My first sleepover was when I was eighteen. I always have to take my shoes off before going into the house. In my house we put our dishes in the dishwasher rack to dry. Guessing the price of something someone bought on sale is a popular family game. I call all my parents’ friends “aunty” or “uncle” and the first time an adult asked me to call them by their first name I actually blushed.
If this sounds familiar to you, you might be Asian. And if you are the child of migrants, like I am, you might be a banana – “yellow on the outside, white on the inside”, in the words of my father when I was twelve and still couldn’t use chopsticks.
Growing up to the tune of my parents’ dialect, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be part of an Asian migrant family and I certainly wasn’t proud of it.
I’ve always wanted to be blonde and blue-eyed, to hum along to songs like Mr Brightside that every white person seems to know by heart, to understand white people jokes and join in on their small talk with gossipy ease.
Instead, I have dark hair and dark eyes like every other Asian person I know. When the chorus of Mr Brightside comes on I make vague shapes with my mouth that I hope resemble the right words. And once, memorably, I was asked whether I was from “the Orient.”
Yet I’m not entirely Asian either. I can’t speak Mandarin fluently, and when I visit my relatives in Malaysia, I have to sit in the single air-conditioned room of my grandparents’ house, hiding from the mosquitoes and the heat. My brother and I get gastro from Malaysian street food and are accused of having weak stomachs.
When I am asked the inevitable question – “But where do you REALLY come from?” – I don’t know how to answer. “Well, my parents were born in Malaysia, and a couple of generations before that, my great-great grandparents migrated from China to Malaysia…” “Oh, so you’re just Chinese.” “Well, my parents really identify as Malaysian Chinese. It’s a little different…”
I don’t escape the assumptions of my fellow Asians, either. Whenever I’m in Chinatown or Box Hill I am approached by people asking me for directions in Mandarin. Amid the halting, embarrassing conversations that follow, I have found myself mourning the loss of a culture that was never wholly mine.
So when Crazy Rich Asians hit the cinemas it topped my must-watch list. Here, at last, was something I could relate to. People like me – speaking English but looking Asian. Here, Asians weren’t martial artists or mystics from the Orient. They didn’t need a special reason to exist on the screen.
When I used to complain about the lack of Asians in cinema, my relatives would say consolingly – “Look at the massive film industry in China and Hong Kong!” But while they could relate to five-hour-long sagas where everyone beats everyone else up (Ip Man) or each character has ten siblings and twenty wives and no one can remember who is married to whom, (any Cantonese drama) I couldn’t.
But now, for the first time since The Joy Luck Club – which was released in 1993, before I was even born – there is a Hollywood movie completely about Asians. Far from being unpopular with Western audiences, Crazy Rich Asians became the highest grossing romantic comedy in a decade (Ashley Rodriguez, Quartz (2018) “Crazy Rich Asians is the top-grossing romantic Comedy in 10 years”) and also earned two Golden Globes nominations –best motion picture, musical or comedy and best actress (Constance Wu). Unfortunately, Crazy Rich Asians did not actually win any Golden Globes, but I am still optimistic for the prospects of a possible sequel!
At its core, the movie is an opulent, lively celebration of Asian identity. For once, the Asian isn’t the bland best friend to the tempestuous, exciting, white lead, the doctor that the white protagonist sees during a life crisis, or the forgettable figure in the horror film who dies second (after the black character).
Where the few movies that feature Asians often portray Asian men as effeminate, needing the intervention of a strong white male (the prime example being Matt Damon’s character who ludicrously featured in The Great Wall), the lens in Crazy Rich Asians lingers with a playful deliberateness over the men’s sculpted abs. While previous movies have exoticized and sexualised Asian women, depicting them as naïve and juvenile, the women of this film are each celebrated for their unique strength and intelligence.
The movie does a brilliant job of deconstructing stereotypes with subtlety and wit, avoiding heavy-handedness. Although it has been criticised for not doing enough in an overt, substantial sense, to challenge “racial boundaries” (Yuan Ren, The Guardian (2018) – “Crazy Rich Asians is a Missed Opportunity for Hollywood”) I don’t think it has to do anything exceptional. There are so many Hollywood rom-coms that are taken at face value and enjoyed. The fact that society expects every film featuring an ethnically diverse cast to make a statement about race, is in itself worrying. We are entitled to the luxury of a film where Asian people fall in and out of love, eat, talk, travel, simply EXIST – a film that is fun and at times frivolous, as Crazy Rich Asians is, without having to be didactic.
Despite its light-heartedness, Crazy Rich Asians gives a voice and a form of representation to a large proportion of the east Asian diaspora who rarely speak up about the racism they face. Speaking from personal experience, this reticence has a lot to do with culture – although this is, of course, a generalisation. Perhaps it is a culturally ingrained tendency to simply put our heads down and work hard to prove that we’re good enough. Whatever it is, popular culture plays an influential role in inspiring the articulation of experience – and that is what I have seen and celebrated in myself, and the Asian community around me, since the film’s release.
Crazy Rich Asians isn’t just the story of triple-threat Asians – beautiful, smart and rich. It is the story of an American-born Chinese, Rachel Chu, who inhabits two worlds – just as so many of us Australian-born Chinese, ABCs, bananas, however you want to call us, have done since birth.
It is the story of a woman whose mother, like so many of our parents, carved out a new life for her daughter and herself. It is a story that we share – our parents’ legacy of resilience, giving us an experience of cross-cultural living that means we never have to choose. We can have both – Asian tradition and Aussie humour; Mr Brightside and Ip Man; we can proudly be bananas, mangoes, potatoes, any shade of yellow and white that we want.
There is an unforgettable scene in the film where Rachel stands up to her boyfriend’s snobbish and stoic mother, Eleanor Young, in an exquisitely restrained speech that still manages to be hard-hitting. Then she turns and walks away with her own mother, who is waiting for her, whose face and dress lack Eleanor’s perfectly made-up, polished sophistication – but who is utterly beautiful in that moment, lit up with pride and love for her daughter.
Watching that moment on the big screen, I was overwhelmed by a rare and wonderful pride. I was proud of my migrant parents who slept on cardboard when they first arrived in Australia, who suffered so their children wouldn’t have to. I was proud of my people – smart, hard-working, beautiful, funny, strong, loyal, loving.
And I was finally proud, too, of who I am – the kind of person who could, with a little (or a lot) of Mandarin practice, reconcile and embrace the two cultures to which I belong. The kind of person who is infinitely richer because of my heritage – yours truly, a crazy rich Asian.