As Eddie says at the beginning of “Philip Goldstein”, episode eight of Fresh off the Boat’s first season, “Finding your way in a new school’s always tough, especially when you don’t have a crew of your own.” When you’re 11, fitting in can be a struggle – especially when no one at your new school looks like you. But is a shared ethnicity the only way to form your ‘crew’ or is it more important to find people you identify with, regardless of race?
In its first season, Fresh off the Boat follows Eddie Huang and his family as they make the transition from Chinatown of Washington, D.C. to Orlando, Florida to open up a cowboy-themed restaurant, named ‘Cattleman’s Ranch.’ This move comes with many struggles, especially for Eddie, Evan and Emery, who are now forced to navigate new schools.
One of the first challenges Eddie faces is the cafeteria. In a sea full of white children, Eddie seeks out the only other “outsider,” a black student named Walter, only to abandon him at the first sign of friendship from a group of white kids. Eddie finds common ground with the group through music, but discovers how quickly the tides can turn when he brings out his lunch and is immediately ridiculed and sent away. Eddie returns to Walter, who says, “Oh, it didn’t go well? The white people didn’t welcome you with open arms?” This clearly suggests that despite the interests they may have in common, there will always be a clear divide between the races.
That is why, in “Philip Goldstein”, Eddie is relieved to discover a new Chinese student (Philip), sure that he’s found his crew. He assumes, like the principal and all his teachers, that they will have things in common. As Principal Hunter explains, he asked Eddie to be Philip’s “first day buddy” because he feels they “have mutual interests and experiences,” to which Eddie respond, “He’s Chinese, isn’t he?” However, although Eddie and Philip are both ethnically Chinese, they could not be more different. When they sit down to lunch, they discover that they differ on almost everything. Philip was adopted by Jewish parents and loves musicals while Eddie eats stinky tofu and listens to the Beastie Boys.
Despite their differences, their teachers assume they’re the best of friends, simply because they’re both Chinese. Their gym teacher pairs them in class, and their principal creates the Pacific Rim club as a “safe space” for the two of them (they’re the only members). Even Eddie’s mom, Jessica, is thrilled that Eddie has found himself a “good Chinese boy” to be friends with. None of the adults consider that they may have different interests and may even dislike each other.
Although they “find [each other’s] company undesirable,” Philip’s presence in the school is welcome to Eddie. Walter, the other “outsider” in their school, is on the defensive as soon as he sees Eddie and Philip together.
Walter: “Looks like someone’s got a twin.”
Eddie: “Looks like someone’s outnumbered.”
When you’re a minority in a sea of white faces, numbers are important. Having a “crew” is important. Eddie may not like Philip, but sees the value in having him around, until he discovers that common interests can also be a strong bonding factor. When he comes to school after the Beastie Boys concert to see Walter also wearing a Beastie Boys shirt, he realizes that “sometimes the more meaningful way to connect with somebody isn’t the most obvious one. Check this out: An Asian kid and a black kid bonding over music by white Jewish rappers. America’s crazy.”
In the pilot episode, adult-Eddie says: “If you [are] an outsider, hip-hop [is] your anthem.” Walter and Eddie are both outsiders at their school, but through hip-hop and music, they form their own crew and find safety (and belonging) in numbers.
I hope season two of Fresh off the Boat further explores the inter-school dynamics and how Eddie continues to find, or make, a place for himself in his new community.
Fresh off the Boat returns to ABC on Tuesday, September 22 at 8:30p.m.