows like Fresh Off the Boat, or The Good Place, or Master of None, or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, make it on air and offer up original, complex, and thoughtful portrayals of Asian Americans, they more than prove the artistic and social value of pushing those stories in the first place. It means viewers get sensitive meditations on immigrant selfhood and hyphenated Americanness, but also more universal investigations of what it means to belong, and to feel at home, and to accept oneself. In that light, perhaps, Jason’s maudlin proclamation in one flashback takes on a deeper meaning. “I believe in myself,” he said, smiling. “Some day, the world will see what I already know. That Jason Mendoza is a beautiful, unique soul, who has so much to give the world.”