clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Fresh Off The Boat asks “what’s in a name?” in a way few shows can

The episode on American versus Chinese names reveals exactly why we need this series.

The Huangs watch Evan (Ian Chen) sign his name. But which one?

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for April 24 through April 30 is "Hi, My Name Is…," the 20th episode of the second season of ABC's Fresh Off the Boat.

A person's name is a funny thing. It could be meaningful, significant to you and/or your family. It could also be totally random, assigned for purely aesthetic reasons, or because your parents just had to pick something, anything to call their new baby.

If you're an immigrant, however, names can become a more complicated source of contention. As ABC's sitcom Fresh Off The Boat explored in "Hi, My Name Is…," names can become the linchpin of an ever-pressing, complicated question: What does it mean to assimilate? Is changing your birth name to something "easier" for your new country to call you a necessity, a betrayal, or something in between?

The Huangs tell their origin stories, which are also stories of transition and adjusting to a new country

"Hello, My Name Is…" follows the Huang family as they go to open a bank account for Evan, their youngest (and most responsible) son.

But when it comes time to sign his name, Evan's mother Jessica (Constance Wu) and father Louis (Randall Park) reveal that naming him "Evan" was so random it came from a nearby nurse's name tag. Though Evan also has a Chinese name, this revelation about his legal American name sends him into a confused spiral of doubt. He thought "Evan" fit him perfectly, but it was just an attempt to keep things easy for him, growing up as an Asian American.

Suddenly, the question of whether to use Evan or his given Chinese name feels like a much more significant choice. "Do I use my American nurse name," he frets, "or my Chinese name that will cause me endless struggle?!"

And so his parents tell him the stories of how they came to adopt new, more typically American names in an attempt to prove that it doesn't matter. Instead, they accidentally end up proving that their names have always held great importance.

For Jessica, the decision to change her name happened in college, where her white peers and teachers not only refused to learn how to pronounce her Chinese name (Chou Tsai Cha), but told her it was holding her back. Of course, the reason it was "holding her back" had nothing to do with the name, and everything to do with Americans who heard a foreign name and dismissed the woman behind it out of sheer laziness. It's a jarring, awful sequence that doesn't flinch from making you feel Jessica's discomfort.

It even made me flash back to some far gone recesses of my childhood, when my Midwestern grandmother told me she was glad my parents saved Persian and Armenian — my mother's native languages — for my middle names, since it would "make things easier."

Even though it stung, I remember thinking she was right. But watching Jessica in that classroom made me realize that the truth is far more complicated than that. Did she mean having an American name would make things easier for me, or for her? Or was it — as I eventually came to accept — something in between?

Jessica, a hard pragmatist, ends up swapping out her name for an Allman Brothers homage with a shrug. If changing her name would make her path to success a little less fraught when the deck is already stacked against her, she was going to do it. But not everyone in her family shares her indifference toward her name.

Louis, for his part, adopted his name after a smooth guy he admired as a means of making himself feel more at ease. His story unravels in a weirder (and clumsier) way than Jessica's, but the sentiment remains the same. He had emigrated to a foreign country and needed a way to make the transition easier; changing his name was a quick way in. The fact that he first introduced himself to Jessica as Louis only sealed the deal.

Neither of these stories convince Evan that his name doesn't matter. "Sounds like the opposite of 'unimportant' and 'random' to me," he sighs in frustration. It's not until he talks to his grandmother (Lucille Soong) that he's at all reassured. She once changed her name to "Jenny," a fact she doesn't talk about much, since "it's personal and involves a crime."

But more importantly, she tells him, "your name doesn't make you. You make your name." This solves Evan's existential crisis with just minutes to spare, and so he confidently signs his name — as an unidentifiable scribble, the better to leave his options open.

Sure, it's a pat conclusion to a much larger issue, but Fresh Off The Boat is still a family sitcom, and so that's the order of things. But that's part of why "Hi, My Name Is…" is such a significant episode. At the end of the day, Fresh Off The Boat is still one of the few shows — sitcom or otherwise — that could address this issue at all.

Family sitcoms have always had go-to storylines. A different perspective can make them fresh.

Sitcoms have cycled through similar sets of storylines for decades. You could spin in any direction and point to the same brand of wacky misunderstandings, forgotten birthdays, and marital strife. You'd probably know all the story beats, too.

When you pull it apart, "Hi, My Name Is…" is still using a requisite sitcom plot — namely it's the "how our parents met" episode. But it unfolds from a place few other shows could touch, just by virtue of who's telling the story.

The crucial difference between Fresh Off The Boat and other sitcoms is that even when Fresh Off The Boat indulges in typical sitcom tropes, they very often emerge from more unexpected sources, simply because — to be frank — the Huangs are not your typical sitcom family.

They are a blend of first- and second-generation immigrants. They're the only Asian family in their Floridian cul-de-sac, but the show never makes them the butt of the joke, as a show with a predominantly white cast might have. The Huangs aren't the sidekicks; they're the heroes.

You don't have to be a first- or second-generation immigrant to appreciate Fresh Off The Boat — though yes, you will likely get more out of it if you know the pain of bringing some "foreign" lunch to the cafeteria. But as we talk about what it means for media to become more "diverse," Fresh Off The Boat offers an example of how that diversity can improve TV on a purely practical level.

It's really pretty simple: Fresh Off The Boat is telling more interesting stories than most sitcoms because telling the story of an immigrant family from the family's perspective yields stories most other sitcoms just don't — and could never — have in their arsenal. If we're going to have all this television, it might as well reach outside the expected, well-trod realm and tell some different stories.

Fresh Off The Boat airs Tuesdays at 8 pm Eastern on ABC. Previous episodes are available on Hulu.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.