Loading icon

An Indistinct Recollection

Arts & Culture | October 1, 2018

The summer hit Crazy Rich Asians is a story of cultural clash between Asia and Asian America. Chinese American Rachel Chu, an NYU Economics professor raised by a middle-class single mother, visits her boyfriend Nick Young’s home in Singapore for the first time, only to be surprised and challenged by unwelcoming family and friends in Nick’s wealthy circles. The film has sparked a contentious discussion among Asians and Asian Americans, as many have celebrated it as a landmark step forward for Asian representation with its all-Asian cast in a White film industry. However, others have criticized the movie for its cast of mostly East Asian actors, the selection of a multiracial lead, and the film’s erasure of Singapore’s ethnic diversity. The movie is more familiar to a privileged audience, as Rachel and Nick are two highly educated individuals who live a comfortable life in New York City. Moreover, the movie focuses overwhelmingly on Chinese people, who are the dominant ethnic group among Asian Americans and Singaporeans.

With their country in the spotlight, some Singaporeans, like activist Sangeetha Thanapal, are using the popularity of Crazy Rich Asians to spotlight their narratives, which the film overlooks.  Thanapal, who coined the term “Chinese Privilege” in Singapore, writes about institutionalized racism in the city-state. Singapore is 7 percent Indian and 15 percent Malay, but Brown actors only appear in the film in roles of servitude, such as security guards to the lavish Young family estate. Thanapal gives examples of racism in the country, such as bans on speaking Tamil (a common language in India and Sri Lanka), which Crazy Rich Asians sweeps under the rug by way of its focus on the glamour of the rich, famous, and beautiful. Poet Pooja Nansi adds more to the narrative, describing how Chinese and East Asian people are the public faces of media and advertisement, as well as the physical standard of a stereotypical Singaporean. This movie and its surrounding debate reflects two core tensions in Asia and Asian America: how Asians of different ethnicities relate to one another, and the ways in which “progress” for some can simultaneously be harmful to others.

Another piece of the discussion around Crazy Rich Asians that has frequently been missing is the relationship between Asians and Asian Americans, a theme that underlies the entire storyline and debate around the movie. Rachel’s experience in Singapore can be understood as one Asian American’s experience in Asia. Much of the conflict she experiences arises from class differences, but the friction she faces also comes from being perceived differently in a new environment. She is no longer in the US, and faces constant reminders that being Asian American in Asia is not as seamless a transition as one may assume. While Singapore is a place that is largely Chinese like her, it is also a place that Rachel feels very alienated from. Nick, on the other hand, has almost the opposite path, having been Asian in America for many years.

This rubbing of interrelated identities against each other has been a thread throughout my life in the US as someone who was born in California, raised in Hong Kong, and educated at an elite boarding school in western Massachusetts before coming to Tufts. In the past few years, I have come to understand my identity and experiences as both Asian and Asian American, and found Crazy Rich Asians to be a channel for reflecting the interactions between my two cousin identities. I saw parts of myself in both Nick and Rachel’s stories, as Asian and Asian American narratives.

As Asians in America, Nick and I have a lot in common. We both come from owning class backgrounds—our families own things that generate wealth without us working, such as investments or businesses. We both attended elite schools in our hometowns and subsequently socialized with family circles that sent their children abroad, mostly to the US, UK, and Australia for university. We both learned how to code-switch between contexts, using different cultural references and mannerisms based on where we were. We easily fall into old, comfortable habits of access and complacency when we go back home, where we are the majority instead of the minority. For me, it is easy to push aside news about civil rights and justice in the US when I’m comfortably at home in Hong Kong. The reverse happens when I’m here at Tufts, where I easily forget about ongoing news in Hong Kong, such as the push for a more democratic government sparked by the Umbrella Movement and protests in 2014. These similarities with Nick are mostly shaped by my class privilege, and at an elite private institution like Tufts with plenty of other wealthy international students, I can comfortably stay within that one corner of international identity and upbringing.

While seeing Rachel’s story unfold in the film, I found myself thinking about all the ways that I’ve grown into my Asian American identity as well. Particularly, I found myself resonating with her experience of being Asian American in Asia, as I made similar adjustments when moving back home to Hong Kong for my gap year before Tufts. Her big smile and warm demeanor when meeting Nick’s family reminded me of the trademark American friendliness that I had internalized after being in the US for four years. Rachel also consistently elevated a narrative of “immigrant hustle” throughout the movie, saying that her mother, Kerry, worked incredibly hard and eventually “made it” as a real estate agent in California. The retelling of this story is one of the strongest pillars of the model minority myth, wherein Asian Americans are flattened into the blanketing generalization of being a successful minority group. This resonated deeply with me, as my parents and their siblings, all Chinese Vietnamese immigrants to Australia and the US, always told my sister and me while growing up that if we worked hard, we would reap the rewards of success and financial stability when we were older.

As fun as this Hollywood hit is, it is also an indistinct recollection of the sadder moments of assimilation that Asians and Asian Americans face while existing nationally and transnationally. Crazy Rich Asians documents the harmful myths we continue to tell ourselves, and the complacency that exists when we ignore the different paths of Asian diaspora and various understandings of identity around the world. My Asian Australian family has concretely described the film as Asian American, hinting at the challenges that diasporic communities face when one piece of our global tapestry gets cut and displayed. If Crazy Rich Asians can spark the proliferation of more Asian people’s narratives in all the places that we exist and are indeed present, then perhaps the rules of minority representation can become more fluid.