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Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding, and Constance Wu (from left to right) in the film ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’ (© 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and RatPac-Dune Entertainment LLC)

Sophia's World

Crazy Rich Asians and me

Reflections from a Korean-American on the film phenomenon

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

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Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa via AP ()

Sophia's World

An evening with Dennis Prager

A Jew and a Christian muse about goodness, loving God, and bacon

I think it’s fair to say that anyone who has met Dennis Prager in person would have a hard time disliking the man. You can disagree with his politics, reject his Jewish faith, and criticize his decisions, but sit with the conservative pundit for an hour and you’ll find that he is a down-to-earth, humble guy who’s genuinely interested in people. 

When I asked Prager’s wife Sue if I could interview him for a story (she’s the strict gatekeeper of Prager’s schedule, since it’s his nature to say yes to everything), she invited me to their house. That evening, a crew from PragerU was also there to shoot an episode of “Fireside Chat with Dennis Prager,” a series of short live videos in which Prager sits by the roaring fire in his study and muses about anything from LeBron James to human nature to his favorite cigars. 

So there I sat on a couch, letting Prager’s pudgy, droopy-eyed bulldog Otto slobber over me, when Prager showed up and boomed in his baritone voice, “Well, hello!” He then held up two ties and asked, “Which one matches my shirt?” We decided on the crimson tie, and as he swung it around his neck, he suddenly remembered that he ought to shave. A few minutes later, he was sitting by the fire, cracking jokes as he ran an electric razor around his chin. 

Meanwhile, Otto had plopped down at the one spot where he got in everybody’s way. “Look at him,” Prager marveled, looking delighted. “He couldn’t have picked a worse spot!” Otto soon began snoring loudly with the tip of his pink tongue sticking out, and he was still snoring when the video went live, featuring Prager puffing a fat cigar and pondering the importance of college. (It’s only as important as you make it, he concluded.) 

Prager is a natural speaker—he needs no script, just an abstract thought in his mind that he’ll flesh out into something practical that you can grasp and use. Example: That evening, he challenged parents to ask their children, “What do you think I, your dad or your mom, most want you to be: smart, successful, happy, or good?” And then he said, “Very few parents get the answer ‘good.’ And that should be ... instructive. It means you have not communicated that that’s the most important thing you want your child to be. And the truth is, I don’t think most parents want their child to be good”—at least not as top priority, he said. 

Prager inhaled on his cigar, then continued, “But here’s the killer: Everybody wants everybody else to have ‘being good’ the most important thing in their life. ... But they themselves—that’s not their No. 1 priority!” He let out a wry chuckle and shook his cigar. “Now you know why the world is screwed up!” 

That evening after the shoot, Prager and I drove five minutes down to a family-run diner, where Prager ordered a salad. I ordered a dish with bacon, and when I apologized (Prager keeps kosher), he exclaimed, “Bacon is delicious, are you kidding? I still remember the taste!” 

Turns out, in his early 20s, Prager decided to break some of the Jewish religious laws. Not wanting to break his parents’ hearts, he broke the laws only when he was far away in England as a study-abroad student. He may have tried octopus and pork chops, but even then, Prager tried to keep the Ten Commandments. From the day he left his parents’ house till the day they died, he called them every week, simply because God had said, “Honor your father and your mother.” 

Now, at age 69, having written several best-selling books and created an immensely popular media platform, Prager still tries to keep the Ten Commandments. He contends that if everyone in the world were to accept and obey the Ten Commandments as God-breathed, God-mandated law, then people would be kinder to one another: Peace and justice and goodness would reign. The reason the world is so “screwed up” right now is because people would rather determine good and evil for themselves. “That’s their greatest religion,” Prager said. “Ultimately, they hate the idea that there’s an authority called God. And that’s what I fight against.”

While Prager chewed on his salad, I chewed on what he’d said. It’s not just “those people” who fail to follow the Ten Commandments. It’s me, too. When the Pharisees asked Jesus to name the great commandment, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This, Jesus declared, “is the great and first commandment”—yet it’s a commandment that I break time and time again by placing other things ahead of God in my thoughts and desires. 

Prager agreed: “The hardest law for me in the Torah is to love God.” Jesus said the second great commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself”—but it’s difficult to love God when you love your neighbors, Prager said: “If you love human beings, how can you love a God who allows them to endure such suffering?” That’s why his favorite verse in Scripture is Psalm 97:10: “Let those who love the LORD hate evil.” In a way, it simplifies the commandments for him: To love God is to pursue goodness, because God is good and wants us to be good.

Though I agreed, I also felt that alone falls short of the commandment to love God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my might. Prager is primarily preoccupied with the evil out there in the world, which makes it hard for him to love God, while I’m primarily grieved by the evil inside of me—the inability to love God with my whole being. 

But that’s why I so resonate with Psalm 42, where the author moans, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” I’m in awe of the longing love in Psalm 27, when David sings, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.” And I understand the astounded, responsive love of Lamentations 3:22, when Jeremiah gasps, “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.”

Prager and I both agree it’s not easy to love God. We might differ on how to do so: Prager would probably say he strives to better observe the Law, while for me, the more I try to obey the Law, the more I discover that I can never live up to God’s standards—and that’s why I so desperately need Jesus Christ. 

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Sophia's World

Jordan Peterson’s spiritual appeal

The Toronto professor may not be a born-again believer, but he’s fueling a resurgence of interest in Christianity

Recently I wrote an article about three public intellectuals who are influencing the minds of young people: Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and Dennis Prager. They’re three very different styles of thinkers. Peterson is a dour-faced, thinking-out-loud Jungian psychologist in Toronto who can pontificate about life’s inevitable sufferings for three hours. Shapiro is a barb-tongued, Orthodox Jewish pundit who led the Never Trump movement. Prager is a down-to-earth, gregarious talk show host who has taught the Torah to Jews and non-Jews for decades. Shapiro and Prager both believe in God as a personal, divine being.

Peterson, on the other hand, takes a Darwinian yet transcendental interpretation of the Bible. For example: The cross, he writes, is “simultaneously, the point of greatest suffering, the point of death and transformation, and the symbolic centre of the world.” Christ is symbolically the one who “determines to take personal responsibility for the full depth of human depravity,” while Satan is the embodiment of “arrogance, incarnate; spite, deceit, and cruel, conscious malevolence. He is pure hatred of Man, God and, Being.” Meanwhile, God is “the highest value in the hierarchy of values,” Peterson says. God is “that in which we manifest necessary faith.” He is the “voice of conscience.”

If you’re confused by how all that fits into a clear religious worldview, don’t worry— so are his fans, who spend hours in internet chatrooms trying to decipher Peterson’s frustratingly ambiguous religious views, and probably so is Peterson himself, who’s still in the process of developing his own beliefs. Perhaps that’s why people find him so fascinating—here’s a highly intelligent man who so values the art of thinking, that every lecture is a public demonstration of him airing out his meditations, insights, and questions in an eloquent stream of consciousness.

Though Peterson gained instant fame in 2016 by poking a political landmine (he opposed a Canadian bill that added gender identity and gender expression to the Canadian Human Rights Act), people who follow his lectures know that the meat of his message is not political. Most of his lectures delve into deeper questions such as how to bear the tragedies and injustices of life, the struggle between good and evil, and how to find meaning in life.

When Peterson speaks of these ideas, his forehead knots into lines of earnestness, his voice tightens with urgency, and he paces and gazes at his audience, as though beseeching them to join him on his quest to understand the world—our world, together—a world so saturated with information and entertainment, yet so devoid of wisdom. Though he doesn’t profess to know it all, he articulates his ideas with such conviction that many listeners can’t help accepting what he says as truth.

That’s concerning for Peterson’s detractors, who see him as a sort of snake oil-peddling, pseudoscientific, pseudo-Christian missionary preaching to a cult of followers. From a gospel point of view, if Peterson is indeed a modern prophet, he’s a full-blown heretic. But here’s the most fascinating thing about Peterson’s appeal, at least from my perspective as a Christian: For some crazy reason, people are getting curious about Christianity because of him.

But here’s the most fascinating thing about Peterson’s appeal, at least from my perspective as a Christian: For some crazy reason, people are getting curious about Christianity because of him.

Paul Vander Klay is a pastor in Sacramento, Calif., who recognized this strange phenomenon and took advantage of it. When Vander Klay first watched Peterson’s 15-part lecture series about the Bible on YouTube and saw that he was speaking to a packed auditorium, he almost fell out of his chair: “I have friends who have churches in Toronto with plenty of empty seats, but people were paying $30 a pop to hear this guy ramble about the Bible! What’s going on?”

Vander Klay then began viewing every available material concerning Peterson, and soon realized that while Peterson was attempting to explain the psychological significance of the Bible, no Bible-believing Christian that he knew of was point-by-point dissecting (or refuting) Peterson’s ideas from a Biblical point of view. What’s more, Vander Klay saw comments in chatrooms from atheists and agnostics who said that after listening to Peterson, they wanted to learn more about Christianity. Peterson stoked their curiosity in God—but couldn’t lead them to Him.

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