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Crazy Rich Asians made me want to open up to my Asian American community

August 17, 2018 2:06 pm

I watched Crazy Rich Asians for my second time at a screening for Asian American journalists. Although I don’t remember the last time I saw a movie in theaters twice, I wanted to take my boyfriend, who is also mixed and Japanese American, and who introduced me to Kevin Kwan’s original novels in the first place. I wanted to see his reactions in real time, but mostly, I wanted to feel the energy in the room, to watch Asians on screen, surrounded by Asian Americans, to lose myself, for a couple hours, in a collective emotional experience.

I’ve been seeking out communal moments like this lately, because when they resonate, they lift me out of looping, anxious thoughts and remind me that everything I feel I share with someone. Like the time I watched an eclipse outside my favorite bakery through a barista’s cardboard glasses, which he offered to everyone in sight. Or when I saw an L.A. performance of George Takei’s Japanese American incarceration musical, Allegiance, and sobbed freely, surrounded by people doing the same. Or when I walked to a candlelight vigil for a neighbor killed in a terrible accident and watched as tiny lights came on against the darkness. Even when these moments come about through pain, they make me feel a part of something grounded and loving and larger than my free-floating self.

Not that I expected Crazy Rich Asians to pull the theater into a meditation on mortality and oppression. I’d read all three of the books and found them fun and addicting, not critical enough to be satire, but tongue-in-cheek enough not to read like a total endorsement of obscene wealth. The story itself isn’t the milestone, though, nor is the casting, really—I’ve seen American indie movies with Asian-heavy casts, like Lena Khan’s The Tiger Hunter, starring Danny Pudi as an extremely lovable immigrant from India in the 1970s. Culturally speaking, because I’m not Chinese American and have never been to Singapore, I feel more gut-level connection with stories from Japan, like Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After the Storm—which, family dynamics aside, tapped childhood memories of chiseling through frozen Yakult when I was too impatient to let it thaw.

What makes Crazy Rich Asians special is its scale. Director Jon M. Chu turned down an offer from Netflix in favor of a wide theatrical release, and it’s hard to imagine the film would have gotten this much attention if it’d gone straight to streaming. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve watched commentary pour in from Asian American writers I follow on social media. Jen Yamato did a satisfyingly comprehensive series of interviews with the cast. Quincy Surasmith wrote about seeing the movie in the predominantly Asian San Gabriel Valley. In one of my favorite pieces of the bunch, Stephanie Foo described what it meant for her as a Malaysian American: “One character texts another person, ‘Wah, so many Rachel Chus lah!’ Another character texts back, ‘Alamak!’ (Essentially, the Malay version of ‘Oy, vey!’) That was it—I heard people talking like they had in my house growing up, and…waterworks. Those tears didn’t shut off for the rest of the movie.”

Amid valid criticisms of the film—particularly that it earned its mainstream appeal by focusing on wealthy, beautiful, light-skinned East Asians at the expense of everyone else—I’ve enjoyed watching people shut down a less thoughtful critique: that Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t represent the full diversity of the Asian experience. Of course it doesn’t. Why should films highlighting grossly underrepresented communities have to clear such an impossible bar when films by white people each have the freedom to be a single story?

This public conversation happened to come at a time when I was already rethinking my approach to community. I didn’t grow up with an Asian American community, or really any stable, long-term community at all. My family moved often; between the ages of seven and sixteen, I went to eight schools. I had friends, and even kept in touch with many of them long-distance, first by Lisa Frank notecard, then Earthlink, then AIM. But in terms of a larger community, our neighbors and family friends changed all the time. We saw my dad’s family, most of them in Oregon, rarely, and my mom’s, in Japan, even less. Our most constant extended family were my mom’s Japanese American relatives in Southern California, a constellation of my grandfather’s distant cousins we called Auntie and Uncle and saw at the occasional funeral and New Year’s party. But for most of the time, my nuclear family was it.

Isolated and always moving, we became close and insular. Knowing we came from somewhere else and would probably soon leave for somewhere else still, we could conform to some parts of the local culture while questioning or avoiding the rest (like, respectively, the Texas pledge and our neighbors’ invitations to their fundamentalist churches). In the end, I became fiercely connected to all the places we lived, even Texas, but partly because I knew I’d lose them soon: nostalgia in retrospect or anticipation. Still, even though I knew everything strange would eventually become familiar, that I’d look back and wish I’d immersed myself even more, told all the people I admired how I felt about them, making that initial connection to a new group of people has never stopped feeling difficult.

After college, when I became a reporter in L.A.’s Little Tokyo for the local Japanese American newspaper, I knew I was entering a small, tight community, but I didn’t realize how small, exactly. Americans with Japanese heritage made up a narrow enough niche to begin with—even considering our diversity: the mixed ones, the jet-setting international ones, the ones from Japan, the ones whose families had been American for five generations, the ones who grew up in cities like Torrance and Gardena surrounded by people like them, the ones in the Midwest who knew few people of color at all. But in Little Tokyo, culture seemed like less of the in-group marker than neighborhood presence and involvement. Friendships went back decades and grudges did, too.

In a community this tight, there was no way to write without conflict of interest or upsetting someone a couple degrees of separation from me. Even though we had a limited audience of mostly elderly people, including my supportive last-remaining auntie, I worried about this all the time. I dealt by keeping my distance from most people. I sat in the backs of rooms or walked the perimeter taking notes, introducing myself only when I needed to and then, as soon as I could, drifting away again. I didn’t want to feel obligated to anyone or make anyone feel betrayed if I saw an issue differently than they did. Often, I liked this way of working. It fit my introverted personality and my experience growing up as a perpetual outsider, known to my friends but able to go under the radar among everyone else. Since I left the paper to go freelance, two years ago, I’ve kept it up, having these intimate interviews that make me love not just my subjects but people in general, then creating distance again, even when a former subject makes a friendly gesture long after I’ve published their story, even when I would love for us to be friends.

Having boundaries is necessary in journalism, of course, but sometimes I wonder how much of mine are just an excuse for my anxiety—a fear of navigating the complexity that would come with getting closer to the community I’m already a part of, that I could never write about with complete objectivity, that I write about subjectively in personal essays already. And how much are a lingering fear of being called out as an imposter because I’m mixed and not always seen as Asian? I hate admitting this because I’ve reassured many mixed friends and younger writers that they are enough and that their specific points of view are valuable pieces of a complicated whole. But I still have a voice in my head telling me that I’m not qualified enough to weigh in about anything except for stories about second-generation, half-white, imperfectly bilingual Japanese Americans who have only gone to Japan four times. One of my siblings once said being mixed means we’re not a real part of any group and to claim otherwise is just fooling ourselves. I’ve seen this sentiment breed a toxic loneliness, among strangers online and real-life acquaintances, and I want to show that it doesn’t have to be true, that you can decide to seek out community and find it, on your own terms.

I carried all of this into the theater with me the first time I saw Crazy Rich Asians, at the Hollywood premiere. As the screening room at the TCL Chinese Theater filled with Asians (plus a surprising number of touristy-looking white people), I did feel like part of a movement. I remembered something my mom once said that I’d since held close: “Mia is part of a new generation that’s proud of being Asian.” I wondered how she felt coming to the U.S. in her twenties and living the next four decades barely seeing herself on screen. Maybe that partly explains why she’s fallen in love with Asian dramas in recent years.

Once the movie started, I was taken in mostly by its energy: the bright colors, the extended food porn montage at a hawker center, the Chinese covers of American pop songs, the characters’ diverse personality types, and the way almost all of them carried themselves with pride, without apology, without having to explain their language and culture and code-switching against a white American baseline. Yes, if they were real people, much of their entitlement may have come from wealth, but I couldn’t deny that it was exciting to watch them, to wonder what it might be like to be so comfortable in my own body and in my own place in the world.

The day after the premiere, I visited my old coworkers at the Little Tokyo newspaper for the first time in a year. When I quit my staff job, I’d wanted space to find my voice as a freelancer, away from people who’d known me since I was 22, but now I felt ready to reconnect. We ate Japanese fried chicken at our old favorite lunch spot, and when we said goodbye, I promised to visit again, sooner this time. Afterwards, I walked down the street to the Japanese American National Museum, where I’d interned the summer after college. They’d recently added to their permanent exhibit, a timeline of Japanese American history focused mostly on the incarceration. Now it ended in a dark nook with a glass case displaying the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by Ronald Reagan, officially apologizing for forcing Japanese Americans into concentration camps during Word War II.

On the wall were quotes and photos from the movement leading up to the act, when the community fought together for redress. Because my aunties and uncles were incarcerated during the war, I grew up hearing about “camp,” and from my millennial perch, I took for granted that it happened a long time ago, during a less enlightened era. But with adulthood, with my years in Little Tokyo, with the Trump administration’s hateful policies, I see how uncomfortably close it is, how our community has an opportunity, if not an obligation, to show how quickly the scale can tip from prejudice to systemic injustice. In one photo on the exhibit wall, a white woman and opponent of redress, Lillian Baker, tries to wrest a microphone away from a Japanese American veteran giving testimony of his wartime experience, as bailiffs intervene. One quote, from then-Representative Bill Frenzel, reads, “The committee is asking us to purge ourselves of someone else’s guilt with another generation’s money. Should we pay blood money to cleanse this embarrassment?…What a funny way to ask us to rub ashes on our heads.”

The second time I saw Crazy Rich Asians, the organization that sponsored the screening under-booked the theater, and the audience was older, its responses quieter. After the program ended, my boyfriend and I had to run to move our car before our validation period ended, so we didn’t linger and find out what people thought. We drove to Koreatown, bought horchata boba, and walked through the neighborhood, still crowded at 11:30 on a Tuesday night. We didn’t have the communal viewing experience I’d hoped for, except maybe a shared cringe during the post-film Q&A with the screenwriters, one an Asian American woman from Malaysia and the other a white guy. The white guy mentioned visiting Singapore to research for the film. He told us about how he found the best hawker center, and when a member of the audience prefaced a question by saying he was from Singapore, the screenwriter greeted him, “Durian is gross!” He admitted that the significance of Crazy Rich Asians didn’t occur to him right away. Meanwhile, his co-writer seemed moved almost to tears when she spoke about what the film meant for her. She’d struggled as a writer to place complex characters of color in the stories she worked on, and now she’d had the chance to help build a world that looked like the one she came from.

I haven’t seen the script drafts, but I’m sure the details—the Malay-isms Stephanie Foo wrote about in her essay, the mother-daughter dynamic, the specific dishes shown in the hawker center; all the moments as sharp and personal as Kore-eda’s makeshift sorbet moment—came from closeness. Maybe it’s time for me to move in closer, too.