The two movies pictured above have set off a wave of Asian and Asian-American embracement both cinematically and across the internet that has given hope to millions of Asians, myself included, who finally get to see people who look like them in roles other than the stereotypical Harvard (blegh) nerd with humorously strict parents.
The media’s Asian representation movement is powerful and wonderful. Sitting in the theater for Crazy Rich Asians and hearing the song my Mom swears she played while I was still in the womb (“Tian Mi Mi” by Teresa Teng) provoked an emotional experience I hadn’t felt since my sister forced me to watch Joy Luck Club some seven-odd years ago. Just as back then, I recognized a storyline whose parallels intimately related to my own life (not in the “I’m a Singaporean billionaire kind of way,” but in the “Wow Asian families love hard, fight hard,” kind of way). As my eyes welled with tears, the moment was made more beautiful when I looked to my friends and saw their tears streaming as well. At that second, I felt more linked to them than ever before.
That connection has reached global proportions, and not just through the films themselves. It has unlocked the word-of-mouth of some of the most popular celebrities as well as social media influencers.
REACT, a popular Youtube channel with almost 20 million subscribers, recently published an episode titled “ASIAN PEOPLE REACT TO CRAZY RICH ASIANS.” During the episode, a quote from Constance Wu, the star of the movie, was read by some of the people brought in to react to the film:
“I hope Asian American kids watch [Crazy Rich Asians] and realize that they can be the heroes of their own stories. I know [Crazy Rich Asians] won’t represent every Asian American. So for those who don’t feel seen. I hope there is a story you find soon that does represent you.”
In response to the quote, one teen girl broke down in tears, explaining, “Telling stories is so important because it makes people feel not alone in the world. I just feel so emotional because I — because I never felt like I mattered.”
The other rom-com pictured above, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, features a Korean-American girl who catches the eye of the most popular boy in school, with a target audience comparable to 10 Things I Hate About You or She’s the Man.
Popular Asian Youtuber named Lavendaire recently produced a video explaining how much To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before meant to her. She expresses the deep impact of growing up and never seeing someone who looked like her on screen, not just in regards to her dream of becoming an actress, but simply as a teenage girl. TV shows and movies contain stories that give us expectations for what the future may hold; for experiences ranging from high school, to romance, to careers, we look to the silver screen for our frames of reference. When Lavendaire looked around and found nothing as a teenager, she felt like an outsider. This insecurity inhibited her when pursuing her dreams of music and acting: “I really think that deep down it was almost like a barrier… like I did believe I would never be the star…. I didn’t see examples of how far I would go because of the color of my skin.”
This movement is strength. It is visible proof to the Asians and Asian-Americans who participate in it that we are not just our race and the labels assigned to it. I hope these two films and the stories and empowerment they’ve invoked are just the beginning.
Within the group of people grateful for depictions of Asians on-screen are those who are using the Asian representation movement as a reason to enforce an exclusionary Asian club — no other colors allowed. In doing so, they transform the communication and connections Asians and Asian-Americans are forming into boundaries against other races.
For example, recently, there was controversy about how Lara-Jean (the main character in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) should have ended up with an Asian boy. To this, Lana Condor (who plays Lara-Jean) responded, “So I can only date others of the same race?”
Another controversy from a few months ago was brought up after an article came out about a girl named Keziah Daum. This girl wore a traditional Chinese dress to prom; the thing was, she wasn’t Chinese.
Posts and tweets abounded yelling at Daum for being insensitive, asserting “My culture is not your goddamn PROM dress.” Because the qipao doesn’t carry heavy cultural significance, I must conclude people were offended at the fact that someone who was not their race was trying to share in their culture — even if just fashion-wise (though she stated a deeper interest in Chinese culture).
Perhaps it wasn’t right for Keziah Daum to wear that dress to her prom (as some of the poses she made in the dress were questionable), but I must question the aggression of the responses. Would this response have been different if Daum had taken the time to learn about the culture before putting on the dress, or if she had gotten the dress on a cultural immersion trip? Or is it just the fact that she is not of Asian heritage so she automatically cannot participate in the culture?
This was not the first time in popular culture that a white person has worn a qipao. In an episode of the popular show Friends, Rachel Green (played by Jennifer Aniston) wears a qipao to another character’s bachelorette party. However, the lack of backlash for this may be accounted for by the absence of a social media platform for the backlash to take place on.
The reason I bring all of this up is because I see this Asian representation movement as an opportunity to create a world of acceptance and integration. A world where the stories we grow up with can include every person from every background, where it is more normal to know something about every culture than to not. But this won’t happen if we are not willing to share our stories, or if we use the strength of our community to make others feel as small and unimportant as we have in the past.
We constantly confuse ignorance with permanent fault and inherent maliciousness, rather than seeing it as an opportunity to learn. While the soul of this movement is the importance of race recognition and race as a prominent facet of identity, it is important to note that race is not one’s whole identity. Both Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before do a wonderful job of showing this by having stories that everyone can relate to and fall in love with, even without an Asian heritage.This phenomenon is about understanding that our race is an important part of our spirit, it shapes us, but most prominently we are all people with individual personalities and characteristics and paths, a point reiterated by Jenny Han, author of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, in her appearance on the Daily Show.
If used to integrate rather than segregate, the Asian representation movement could lead to a world where movies with all-Asian casts are commonplace. People of Asian heritage could grow up seeing people like them on-screen, dream of being on-screen themselves. Asians and Asian-Americans would never feel like they didn’t matter again. But this is only possible if we are regarded not just as Asians, but as people first and foremost, whose identity is shaped by an Asian heritage. And we will never get to that point if we continue to be the driving force of separating ourselves from others.
“The day that [non-Asian] people can actually say the word ‘Asian’ without feeling like weird, or mysterious, or awkward about it… that’s the day we’re finally normal.”
-Andrew Fung, “10 Ways Crazy Rich Asians Changed the World”
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