“Pursuing one’s passion … how American.”
This is a line in Crazy Rich Asians that is delivered coldly, from a Singaporean matriarch (played by Michelle Yeoh) to Rachel, a Chinese-American university professor (played by Constance Wu) who is dating her beloved son. It's clearly meant to offend more than praise, and it's an honest moment that many Chinese-Americans, like myself, will relate to.
In fact, there's so much in Crazy Rich Asians that I connect with. It's a groundbreaking film, as the first all-Asian ensemble Hollywood movie since 1993's Joy Luck Club, and for me, it's the first time I have seen something like my experience on the big screen.
Crazy Rich Asians may not be for everybody, but for me, it's my Wakanda moment. Much like with Marvel's Black Panther and the black community around the world, Asians finally have a film with a strong ensemble cast that we can be proud of. I hope, going forward, this means I see better representation in Hollywood.
In one scene Rachel’s mother tells her: “Your face is Chinese, you speak Chinese but you’re different”. At heart, she’s still an American. When I visit China and Hong Kong (the birthplaces of my parents), I too sense that people perceive me as different, even though I have the same dark eyes and jet-black hair.
Visiting Hong Kong:
This is an internal conflict many ABCs (American-Born Chinese) deal with. I sometimes feel like I’m not Asian enough. Even when I speak Cantonese, I speak in an American accent; and when I go out for Chinese meals with friends, and they ask me how to cook a certain dish, I’m genuinely at a loss.
I was five when the Joy Luck Club hit cinemas. The fact that it took until I was 30 for me to see an Asian woman in the classic Hollywood scene that sees the leading lady "transformed" and in a beautiful dress, says a lot about what the industry needs to catch up on.
I see myself in Rachel: her struggle is my struggle and my heart felt her every disappointment and triumph in the film. I loved seeing her in a blue Marchesa dress – a contrast from the usual appearance of the Asian woman in the “lucky colour” of red. And for the first time, I knew I had finally found a leading lady I could relate to, someone I really wanted to root for.
It matters to me to see someone who looks like me on the big screen. When you’re in between cultures, you can be left to wonder if you’re too Chinese to be American (which is what I struggled with growing up), or too American to be Chinese (which is what I struggle with now). At times, it can feel like you can’t really have one without giving up the other – which is something I’m still learning to balance this day.
A key point of identity contrast in the film, and in my life, is the idea of service towards your family. Traditionally, Chinese cultures are seen to sacrifice personal happiness for familial joy. But in the West, we’re told to pursue our own dreams and chase what makes us happy – something Eleanor, Michelle Yeoh’s Asian matriarch, claims is “an illusion” of contentment in the movie.
Having lived in the UAE for the past five years, I feel guilty at times for not being at home in the US with my ageing parents or younger sisters, but my parents have always been very supportive of my independence. Chasing after a career in journalism, I’ve found myself living halfway around the world in a place I probably never would have come to if it weren’t for their encouragement. For them, my personal happiness is important.
With my mother:
After all, underneath the movie’s fairy tale love story (which is, granted, a little cheesy at times), there’s an honest conversation about what it means to stay true to yourself and know who you are despite societal and cultural pressures. This topic isn’t a new one, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it tackled in a way that me, and millions of others around the world, can truly connect to.