“Always Be My Maybe”: Not Just an Asian American Rom-Com, But a Universal Rom-Com
To combat misperceptions about our incredibly multifaceted community, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC advocates for fair and equal representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) behind and in front of the camera. Historically, AAPIs have been depicted in one-dimensional and often dehumanizing ways, but we have seen significant strides in recent years. We are delighted to introduce our blog series entitled, “Milestones and Missed Cues,” which examines movies and television shows featuring AAPI characters by asking a few important questions: Does the movie or show move the perception of AAPIs in a positive direction? Does the movie or show challenge the notion of what it means to be a “mainstream” movie instead of an “ethnic” movie? How do media platforms and outlets discuss the movie or show? How do social media users talk about the movie or show?
by Linh Nguyen
Ali Wong wasn’t a household name outside of the comedy world until her first stand-up special, Baby Cobra, aired on Netflix in 2016. The special, during which she humorously discusses motherhood and feminism while six months pregnant, catapulted her to stardom and laid the groundwork for her second Netflix special, Hard Knock Wife, and a lead role in an animated comedy series called Tuca and Bertie. Inspired to create a romantic comedy focused on the stories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), Wong and actor Randall Park decided to write and act opposite one another in Always Be My Maybe, which was released in May. In addition to being hilarious, the movie represents AAPIs in a positive and multi-dimensional way and proves that stories starring people of color have broad appeal.
Wong plays the role of Sasha Tran, a confident and outspoken Vietnamese American celebrity chef who runs her own restaurants and manages stores across different cities. Her hard work allows her to take the world by storm, winning multiple awards and earning the recognition she deserves. Through this character, Always Be My Maybe rejects the stereotype that AAPIs only pursue careers in STEM.
As the movie progresses, Wong introduces more depth to Sasha’s character by portraying her as a strong, yet sensitive woman. Unlike historical depictions of AAPI women as one-dimensional and stereotypical props, Sasha is allowed to feel the full range of human emotion. For example, after Sasha tells her manager that her fiancé wants a break from their relationship, Sasha pretends to do inventory but in fact goes inside the storage room and cries. This nuanced representation not only feels refreshing, but also transcends our community through its ability to relate to any viewer, no matter their background.
As a romantic comedy, Always Be My Maybe also excels at creating quirky, funny, and endearing scenes between two AAPI characters. The audience watches Sasha and Marcus as they navigate the early stages of their relationship, as well as when they experience inevitable bumps as the relationship progresses. While the movie makes numerous references to the couple’s AAPI identities, it ultimately chooses to depict them, and their relationship, in a multi-dimensional way. The opportunity to watch two AAPI actors engage in romantic scenes, as a result, is both extremely empowering and universally relatable.
Even when Always Be My Maybe moves the ball forward regarding AAPI representation, it stays true to its AAPI roots by making food the focal point of the story. The movie begins with a scene in which a young Marcus and Sasha enjoy homemade kimchi-jjigae with Marcus’ parents. In a later scene, an adult Sasha is reminded of these one-of-a-kind food experiences when she and Marcus eat at a dim sum restaurant. These depictions of food show how it ties AAPI communities together and reminds us of our cultural uniqueness.
Additionally, food functions as a device that Sasha uses to justify her conflicting desires between adapting to modernity and maintaining her cultural heritage. To reach a larger audience, Sasha opens an Asian fusion restaurant in Los Angeles and becomes well-known for expertly blending Asian cuisine with other cuisines. However, Marcus criticizes her for being a sellout, since she is making “elevated Asian cuisine” when Asian food should instead be served in a “big ass bowl.” Food serves to highlight deeper identity issues that many AAPIs, along with other people of color, experience as they grow up in the United States: Should we try to fit in, and risk losing part of our identities in the process, or conform to long-standing traditions?
Since its release on Netflix, Always Be My Maybe has received positive feedback from media platforms and press alike. InStyle’s Michelle Yang applauded the movie for “[capturing] the experience of the Asian diaspora while subverting one stereotype after another, zapping the Hollywood tropes that have plagued Asian actors for decades.” In The New Yorker, Jiayang Fan wrote that the experience of watching her “own existential questions explored onscreen, packaged into an old-fashioned rom-com” made her feel “understood, unequivocally, as American.” Padma Lakshmi, who made a special appearance in the movie, tweeted: “This is such a sweet movie & such a win for Asians everywhere.” Furthermore, Phil Yu, the creator of Angry Asian Man, complimented Always Be My Maybe for showing “facets within facets” of the AAPI community and proving that “we can be the center” of a movie.
Always Be My Maybe is an enjoyable and refreshing watch, but there are still parts of the movie that need further development. It follows the romantic comedy formula by focusing on the stories of Sasha and Marcus, but beyond this duo, many other characters’ stories are left unexplored — including that of Sasha’s parents, who admit that they disregarded her childhood and now want to make it up to her. In addition, the movie includes a joke mocking apparently able-bodied drivers using handicapped tags to get better parking, which a HuffPost piece notes as “an ignorant bit that discounts the validity of invisible disabilities.”
Despite these issues, Always Be My Maybe follows the success of Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before as another breakthrough for AAPI representation on the big screen. This movie stands out, in my opinion, thanks to the relatability of the characters and its ability to deliver messages to viewers who don’t necessarily belong to AAPI communities. Its success represents a great foundation for other AAPI filmmakers to create movies featuring people who look like us and tell our stories.
Linh Nguyen is a communications intern with Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.