Recently, the LA Times asked me to name the first time I saw myself represented onscreen. The answer I gave the interviewer was long and winding and delved into the many different ways I have and haven’t seen myself at the movies – demographically, relationally, emotionally.
By the time it got to print, though, it had been pared down to nine words: “I don’t know that I’ve ever had the experience.” Fair enough.
But that’s changing now, at least in theory. After decades of little to no Asian representation in American pop culture, we find ourselves now in a veritable boom. The Meg, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Searching are all out this month; Bao and Kim’s Convenience hit last month; Killing Eve is up for Emmys next month; and Fresh Off the Boat is back the month after that.
The crown jewel in this treasure trove, of course, is Crazy Rich Asians, billed as the first major studio movie to feature an all-Asian cast with Asian-American leads since The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago. That statistic says it all: We have literally never had it this good.
So do I feel represented now? Well, it’s complicated.
To be clear: Yes, I see more details of my life reflected in movies than ever before, and yes, that makes me happy. I experienced a thrill of recognition when I noticed that Searching‘s protagonist had listed his mom in Korean in his FaceTime contacts. I nearly yelped in delight when Kitty popped open a bottle of Yakult in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before – and immediately messaged a fellow Korean-American critic so we could squeal about it together. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean I feel some deep spiritual connection to most of these characters, storylines, and scenarios.
Which brings us to Crazy Rich Asians. Much has been made of the impossible burden borne by this movie. It’s such a rarity that it’s not enough for it to be merely good and successful. It needs to be so good and successful that it single-handedly justifies the existence of every single Asian-American movie that might come after it. It’s not fair, but, as explained in interview after interview and article after article, them’s the breaks.
There’s a corresponding burden, though, on the Asian-American audience. Actually, no – let me be clear. I don’t want to speak for other Asian-American moviegoers or critics. I am talking here specifically about myself, and the immense pressure I felt within myself to go beyond simply loving this film, and into feeling seen by this film.
Whenever a film like Ghostbusters or Black Panther comes out – that is to say, a movie that’s not just about another straight white guy – I hear grumbling from well-meaning critics, mostly white and male, worried that they must like these movies lest they be branded as bigots. I’m sympathetic, to a point. But I guarantee it’s nothing compared to the dizziness I felt in anticipation of Crazy Rich Asians, a movie positioned as my one chance to prove I, and people like me, deserve a place at the table.
I wanted desperately to love Crazy Rich Asians because I wanted to be able to hold it up as proof that diversity can spark creativity. I was (and still am) eager to add to its coffers so I could put my money where my mouth is when I say non-white faces can move tickets. And above all, I needed to feel incredibly moved by it so that I could tell people how much it meant to see someone like me onscreen.
I accept this challenge because I’d rather rise to it than spend a lifetime straining to hear echoes of my experiences in the voices of white people. But a part of me resents it, too.
For the average American moviegoer (that is to say, a white moviegoer), Crazy Rich Asians is a featherlight romp, no heavier or more meaningful than your average Mission: Impossible or Hotel Transylvania. For me, though, it felt like a test – of my Asianness, of my Americanness, of my commitment to the cause of combining them both and insisting that other people witness the results.
I know, intellectually, that my Asian-American identity is not in question. And yet when it comes to representation, I feel sometimes like a fraud. I’m desperate to be represented authentically, and at the same time unsure of what that should or could look like. When something does come along with the trappings of authenticity, I fret if I don’t fit the mold, get the jokes, recognize the references.
It’s nothing compared to the dizziness I felt in anticipation of Crazy Rich Asians, a movie positioned as my one chance to prove I deserve a place at the table.
I ask myself: Is it bad if I find the white love interest in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before just as appealing as the Asian one in Crazy Rich Asians? What does it say about me if Searching felt familiar not despite its light touch with Korean-American details, but specifically because of it? Should I be embarrassed if I’m unfamiliar with the music in Crazy Rich Asians? What about the food? The history? I may not be Chinese Singaporean, but I’m still Asian. Shouldn’t I know more about the continent? Or does worrying I should make me guilty of generalizing?
I don’t think I’m the only one feeling this anxiety, either. I’ve seen essays arguing that Crazy Rich Asians might be too Asian or not Asian enough, or criticizing it for ignoring the racial and ethnic diversity of the real Singapore. I remember when Henry Golding was cast, and sparked a debate over whether this half-white man was Asian enough, whether we were perpetuating Eurocentric beauty standards by holding him up as the gold standard of Asian good looks. I saw complaints that the red carpet didn’t do enough to showcase Asian excellence in fashion design, even as it celebrated Asian excellence in cinema.
These are questions worth asking and conversations worth having. Crazy Rich Asians‘ rareness doesn’t exempt it from analysis or criticism, nor does it shield the movie from missteps. At the end of the day, no one is truly obligated to like this movie. I might feel like I personally should like it, but I’d never purposely put that demand on anyone else.
But these critiques are being raised loudly and all at once in large part because we know Crazy Rich Asians is our one chance to have them. If this movie doesn’t take a closer look at Singapore’s Indian population, it hardly seems likely that The Predator or A Star Is Born is going to pick up the slack. If this cast doesn’t make a point of wearing Asian designers on the red carpet, it’s not like the cast of Venom or The Nutcracker is going to insist on it. If Golding becomes Hollywood’s favorite Asian male love interest, where does that leave other Asian men?
All of this was on my mind when I went to go watch Crazy Rich Asians, and as a result I couldn’t lose myself in it at first. My brain kept sparking every two seconds. Do we like this? Is this us? Should it be us? What if it’s not us? I kept score, and I kind of hated myself for it: This character was “good” representation because he was handsome and kind; that one was bad representation but in a good way because his specific brand of awful bucked the stereotypes; that one was leaning into American assumptions about Asianness only to subvert them, so let’s call it a wash.
Then Bernard Tai sauntered onto the screen. Played by Silicon Valley‘s Jimmy O. Yang, he’s the kind of obnoxious, oblivious creep you’d go out of your way to duck at the bar. My shoulders tensed and my heart sank. I just knew this guy was going to ruin it for me, by reinforcing every ugly stereotype about the sleaziness, trashiness, and all-around undesirability of Asian men.
But my fears dissipated as I glanced around the rest of the scene. Bernard was throwing a party also attended by the dashing Nick (Golding), the affable Colin (Chris Pang), the pushy Eddie (Ronny Chieng), the ditzy Alistair (Remy Hii). Other scenes had introduced us to down-to-earth Rachel (Constance Wu), formidable Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), loyal Kerry (Tan Kheng Hua), quirky Peik Lin (Awkwafina), and elegant Astrid (Gemma Chan). All of them Asian, and each of them unique.
Crazy Rich Asians can’t be all things to all people. It can’t even be all things to me.
In a movie surrounded by white people, Bernard could’ve become the avatar of all Asian men, or all Asian people. In this one, he wasn’t obligated to represent anything but himself. It didn’t matter which stereotypes he fit or didn’t, because he had dozens of co-stars demonstrating dozens of other ways of being Asian. The character danced around his awful party boat like he had not a care in the world, and for a moment I felt as light as he did.
He’d made me feel fully what I already knew intellectually: that Crazy Rich Asians cannot be all things to all people. It can’t even be all things to me. It’s reminiscent of my life in some ways (yes, Peik Lin, I know what a “banana” is), and completely unlike it in others (I’ll never casually pick up a pair of million-dollar earrings like Astrid did). I was moved by it, for reasons that had to do with my Asian-Americanness and for reasons that didn’t. I laughed at its jokes, I teared up over its grand romantic gestures, and I came out of the theater happy to have seen a movie I liked. Even if it wasn’t my absolute favorite of the year. Even if I didn’t feel some white-hot rush of recognition.
Crazy Rich Asians had reminded me that the Asian-American experience – my experience – is too rich and varied to be captured in a single story. I see bits of myself in Rachel and Eleanor and Kerry and Araminta. I don’t see a whole lot of myself in Astrid, who’s far too cool for a dork like me, and that’s okay, too. There are sides of me reflected in Lara Jean from To All the Boys and David and Margot from Searching, and I’ve caught shades of myself in Steven Yeun’s imperfect accent in Okja, in the good grades of the teen criminals in Better Luck Tomorrow, in the complicated mother-daughter relationships of The Joy Luck Club.
None of them paint a complete picture of me or who I am or what I’ve been through. Collectively, though, they’re starting to show me something I recognize. Slowly but surely, my own portrait is starting to take shape.