Why Crazy Rich Asians is Important — to me

I wanted to write something about Crazy Rich Asians because I’ve never thought so much about a movie after watching. Not after Inception or Interstellar were supposed to blow my mind. Not after watching Ice Age for the fifteenth time wondering why I loved it so much. Very little beyond “I like this”, or “I don’t like this”.

Most movies simply don’t make a difference to me. Some are enjoyable, some are less so, and I didn’t expect this one to be any different. In fact I thought it was going to be bad. And it upset me, because I thought it would bust, and that we wouldn’t see another movie with an Asian cast for a very long time. I saw the trailer, and I thought it was going to be yet another mainstream production that focused on comedy, like Fresh Off The Boat: appealing to non-Asian audiences by giving them a story to laugh at and make fun of — you know, the roles historically assigned to minorities.

And so I wrote the movie off and moved on with my life. It wasn’t important to me in the same way that it might have been important to others, because I didn’t really grow up Asian-American. I grew up quite distinctly American-Asian. I didn’t really have the experience of hating my own Asian-ness because I was part of the “in” group. I joined in with the jokes and the microaggressions because they were funny to me too — because I wasn’t really Asian. I was American. I couldn’t speak Chinese, and all my experiences and mannerisms were strictly tied to America. If anything, I felt more out of place during my trips to China than anything I’d ever experienced in the States. And I mention this because I think it’s important to differentiate between those like me: that self-identified as “Asian”-American, when so many others were forced into identifying as Asian-“American”. Because as an American, this movie didn’t feel like a big deal to me.

But then the movie came out and I saw so much excitement and support for the movie that I decided to watch and support the opening weekend. To do my small part in telling Hollywood that representation matters. Because that’s what I’ve been taught. Representation matters. But before this point I never really felt it. Simply because it’s hard to feel something when all you’ve ever experienced is the lack thereof.

And the movie delivered. Before on the big screen the only Asian characters I had seen were martial artists, servants, ninjas, or laughing-stocks. Characters present for comic relief, with little to no agenda or complexity. But the cast of Crazy Rich Asians brought me something I had never seen before, and that was a diverse set of Asian characters. They’re each different, and unique, and emotionally complex, and strong, and desirable, and beautiful, while importantly, still distinctly Asian. The characters didn’t have to be “the Asian this-or-that” because that wasn’t the quality that differentiated them from anyone else. And while we’re still a long ways off from, say, a movie with mostly Asian actors or actresses where the plot doesn’t depend on their Asian-ness, it was really damn relieving to see that Asian-ness represented on-screen.

The American in me didn’t care. But the Asian in me loved every minute of it.

I watched the movie with my brother, and afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I couldn’t quite place why. It was a good movie, sure, but was it amazing? Groundbreaking? We left the theater, and after we got home, he said something that’ll stick with me for a while. A thought that had been rolling around my head, but wasn’t entirely articulated yet:

“Is this how white people always get to feel after watching a movie?”

And that’s when I felt that representation mattered. Felt it deeper than skin and touch. Deeper than an intellectual understanding. But felt it in the core of me, with force that was only possible through a story that was written for me. And I don’t want to speak for others but it seems like I’m not the only one that felt this way. I’ve been seeing an outpouring of Asian and Asian-American stories about how this movie has made people feel, and it feels like I’m part of something larger. That I’m not alone, but that there’s an entire group of people out there with experiences and backgrounds similar to mine who hunger to be seen and heard in the same way that I do.

The Asian-American experience is so often defined by the confusion associated with being a part of two cultures, neither of which are entirely yours. Add to that the Asian tendency to not talk about personal struggle, and I think, as a result, it has often felt like the sense of community has been lost, which movie-producers have interpreted as a lack of interest, or a “self-hating community” (https://twitter.com/thumbelulu/status/1031371906543493120). Even as I write this now, a part of me worries what my friends and peers might think of me, having so many feelings towards a simple rom-com, but I feel like this is important enough for me to push that aside.

Crazy Rich Asians is important, not only for what it shows us is possible, but also in giving us something to rally around as a community —another, more visible reason to love the culture we come from — a space to talk about and discuss our experiences, which are unique, and beautiful, but at the same time common amongst us. Experiences we, or at least I, have not been able to talk through with my parents because, as immigrants, what they grew up in and experienced as “their culture” was so different.

But stories have been coming out and continue to come out, and here are a couple that I’m happy to be able to share, on the subject of: the importance of stories that tell us we belong, that tell us we are the heroes and heroines, and that we are important and seen; written by people I don’t know, but now respect and relate to in a way I’ve never experienced:

Finally, thank you so much to Jon M Chu and the cast of Crazy Rich Asians for giving me and so many others the ability to watch something like this, and feel everything we’ve felt in response.

“We’re going to own that term. If we’re going to be called yellow, we’re going to make it beautiful.”
-Jon M Chu

I feel seen. I feel heard.

#RepresentationMatters #CrazyRichAsians #YellowAndProud