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In All 36 Years Of My Life, I've Never Felt As 'Seen' As I Did Watching 'Crazy Rich Asians'

I started to hate the question, “Are you so excited for ‘Crazy Rich Asians’?”

Friends, coworkers, in-laws ― everyone wanted to hear how fry-me-a-dumpling, feng-shui-my-life-delighted I was about the upcoming movie. I admit, I did it to myself. After spending months leading up to the release reading the books, writing about the production, and ranting about Asian representation in the media, of course people expected me to want to talk about The Asian Movie of the Century. 

But after the first few “Oh my God, yes it’s so important …” responses I doled out, I couldn’t do it anymore. I was scared. I was scared that “Crazy Rich Asians” would let me down. That the hype couldn’t be real. That the all-Asian cast and largely Asian production team’s end product would be a “nice” movie that had to bend to the will of Orientalist Hollywood execs. That well-meaning white folks would call it revolutionary, and Asian folks would pick through the whitewashing for nuggets of authenticity in order to find a foothold for the next big Asian film in a couple decades.

I was afraid that we would have to settle for something that could have been. 

To the few (white) friends I expressed this fear to, some responded with, “I understand. But you can’t take a movie so personally. You can’t rest the future of Asian representation in America on a romantic comedy.”

“Easy for you to say,” I’d think.

When you grow up with a cornucopia of characters in the media to validate and echo your experience as a human, a movie full of people who look like you is boring. If you remotely fit into the white-thin-cis-straight-English-speaking Hollywood mold, mainstream media is not at all personal. Sheer numbers make it impersonal.

But when you can count on one hand how many times you’ve witnessed yourself, your experience, your culture reflected back to you with any level of realness, it becomes highly personal. If movies and television are supposed to cast an eye on the interesting stories of people who live in our communities, when nobody tells you stories, you start to question if you belong.

Overexposure is no doubt boring, even painful. But feeling unseen, aggressively ignored, is also deeply troubling. I live in this world, so isn’t my story valid?

In my 36 years, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so “seen” as I did while watching “Crazy Rich Asians.” I felt like this was a movie made for me, I haven’t felt that way since I saw “The Joy Luck Club” 25 years ago.

In my 36 years, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so 'seen' as I did while watching 'Crazy Rich Asians.'

And while that movie made me weep for my parents’ experiences, my grandparents’ experiences, the struggle of being Chinese American, “Crazy Rich Asians” made me weep for the exhilaration of being unapologetically Asian.

Now when I say I felt “seen” in the context of the movie, I don’t mean that I literally saw what my life looks like. 

Based on Kevin Kwan’s novel, the movie follows, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese American woman engaged to a Chinese Singaporean man, Nick Young (Henry Golding), as she traverses the minefield of meeting his “crazy rich” Chinese family in Singapore. They don’t approve of her being a poor girl from a mainland Chinese single mother who immigrated to America. She has to stand her ground; he has to stand his ground; wacky characters (among them the perfect Awkwafina and excellent Ken Jeong) help them out ― rom-com hijinks ensue!

This is an oversimplification, but that’s the basic story.

Yes, I’m Chinese American, but my family comes from Hong Kong ― not Singapore. I’ve never even been to Singapore. We are not crazy rich. I’ve never experienced the old money decadence portrayed in the movie.

But what I did see, what struck me to my core, was people I knew. Fully realized humans who walked that balance so precarious to moviemakers, of being both defined and undefined by their Asian culture and race. It’s called being human.

One of my pet peeves is when people describe characters as “just happening” to be Asian (or black or Latinx or what have you), their race not being important. “They could be anybody!”

But that’s not how people work. A person’s race always informs how they interact with the world. To ignore that is to ignore part of the essence of a person. 

“Crazy Rich Asians” didn’t ignore that, it embraced it. I felt seen in that the characters were all undeniably Asian, they couldn’t be anything else, but so much of the “Asianness” I related to was not overt. 

A person’s race always informs how they interact with the world. To ignore that is to ignore part of the essence of a person. 'Crazy Rich Asians' didn’t ignore that, it embraced it.

Yes, you can point to the way the Rachel’s best friend Peik Lin’s “new money” family hunkers down at their home banquet to gossip about finances and the success (or lack thereof) of their children, or the way Nick’s mother Eleanor (played by the iconic Michelle Yeoh) politely but savagely sizes up the woman who will never be good enough for her only son. You can even point to the brilliant mahjong scene in which Rachel and Eleanor go toe to toe, surrendering their hands in both the game and in life (a scene that is especially powerful if you know the rules of Chinese mahjong).

That’s all very Asian. Satisfyingly so.

But what gives it away that this is a movie made by Asian and Asian American people for Asian and Asian American people is the nuance, the shorthand in interactions.

It’s seen in the way Eleanor’s inner circle of friends and relatives ― the aunties ― both salivate at the Rachel and Nick drama while also coyly hanging back. The tone with which they make suggestions to Eleanor, fanning the flames while offering support, is utterly familiar. I’ve heard those aunties chatter, I’ve heard the “ai-yah” exclamations, I’ve watched the glances exchanged. I’ve heard the aunties utter the backhanded compliments. I love those aunties. 

When bride-to-be Araminta Lee (Sonoya Mizuno) grabs Rachel by the hand at her over-the-top bachelorette party and drags her into the festivities, enticingly enthusiastic and disarmingly kind, I’ve been there. Yes, this happens with non-Asian people in America, but Araminta’s accent, her choice of language, her tactics to put Rachel at ease ― I can’t put into words how distinct that moment was for me. My Hong Kong cousins have dragged me along in almost the exact same way.

There’s that dissonance between being Asian American and being Asian in Asia. Rachel speaks Mandarin ― she is Chinese, she grew up with a Chinese mother ― but her Americanness is undeniable. She is of two worlds, and while people are very aware of Asian Americans not being accepted in America, there is also the awkwardness of not being fully accepted in Asia.

At one point, Eleanor calls Rachel “American,” stated less as a fact and more as a jab, evidence as to why she can never be the right wife for her son. That feeling of belonging and not belonging in a culture that you know you are a part of but are distanced from is poignant. In Rachel’s behavior with Nick’s family ― there’s an achingly familiar moment when she mistakes Nick’s childhood nanny for his grandmother ― how she tries to be the good girlfriend, how she picks her moments to speak, the clothes she chooses, speaks volumes about being Asian and American. I’ve been there.

The characters of the movie were attractive and funny and neurotic and nasty and rebellious and intimidating and desperate and intelligent.

But what I found really thrilling about “Crazy Rich Asians” was that the characters were depicted as real people. Real people within the world of a lavish romantic comedy, of course. However, there wasn’t a Dragon Lady, impotent nerd, or mystical Asian in sight. (There was also no Scarlett or Emma or Tilda or Matt.) And it has to be said, that it is refreshing to finally see a whole cast of Asian men portrayed as desirable, confident, and charming. And so, so sexy.

The characters of “Crazy Rich Asians” were attractive and funny and neurotic and nasty and rebellious and intimidating and desperate and intelligent. Sure, they inhabited a frenetic romantic comedy world that was all color, luxury, and bold strokes, but nonetheless the characters manage to elevate that world a bit with a sense of relatable humanity.

To be clear: I got to see a whole movie full of people who look like me, being human beings.

Think about that.

Not plot devices, not some Oriental fantasy, not a ninja, but humans with problems large, small, and ridiculous. I cannot emphasize enough that seeing Asian and Asian American people represented this way for mass consumption makes a difference. It’s important for me to feel seen, but it’s just as important for people like me to be seen.

So thinking about that question, “Am I so excited for ‘Crazy Rich Asians’?” The answer is yes. I’m excited for what this movie might mean for Asian and Asian American representation in the media, I’m excited that it might assuage some of the fears Hollywood big dogs have about putting Asian people in leading roles. I’m excited that it has the potential to be a big step forward in opening the door for Asian people to be leads in all movies great and small.

I know that it’s nearly impossible for so much progress to ride on one movie, but after watching “Crazy Rich Asians,” I’m hopeful. I hope that after audiences Asian and non-Asian alike see how powerful ― and fun! ― representation in a film like this can be, that it will become something that cannot be unseen.

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