The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
Over the past few months, many Asian-Americans have been quivering with anticipation for a movie they say they’ve been awaiting for too long: When was the last time we Asian-Americans had a major Hollywood production with an all-Asian cast? One that doesn’t involve karate chops, nerdy inch-thick glasses, and white-faced, oversexualized geishas? Trailers for Crazy Rich Asians ran on my social media feeds for weeks before the premiere, the algorithms theorizing that since I’m Korean-American and like movies, I would probably want to see two Asian lead characters smooch on screen.
So after the movie finally hit theaters on Aug. 15, I dutifully went to see it—not because I particularly wanted to watch it (I dislike romantic comedies; the typically sappy dialogue makes me gag), but because of the enormous buzz and hype in my social circles.
“GO WATCH THIS MOVIE!” my Asian-American friends exclaimed on Facebook and Instagram. Many Asian-Americans praised the film with sobbing, heart, and dancing emojis: “The movie made me cry happy sad tears!” “Finally, a movie about people who look like me!” “The movie that finally breaks the glass ceiling.” “Historic moment for Asian-Americans.” And the main message everyone proclaimed was, “GO SUPPORT ASIAN-AMERICANS!”
The pressure was on: If we hyphenated Americans didn’t swarm to the theaters to boost the film’s box-office ratings, we might lose the one rare chance in which Asian-Americans are the spotlight in Hollywood. Multiple publications reminded us that the last major American studio film to feature a majority-Asian cast in a nonperiod setting was The Joy Luck Club in 1993—that’s 25 years ago. That movie had moderate success, but nothing like the success of Black Panther. If Crazy Rich Asians could prove to business suits that Asian-Americans are indeed a profitable market, maybe we could finally have faces on the big screen that regularly reflected the diversity of Americans today—faces that reflect us.
Crazy Rich Asians is a movie adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel, which I read years ago. The plot revolves around Chinese-American economics professor Rachel Chu (played in the film by Constance Wu) and her Singaporean lover Nick Young (Henry Golding), who brings her to his hometown to meet the family. Turns out, Nick is like the “Prince William of Asia”: His family lives in an opulent castle in the middle of some secluded rainforest and wears $1.2 million earrings and parties in super-yachts with rocket launchers. It’s a modern-day Cinderella tale injected with immigrant themes such as the clash between an Americanized upbringing and traditional Chinese family roles. It includes familiar scenes such as relatives sitting at the table together, pinching dough around pork into dumplings.
I was surprised the first major film to supposedly represent Asian-Americans was based off of that book. After all, it was an over-the-top story about the extreme minority of minorities, the top 1 percent of the rich 1 percent, the impossibly privileged class: How could such a group claim to represent the vast majority of Asian-Americans like me?
“Oh well, it’s just a movie,” I told myself as I purchased my ticket. Except ... it wasn’t “just a movie.” I sensed in me the same resistance I felt toward the racialized rhetoric surrounding the hit superhero film Black Panther—that insinuation that somehow, I had to “support” a movie as a minority because of the skin color of its cast.
That kind of race-focused narrative felt dangerous to me: If I had hated Black Panther (in fact, I loved it), would that be subconscious racism, since that movie has come to symbolize black pride? And what would it say about me if I watched Crazy Rich Asians and hated it? Would I be a self-hating Asian-American? After all, according to some people, I’m already one step toward supporting white supremacy now that I’m dating a blond-haired, blue-eyed, American-as-apple-pie boy.
Even before Crazy Rich Asians was released, already there were murmurs of disgruntlement: Members of various Asian ethnicities complained the movie didn’t represent their own Philippine, Malay, Indian, or Nepalese cultures and skin tones. One Singaporean writer said he was concerned that “the browner Asian characters are predominantly guards and domestic workers and drivers. That’s kind of oppressive, don’t you think?”
People also were offended that the actor who plays the male lead character is half white—spurring conversations over what constitutes “Asian enough.” Some, calling to attention the evils of cultural stereotypes, complained that a female character (played by rapper Nora Lum, aka Awkwafina) apparently performed the “sassy black sidekick caricature” with a so-called “blaccent.”
When a movie’s selling point is something as loaded and complex as race, it’s no wonder it sets off political and cultural landmines. This film was supposed to be a celebratory, unifying moment, yet it seemed to create divisions, with people using extremely loaded and ugly terms such as “oppression,” “honorary whites,” and “blackface.” And that turned me off.
Nevertheless, I tried to enjoy the film. It was the typical, mindlessly entertaining rom-com: sappy dialogue, predictable storyline, enviably beautiful faces, and a fairy-tale ending. On my left sat two African-American women who laughed louder and harder than anyone else in the mostly Asian audience. When Nick’s mother said something mean to Rachel, the black woman next to me muttered, “Oh, no ... that’s not right.” When Rachel moped over a broken heart, that same woman clucked her tongue in sympathy. When Nick took off his shirt, revealing smooth, chiseled abs, she whistled her approval.
No matter what skin color or cultural background you have, there are universal things all people can relate to: overbearing mothers, comfort food, meeting the potential in-laws…
No matter what skin color or cultural background you have, there are universal things all people can relate to: overbearing mothers, comfort food, meeting the potential in-laws, complicated friendships and romantic relationships, even a well-formed male physique. The biggest difference was that the characters portraying these universal human experiences had East Asian looks. They were way more beautiful than me, but they looked a lot more like me than Emma Stone or Scarlett Johansson. And though I didn’t cry happy-sad tears or feel the satisfaction of being “represented,” it felt ... well, nice.
No, my skin color shouldn’t define who I am, but it’s still the first thing people see: Before they get to know me as a person, they see that I’m a woman, and that I’m some sort of Asian. I may feel Americanized, but fellow Americans look at me and still see an Asian face. On the flip side, I may look Korean, but when I return to my hometown in South Korea, fellow Koreans look at my Americanized outfit, hear my accented Korean, and ask me where I’m really from. I’ve always thought that was natural deduction, not discrimination or microaggression.
I can’t shed my East Asian features, my Korean heritage, or my 10 childhood years in Singapore, even though I carry U.S. citizenship, weigh myself in pounds instead of kilograms, and uphold certain American values. And yes, I play to some Asian stereotypes—I scored well in AP Calculus, earned a black belt in tae kwon do, and played the piano. My father wears polo shirts tucked into high-waist trousers, and my mother perms her hair into that classic “Korean mom” hairdo. They eat kimchi with spaghetti, I eat salad with chopsticks. And if people think that’s weird, well, I’m totally content with being weird—because that’s part of the unique identity God gifted me.
—Read Sophia Lee’s movie review of Crazy Rich Asians: “Rollicking rom-com”