'Crazy Rich Asians' Makes the Important Distinction Between Asians & Asian Americans

Crazy Rich Asians is making history—but of course, you already know this. How couldn’t you, when every publication from The Hollywood Reporter to The New York Times is writing about the fact that it’s the first non-period studio movie with Asian Americans in lead roles since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club?

The film follows NYU professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she heads to Singapore with her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) and encounters his “crazy rich” family and their disapproval of her. While for many non-Asian viewers it will simply be a lighthearted romantic comedy, its portrayals of Asian and Asian-American characters will have a much greater impact on Hollywood’s depictions of them on screen—both in amount (65 of 2017’s top 100 films had no Asian or Asian-American women) and in diversity and complexity—in other words, characters of Asian descent could finally become more than nerds or sidekicks or martial arts masters.

The film has already had people in tears for the sheer amount of types of Asians and Asian Americans it showcases: funny, spunky, elegant, sexy, good, bad, everything in between. It allows these characters to be three-dimensional, to require a closer look. And, perhaps most important of all, it allows them to be different from one another.

It can be easy for non-Asians to lump together everyone of Asian descent into one group (we’ve all heard someone make the racist “all Asians look alike” joke before). But whether or not that’s true (it isn’t), Hollywood has rarely acknowledged that the experiences of Asians and Asian Americans are vastly different. As pointed out by The Washington Post, much of the (extremely small) canon of Asians on film includes movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which convey the Asian experience through the mastery of martial arts and are also period pieces, having little to do with the idea of the modern Asian American. When there are so few films or TV shows to choose from, the Asian-American experience and the Asian experience get conflated, generalized and stereotyped.

We also rarely see Asians and Asian Americans in conversation with one another on screen. That’s part of what makes me so excited for Crazy Rich Asians—I want to see a story that explores these overlapping yet conflicting parts of Asian-American identity. As an Asian-American woman, I have had a few “do you eat dogs?” and chopsticks jokes thrown my way. But at the same time, I have sat with my Chinese grandparents and felt utterly disconnected from them, where they came from and how they live. So while we rarely have the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Memoirs of a Geisha characters, we even less rarely have characters like Rachel Chu or To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’s Lara Jean Covey—both from films premiering this year, which hopefully signals a shift.

Rachel does not fit into the Asian experience depicted in the film (which, by the way, is by no means the universal experience for Asians). She’s labeled an ABC (American-born Chinese) from the get-go, and is met with disdain by Nick’s old-money, old-traditions Singaporean family. She’s too American; she tries to drink from the bowl meant for handwashing, she hugs Nick’s elegant and haughty mother, who is like Singaporean royalty, when they first meet, she gets called an “unrefined banana”: yellow on the outside, white on the inside (we’ve all heard that racist joke before, too). She was raised by an immigrant, working-class mother, and she’s proud of it. That, although still not universal, is a much more recognizable story to Asian Americans, and one that is not nearly shown enough on screen.

There’s conflict between Nick’s family and Rachel: they don’t understand each other’s lifestyles, and they don’t exactly think highly of them. It calls to mind Black Panther and the distinction made between the experiences of Africans and African-Americans—yes, they may share the same cultural background, but there are so many other factors making up who they are based on different histories and different surroundings. Black Panther received critical praise for pointing this out, and Crazy Rich Asians should, too.

That said, Crazy Rich Asians isn’t perfect. Professor EJ Ramos David, Ph.D., pointed out on Twitter that the film has a “token brown Asian” and glosses over much of the struggle and exploitation that brown Asians face in Singapore, instead focusing on the lavishness of the rich East Asian lifestyle.

 

 

This is certainly valid criticism, and the film should not be immune to it. But we also can’t expect Crazy Rich Asians, or any film with an Asian or Asian-American lead character, to tell every story of everyone who shares an Asian background. I think the reason we assign this film more responsibility than it necessarily has is perhaps because it’s one of the only films making an effort at all, so we expect more from it. But, as Constance Wu noted in a Tweet about the film, Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t represent every Asian American. “So for those who don’t feel seen,” she said, “I hope there is a story you find soon that does represent you. I am rooting for you. We’re not all the same, but we all have a story.”

We need more films and TV shows with Asians and Asian Americans in lead roles, films that don’t fall back on the martial arts genre or present a generalized, stereotyped version of what it is to be of Asian descent. The more stories that are made, the more distinction we can make about what it means to be Asian vs. Asian American, East Asian vs. Southeast Asian, etc. We all have a story, so let’s start telling them.