"We didn't want to write ourselves into a corner where we promised Taiwan and then we couldn't go there and we'd have to make the New York street on the lot in Los Angeles look like Taiwan. We really wanted to go if we were going to say that," Khan tells TVGuide.com. "You need a lot of advanced work to make it go that smoothly. But in those initial discussions, it was like, you know, I think it's possible. It hasn't been done before, but that doesn't mean it's not possible."
The ABC comedy did indeed make the trek to Taipei for three days in August to film Tuesday's Season 3 premiere, fulfilling the Season 2 cliffhanger. Louis (Randall Park) had declared that the whole family was going to Taiwan, where he and Jessica (Constance Wu) were born and raised, so he could reconcile with his brother Gene (Ken Jeong), who's getting married.
A destination wedding is a tried-and-true trope of very special TV episodes. But for Fresh Off the Boat, the Taipei trek has far more significance and serves a far greater purpose, deftly delving into an internal struggle of immigrant families. Home may be where you make it, but where you belong is a whole different story -- a nebulous push-pull that never locks in place. It's not so much a culture clash as it is an identity clash.
Fresh Off the Boat exclusive: Season 3 poster pays festive homage to Taiwan
"In the writers' room when we were talking about it, that was the thing that initially made us all excited about it," Khan says. "It's really that 'hyphenate American' that we're discussing. That is a part of them. They're not just Taiwanese, they're not just American; they're both. It's the combining of those two cultures and finding a place where you can kind of justify those two things together and become at peace with it."
For Louis and Jessica's sons, Eddie (Hudson Yang), Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen), who were born in America, their first trip to their parents' homeland, in their eyes, is almost like any other vacation to an exotic country. "They're approaching it very American. They're almost American tourists," Khan, who is Persian-American, says. "We have a runner for Evan where he's got all these pamphlets from Triple A and money belts and all this stuff. Jessica is like, 'We're not tourists here. This is your home.' He's like, 'But I've never been here.' She's like, 'It doesn't matter. It's still your home.' That is a very real sentiment [of immigrant parents]."
The episode -- titled "Coming From America" -- makes great use of its vibrant locale, shooting at Dihua Street, the Confucius Temple and the Grand Hotel, and having Jessica show her kids her old childhood haunts. The reverse fish-of-water scenario for the boys generates much of the laughs, including a trip to the bustling Shilin Night Market (something that definitely could not be recreated on a lot to the same effect), where Eddie finds a pair of Air Jordan 11s, and a running joke about the boiling temperatures.
"Things we were talking about when we visited places our parents are from, you find out pretty quickly how soft you are as an American," Khan says with a laugh. "You kind of realize how tough and strong your parents are. The first thing the kids say when they're outside of the airport in Taiwan is, 'It's so hot here.' We shot it in Taipei in August. It was so hot. All that stuff you see is real. They're sweating and dying out there.
"And then Jessica is trying to take them to this place she used to go to every day for soup," she continues. "Eddie is like, 'Soup? It's a thousand degrees outside.' She's like, 'The soup will cool you off.' The kids are like, 'It's so hot. We don't want soup.' And she's like, 'You're getting soup!' It's like trying to impart your history to your kids." (As a Chinese-American, I can confirm that Asian parents will ply you with soup whenever they can. Because soup cures all.)
In the interest of verisimilitude, Khan also threw in a very accurate -- and very funny -- running gag of how other countries lag behind American pop culture. (In the words of Robin Scherbatsky, "The '80s didn't come to Canada 'til like '93.") All of Louis' relatives are obsessed with Ghost, which came out in 1990. "They're like a solid five years behind. Everybody keeps talking about Ghost, Patrick Swayze, Whoopi Goldberg and all that, and [Louis, Jessica and the kids] are like rolling their eyes," Khan says. "That comes into play in the Jessica and Louis story at the end, which is a cool moment for them."
It is, in fact, Louis and Jessica's experiences that get at the heart of the identity crisis. Khan says it became clear when she and the writers were breaking the story that it would be the parents, not the kids, who would ultimately struggle the most, having uprooted their lives to start anew. While the boys land in Taiwan with an American mindset, their parents arrive with a very native one. But Jessica learns quickly that she's lost her touch, so to speak, in certain situations back home. It's not an "it's not you, it's me" situation -- more like "it's both of us," and the eventual acceptance that that's OK.
"They were born there. They did grow up there and then they moved. Now that they've been living in the United States for 20 years and then go home with their kids for the first time, what is that like for them? It's that mixture of nostalgia of wanting to show them places they grew up in, people that they know, but also realizing that they've changed themselves and the place they knew as home has changed too," Khan says. "That 'caught between two places' was really interesting to all of us."
Louis, meanwhile, develops a little "grass is greener" envy when he sees Gene's pretty sweet life with his soon-to-be-wife Margaret (Ann Hsu). "He starts to question whether he made the right choice. Maybe it would've been better had he stayed. Maybe he would've been able to have a better life for his family had he stayed," Khan says. "They kind of reflect on why they left [Taiwan] all those years ago. That's a conflict that a lot of people go through.
"That's the thing that they realize: Their kids were born in America. They've lived in America basically half their lives now," she continues. "It's like they're just as much American as Taiwanese."
That reconciliation is important not just for the Huangs, but Khan hopes for fans as well. "I hope the fans appreciate seeing the history of the characters, but also really appreciate the question of: where is your home?" she says. And though Khan says the show wasn't thinking as largely as responding to the hateful, xenophobic rhetoric in the current real-world climate, its message of celebrating and recognizing your roots is a vital, illuminating tonic.
"The questions of anything American -- Italian-American, Persian-American, whatever -- part of you is American. No one is solely American," Khan says. "It's about realizing that, especially when you leave America and you go back to another place. That hyphen is what's really interesting to us. That's what's specific about this show. They are Taiwanese-American. In America, maybe they don't feel American enough. In Taiwan, maybe they don't feel Taiwanese enough. It's always that sort of struggle. Do you ever feel like you're enough of either thing? I think that is something, regardless of where you're from, people can relate to."
Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on