Listen to this story
Ever since speculation about a movie based on Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians began, people have asked me if I was going to see it, since it’s set in Singapore, where I lived for six months. I’ve always answered yes, of course, because it’s the first movie with a majority-Asian cast with Asian-American leads since The Joy Luck Club came out in 1993 (25 years ago!), and because I’ll watch anything with Constance Wu and Gemma Chan in it. But I didn’t have high hopes for the movie itself, mostly because I didn’t really like the book that much.
But then I started reading about the film before its release, and about the incredible journey it took just to get it made. I read about the determination, grit, and shared struggles of the cast in their respective quests for representation. I read about the hopes and dreams people had pinned to this movie because of their own experiences of being Asian in America. I read this thread on Twitter, holding back tears the entire time.
To be clear: the hopes and dreams of an entire people is an exorbitant amount of cultural expectation for any movie to carry. Crazy Rich Asians faced significant criticism for the cast not being “Asian enough,” the many concerns about ethnic representation within the Singaporean setting, and complaints about the movie’s extravagance being unrelatable to most of its Asian audience.
We will not see all of ourselves in any single movie. But for now, we have to cobble together what bits and pieces of ourselves we can, from what we’re given.
A recent think piece, entitled “The Problem With Crazy Rich Asians Is That It’s Not Actually About Us,” addresses this criticism head-on:
The pressures we’ve placed on this movie, too, have taken on a very American flavor. We celebrate it as the first Hollywood movie since Joy Luck Club to feature an all-Asian cast or an all Asian-American cast… We bemoan the lack of diversity represented in its depictions of Singapore, which is also a country of immigrants in which Chinese-Singaporeans are the majority ethnic group (the equivalent of white people in America). We question whether British-Malaysian actor Henry Golding is “Asian” enough, despite the fact that he is one of the few people who can actually and fluently speak a non-English Singaporean language — Malay — in the movie. And we’re expected to believe that Korean-American actor Ken Jeong can explain away his character Goh Wye Mun’s American drawl as a product of his having gone to college in Fullerton, California.
These are logical conversations to have in a high-stakes scenario. After all, there have been so few mainstream stories told about the Asian-American experience. Rightfully resentful Asian-Americans need a place to hang a quarter centuries’ worth of concerns about underrepresentation, misrepresentation, and whitewashing — it’s just a shame that we’re behaving like there won’t ever be another chance to get it right again.
When the movie was finally released, I watched it with my two housemates. All three of us cried. They recognized Nick’s family in people they’d known. I empathized with Constance Wu’s Rachel, who identified with two cultures, only to be rejected by one of them. And the feeling of watching Asian women — beautiful, strong, flawed, complex Asian women — fill the screen with so much raw emotion felt like both triumph and heartbreak, because it wasn’t until now that I’d become fully aware of just how rare that was.
And seeing beautiful, glittering Singapore, almost a year and a half after I’d left it behind, filled me with so much nostalgia. The whole film was so evocative of the incomparable sense of wonder you feel when you visit the island for the first time: the joyful, boisterous food culture; the distinctive beauty of the architecture; the strength of traditional familial bonds mixed with modern idiosyncrasies. Seeing carrot cake and satay and ban mian hawker centers on the big screen made my heart ache a little bit. Even the small details — the way they called AC “aircon” or placed small packets of tissues on the tables to chope — made me miss it.
But most of all, there was something inherently and overwhelmingly emotional about seeing a Chinese-American woman wandering around Singapore, in the exact places I’d felt like a stranger so many times. There was the gorgeously ostentatious wedding at CHIJMES. Eleanor walking into the mahjong parlor on the street where I’d gone to a night market my first week. Nick proposing to Rachel on the steps of Esplanade Park overlooking Marina Bay, where I’d sometimes walk on nice days, enjoying the sunshine and panoramic view of the sparkling blue water. The opulent wedding reception at Gardens by the Bay, where I’d seen Christmas lights during the Winter Wonderland season. It reminded me of how much I loved it all.
The week before watching Crazy Rich Asians, I had watched the Netflix movie To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, which was a different kind of familiar. Unlike Crazy Rich Asians, it wasn’t heavily advertised; it was quietly, unassumingly released as a Netflix original movie. It immediately became a surprise hit, extolled as “the breakout movie of the summer,” credited with helping revitalize the rom-com, and praised for everything from its natural chemistry between the leads to its cinematography, a candy-colored homage to American-as-apple-pie ‘80s/‘90s rom-coms, with references to Sixteen Candles and an abundance of velvet chokers, collared shirts, and platform shoes.
But the film’s most notable accolade, and the one that resonated with me the most, is its status as a milestone for Asian-American representation. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is the first romantic comedy ever expressly written for an Asian-American girl. Rather than play up the contrast between Asians and Asian-Americans for the sake of cognitive ease, it normalized Asian-Americans by portraying them as they are — born and raised in American culture. For Lara Jean Song Covey, the film’s half-Korean, half-white protagonist, ethnicity is an integral part of identity but does not define her entirely. This movie has given the extraordinary Lana Condor, who plays Lara Jean, the opportunity to shine, despite all of Hollywood passing her over (just watch the movie and then watch her interviews — her voice, mannerisms, and even her facial expressions are carefully manufactured for this character).
The movie isn’t supposed to be a lesson in navigating racial identity or fitting in — the premise of the film does not rely on her Asianness, nor does it attempt to delve into complex themes of racial tension. In fact, there is little mention of race at all, except for her father’s efforts to keep his daughters connected to their late mother’s culture by making Korean food, and her younger sister Kitty’s love of “Korean yogurt smoothies.” The Song Coveys are depicted as a contemporary American family with its own unique dynamic.
It is such a joy to watch an Asian girl fall in love, treated as any other girl would be treated by the boy who loves her in a wholesome teen romantic comedy.
Films sometimes lean one way or the other, adopting a cavalier attitude toward racial insensitivities, or awkwardly twisting conversational dialogue to accommodate some kind of moral realization. But To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before does neither. After Noah Centineo’s Peter points out that Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles is “kinda racist,” and Lara Jean corrects him (“extremely racist”), there is no teaching moment or exploration of white ignorance. He acknowledges the new information and moves on, simple as that. The movie successfully depicts an Asian female/white male dynamic without tokenizing, fetishizing, or exoticizing. It’s not an Asian-American love story; it’s simply a love story in which one of the participants is Asian-American. And it’s such a joy to watch an Asian girl fall in love, treated as any other girl would be treated by the boy who loves her, in a wholesome teen romantic comedy. It wasn’t trying to send a message; instead, it was a shining example of beautiful execution of the rom-com format.
This is a key aspect of Asian representation: validating everyday Asian and Asian-American stories without the central focus being Asianness.
Leonard Chang, a Korean-American author, once wrote that one of his novels was rejected because his characters didn’t register as “Asian enough” to a white editor:
“They act like everyone else. They don’t eat Korean food, they don’t speak Korean, and you have to think about ways to make these characters more ‘ethnic,’ more different. We get too much of the minutiae of [the characters’] lives and none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us. For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes, or how she thinks of her Asianness.”
And that’s why the recently-publicized “Lunch Box Moment” is so relatable in how frustrating and disorienting it can be. Most of us aren’t constantly thinking about our Asianness— we see ourselves as “the rest of us” until other people treat us otherwise. To assume racial identity is the only interesting about someone is both insulting and patronizingly reductive. And stories like this highlight exactly how many ridiculous expectations we still have of what Asians and Asian-Americans should or should not look like, act like, speak like.
Real representation is not attempting to portray a collective Asian-American experience in broad brushstrokes, but it makes a greater effort to tell richly nuanced stories in fine detail.
Not every Asian-American has had a Lunch Box Moment, but that doesn’t invalidate any experiences as an Asian-American. It doesn’t stop people from grouping you in with four billion other people. It doesn’t stop catcalls of “ni hao” or “konnichiwa” when you’re walking on the street. It doesn’t stop people from asking you if you find something offensive, simply because you’re the only Asian person in the room to use as a frame of reference. Asian-Americans are diverse, and their experiences are equally such.
Media is powerful in changing our perception of what the world “should” look like, and that’s important. One mention of a yogurt smoothie can change its visibility in the American landscape and turn it into a sold-out drink. We will not see all of ourselves in any single movie. But for now, we have to cobble together what bits and pieces of ourselves we can, from what we’re given. The best thing we can do is keep showing up, keep proving that these kinds of stories are in demand.
Crazy Rich Asians is only a small stepping stone in our path to the representation that we deserve. But what it does do well is portray the Asian-American experience of being treated as perpetual foreigners wherever we are. It’s easy to dismiss Asian-Americans as “the model minority (which has been repeatedly refuted and actually proven to be limiting), but that fails to acknowledge the dismissal of Asian-Americans in other countries as well. The Refinery29 piece also describes something called the “Motherland Moment,” the experience of being ostracized or discriminated against in your own country of ancestry, something frequently glossed over but I understand well. There’s something equally disconcerting about feeling like an outsider in a country full of people that look like you. I’ve always loved my culture, but I’ve still felt unloved by it, and Crazy Rich Asians was first movie I’ve seen that acknowledges such a dynamic.
The Guardian posed a valuable question when considering the cultural impact of this film: “Was Princess Diaries expected to explore colonialism, or Ocean’s 8 asked to expound on the dangers of glorifying organized crime?” We cannot expect one movie to atone for decades of injustice and misrepresentation. This movie was just the start of a movement: of empowerment, entitlement, and the work of reclaiming both our Asian and our American selves.
These movies won’t mean everything to everyone, as they shouldn’t. Real representation is not attempting to portray a collective Asian-American experience in broad brushstrokes, but it makes a greater effort to tell richly nuanced stories in fine detail, asserting that Asian-Americans are worthy of a presence in mainstream culture and of having their stories told in different shades and layers.
Of all the poignant analyses of Crazy Rich Asians, I thought Chrissy Teigen’s was the most articulate: “You never know how much you miss being represented on screen until you actually see what it’s like to be represented.”
Originally published on jayemsey.com