Monday, November 18, 2019

Life After “Crazy Rich Asians”

Thoughts on Chinese identity after watching "Crazy Rich Asians"

2018 is the year that Asian representation made history in Hollywood, with the release of Crazy Rich Asians, a mainstream Hollywood-backed romantic comedy featuring an all-Asian cast, the movie has been widely praised as a “catalyst for more diversity in Hollywood”.

In Japan, the movie soon hit the theatres after the US release date, but for some reason it was treated more like arthouse like it was only available in selected cinemas – perhaps due to the lack of recognizable brand name cast for the Japanese audience.

But it didn’t matter to me! I had already seen too much English-language media coverage online and interview clips about the actors and director to even think about missing the chance to support this all-Asian effort in the theatres.

But honestly, although this post is not a movie review per se, after watching Crazy Rich Asians I felt my expectations were somehow let down.

Despite the talented performance by the diverse Asian cast, the plot itself was quite disappointing as it lacked the weight and nuances to stand out as something that could potentially be perception-changing for Asian culture, at least seen from my perspective.

I wondered if the movie could have got the same reception had it not been for the all-Asian value proposition, which arises at the perfect timing when the public has been craving for something to reverse the tide after years of Hollywood white-washing criticisms, which even inspired the hashtag movement of #starringjohncho on social media.

I think it’s fair to say that I appreciated the movie’s significance in changing the image of Asian actors and actresses working as a minority in the movie industry, but not as much on what it does for portraying Asian culture or improving the perception and the status of Asian culture in the Western society.

What this movie did do tremendously well is that it has helped spark an ongoing conversation about Asian culture representation in the Western media. Most importantly, due to the fact that many of the actors and actresses are children of Asian immigrant parents, the movie in an inevitable way also cracked open a discussion about the experience of growing up as an Asian immigrant in America or in the U.K. – as a result, many Asians with an immigrant family, including some of the cast themselves started to voice their reflections on their own immigrant identities.

As the US media swooned over the movie and invited the cast to talk shows and interviews, I saw more and more clips of Asian actors like Constance Wu, Awkwafina and even the director Jon Chu talking about their Asian identity and what it’s like “being Asian in America”.

There is also a Twitter story that went viral after the Chinese-American journalist Kimberly Yam posted a series of tweets capturing her childhood feeling of “I don’t want to be Chinese anymore” because being Chinese wasn’t cool back then. She wrote “You’ve never seen a cast like this in Hollywood. Everyone is beautiful. You’re so happy you’re Chinese,” after she saw the box office hit.

One of my favorite interviews from the “Crazy Asian” empire was comedian and actor Jimmy O. Yang’s talk at Google. Although not part of the main cast, Jimmy’s appearance in Crazy Rich Asians and in the hit HBO TV show Silicon Valley seemed to have prompted him to reflect on growing up “as the Asian kid with strict Chinese parents”, which led to him publishing his biographical book How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents.

My favorite part of the video is when he said “one of the most painful things when I first came here, wasn’t the fact that, say, black people, Latino, white people didn’t accept me, because I was the foreign kid. I expected that. But one of the most painful things was like, the American-born Asian people didn’t accept me, because they didn’t want to be grouped in as like a FOB, the fresh off the boat guy.” He went on to say that he “felt pretty strongly about this, and wanted to make immigrants just as appealing, just as sexy and just as funny as a perfectly English-speaking person.” I thought to myself this is so true! I didn’t know even for Jimmy O. Yang he had to deal with the same prejudice faced by many immigrants, and I could certainly relate to that. While Asian-American representation has been the main media focus, Jimmy is someone who is publicly rooting for the representation of immigrants in mainstream media, which got me quite emotional while watching him say that.

If you read the comments below the YouTube video, you’ll notice many were about how they are impressed by Jimmy’s “authenticity” and “he can be really comfortable and confident in himself,” as an Asian-American guy.

At the end of the Q&A in this video, Jimmy replied to one of the audience’s question about thought leadership on diversity issues that has been a hot topic in many of the big tech companies. “We are all immigrants, and people should be proud of who they are. How do you tell people to do that?”, to this question, Jimmy responded “I think it’s hard to tell people that. Even if you turn on the TV, for things like immigration issues it’s so politicized with two sides and people are always arguing. That’s why I wanted to write a book like this, where it’s just me telling my story, and hopefully it humanizes the immigrant experience, right? So people can see it from my point of view, in a humorous and lighthearted way, and really understand what it was like to be an immigrant… Just showing them who you are, letting them know you as an immigrant, and I think that does more work than arguing with someone.”

I highly recommend you watch the whole interview if you haven’t.

I moved to the UK alone to attend school when I was 16, lived with several British host families until I could move out to live with some British roommates around 17. Then I moved to Oxford for university and then my family immigrated to the US around that time, so I eventually moved to NYC for work at 21 after college and became an American citizen at the age of 26. And at 27 I moved again to Japan where I had to learn Japanese to survive working here.

Because of these experiences of living in different countries, I always felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness which is hard to explain to people I met. It certainly does not help in making friends in new places because I cannot easily open up, or I just give up hope of being understood by people who didn’t experience the same things.

I felt my immigrant experiences had made me too unique/different to properly fit into any kind of culture. Now I would laugh at myself thinking about this but I had the typical FOB phase where I really thought I need to shy away from things related to where I came from in order to assimilate. I remember I ate only potatoes, bread, cheese and pasta for two years and never cooked Chinese food when I first arrived in England. Believe me, as a teenager it absolutely felt like the right thing to do.

But now I understand it’s okay to be different.

I think the media enthusiasm for Crazy Rich Asians managed to impart something far more meaningful than the buzzy film itself.  The debate surrounding Asian representations and identities in places with immigrant minorities is like the perfect medicine that cures those identity-related insecurities. Now I look back at my life I feel that I have gained more confidence to talk about it.

Thanks to Jimmy O Yang and the Asian directors and writers making Hollywood movies like this, I realized the power in our individual voices and our stories. This kind of storytelling can really change the world.

I host the podcast series "Culture Eats Japanese For Breakfast". Now available on Spotify or your favorite podcast apps.


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