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3 Movies That Portray the Asian-American Experience Honestly & Respectfully

My grandfather and I used to play this game when I was a kid. He knew I wanted to become a reporter, and there was one journalist of Asian descent on the television network we watched who looked a little bit like me. When we’d see her on the news, he’d joke that she was me from the future. 

Hey, you changed your hair tonight!” he would say, chuckling at the screen.

“I really like the coat I’m wearing. It must be new,” I’d chime in.

Every time my family would visit my grandparents, my grandpa and I would race to be the first to come up with a witty comment. As a third-generation Canadian kid of Filipino and Chinese background who was raised in a diverse area, I didn’t think much of the game or the reason why I clung on to that reporter whenever someone would ask me who I wanted to be when I got older. 

Over the years, though, I found myself looking out for her or any other Asian woman on TV out of habit. I didn’t have to have my eyes peeled in order to catch them all — they were far and few between. I realized, eventually, that I had grown up desperately searching for faces that looked like mine all over mainstream media.

Tuning in to TSN or Sportsnet, it was sportscaster Hazel Mae. Watching the big and small screen, it was actresses Lucy Liu, Vanessa Hudgens, or Shay Mitchell. Dancing or going to see The National Ballet of Canada, it was first soloist Jenna Savella.

There’s a saying that goes “You can’t be what you can’t see,” and I know I wasn’t the only racialized child who, despite admiring and connecting to many characters and on-air personalities, struggled to see myself time and time again in the blond girls with blue eyes who I loved to watch on screen when I sat on my living room couch in the evenings.

The last time I played the game with my grandfather, I was 10 years old. I’ll be 20 this June, and am pleased to acknowledge that there’s been a huge growth in diversity in both Hollywood and television networks. 

With that said, in order for representation of marginalized communities to truly be progressive in the media and allow for those watching at home to really “see themselves” in minority characters in movies and shows, their experiences must be presented properly. 

The Asian-American experience should be told by Asian Americans themselves, and in order for that to happen, Asians in Hollywood need to be placed in positions of power. This involves not only casting Asian actors on-screen as the faces of diversity, but giving racialized creatives a voice behind the scenes as well, in the director’s chair holding the megaphone. 

This past year, anti-Asian hate, violence, and crime rates have skyrocketed in both the US and Canada amid the COVID-19 pandemic. New York City alone’s hate crime investigations increased ninefold in the past year, 24 out of 27 of them tied to the coronavirus. Vancouver’s anti-Asian crimes spiked up 717% in 2020. 

I can’t think of a more important time to reinforce the importance of the Asian-American experience being represented respectfully and honestly in the film industry, from the great success that Asians are capable of achieving in society to the racism and discrimination that they continue to face every single day.

Here are three movies that portray the Asian-American experience to the best of their abilities, both starring and written by Asian-Americans.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before

Netflix’s YA trilogy series, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, stars Lana Condor as Lara Jean Song Covey, a mixed-race teenager of Korean descent living in an unspecified, somewhat diverse town somewhere in the United States. Based on the novel series of the same name by Jenny Han, the story follows Lara Jean through the many trials and tribulations of the high school girl, while acknowledging her Korean background as a part of her identity without it consuming the plotline. 

“I think oftentimes when you see a person of color be the main character, then usually the thrust of the story is all about the struggle of being a person of color, and this movie is not about that,” Han said in an interview with Teen Vogue.

The series also does a wonderful job of casting diverse actors, whose talent and passion for the art really brings the story’s colourful BIPOC and LGBTQ+ characters to life. 

Stream To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before on Netflix.

The Half of It

The Half of It packs comedy, drama, and romance into a quirky, understatedly remarkable film about bookish, shy, and queer teenager Ellie Chu. The movie is set in small town America, and along with its main love triangle plot, portrays what it can feel like to be the only chinese girl with immigrant parents in a primarily white town. The Half of It’s director, Alice Wu, wanted viewers to empathize and identify with the characters.

“If I can get a 60-year-old, straight, conservative white guy to start identifying with a 17-year-old closeted Asian immigrant nerd or her depressed dad who’s lost the love of his life, I’ve won,” Wu told Variety.

Stream The Half of It on Netflix now.

The Farewell

The comedy drama The Farewell celebrates Chinese culture in its storytelling of how American-raised Billi and her American immigrant family travel to China for a fake wedding. The real reason for the vacation is to say goodbye to Nai Nai, a grandmother who isn’t in on the scheme and has no idea that she only has a few weeks left to live. 

The film plays out the dynamics of an immigrant Chinese household, and director Lulu Wang elaborated on the topic in an interview with NPR’s radio show “Fresh Air,” where she mentions that the plot of the movie is “a very Chinese thing, at least for my family. It feels very specific to my parents, which is that they always want to underplay things because they don’t want to jinx it.”

There’s no better person to portray the Asian-American experience than an actual Asian American, who lives through it daily. These movies are a strong start to showing true representation in the industry, and I hope to “see more of myself” in future movies centered around racialized characters for years to come.

Stream The Farewell on a variety of platforms

Christina Flores-Chan is a Her Campus National Contributing Writer. She is a Journalism major at Ryerson University trying to break into sport media. Besides Her Campus, Christina writes for The Intermission Sports and co-hosts the Stretch Five Sports radio show on CJRU 1280AM in Toronto and Ball Busters, an Unbenched Sports podcast. Her articles have been published in HuffPost Canada, J-Source, and more. When she isn't writing or watching sports, she loves to dance, practice yoga, and go clubbing with her friends.
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