"I was Asian before it was cool" – The significance of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’
Last month, I finally had the opportunity to see ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. I had huge expectations for so many reasons. This was the breakthrough contemporary Hollywood movie, to feature an all Asian cast. The world declared it a monumental moment for Asian representation in the west. So many of my migrant friends admitted to getting ‘the feels’ in unexpected ways. Not surprising to anyone, when the credits rolled in I was choking back tears. The experience left me with overwhelming feelings of pride, relief and gratitude. It’s not the first time I had felt this way in recent months.
Asian representation seems to be the ‘in’ thing right now. I’ve watched a Vietnamese female lead win the affections of the popular and attractive brunette. My heart has been warmed by the antics of a Korean family and their humble convenience store. Even my story of starting a church filled with Asian migrants has managed to make the headlines in Australian news. Asians are so hot right now but I, like many of my friends, have been around long before it was cool.
The identity struggle of Asian-Australians
Growing up in the 1990’s as an Asian-Australian, ‘Do I belong here?’ was a question that I asked myself daily. Although I was born in Australia, I spent my first five years in the care of my grandparents, in a migrant hub in Sydney’s south. They were wonderful years of feasting on Chinese food, listening to Cantonese radio, learning Mahjong and watching Hong Kong dramas on TVBJ. I look back on those years with fondness because they were my ‘safe’ years untouched by racism.
Everything changed when my family moved into Sydney’s prestigious North Shore. While my friends dreamed of becoming firefighters or ballerinas, I was that Asian kid who simply dreamed of being white. I remember my first day of school and realising for the first time, that I looked and sounded different. While other kids were making friends, I spent the first two weeks of school trying to hide the fact that I couldn’t speak English. I remember the day the teacher addressed me in class and my secret was exposed. As she repeated herself over and over, and as I sat there muted in confusion, my classmates began to laugh.
Was I the only one who didn’t get the joke? Wait a second…was I the joke?
I remember the days when my parents were told to ‘go back to where they came from’. I remember being told that my lunch boxes were ‘smelly’ and ‘gross’. I remember the kids who pulled my hair when we learned about Chinese migration during the Australian Gold Rush. I remember being asked to leave the classroom as a way of illustrating the racism of the Australian White Policy. I remember feeling humiliated by the words of Pauline Hanson. I remember the objectification of Asian women in the workplace. I have been told that I’m pretty, opinionated and competent…‘for an Asian’.
Internalised racism in the West
I don’t share these stories to elicit sympathy because I know I am part of my own problem. From a young age, I chose to reject my cultural roots through internalised racism. Instead of having the courage to see worth in my Eastern roots, I chose to abandon my culture in order to belong. At school, I worked really hard to develop my authentic Australian accent. At home, I refused to learn how to use chopsticks. I became a master of self-deprecation because if people were going to laugh at the Asian jokes, I wanted to be the one to crack them. Like Rachel who rolled her eyes at having to wear a ‘lucky red dress’, I complain about the burden of keeping up with Chinese traditions. By the time I graduated from ESL classes, I was ready to abandon my Chinese heritage because what was once ‘safe’ became a threat to my acceptance in Australia.
The power of representation
When I approached the ticket counter I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed. Was I going to be that Asian who humiliates herself in an empty cinema, watching a story that nobody even cares about? To my surprise, I walked into a sold-out room with seats completely filled by people of all races and backgrounds! As I took my seat, I glowed with relief and pride. I sensed that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Right next to me was an elderly Asian man who spent the whole movie gasping, laughing and pointing at elements of familiarity. It was as though he was declaring: “That’s my family! That’s my song! That’s my food! That’s my people!”
I found myself becoming more and more emotional as the ‘Asian things’ that I had tried to hide, were blown up on the big screen. It was deeply comforting to see the Aunties, dumplings, mahjong tiles and the Cantonese language normalised on a Western movie screen. As the movie progressed, I felt as though the ‘safe stuff’ that I had vilified by internalised racism, started to feel safe again.
The differences of Eastern culture
What I appreciated most about ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is the fact that it didn’t shy away from the differences of Eastern culture, even if it was portrayed as a weakness. The story of the judgmental mother-in-law hit close to home as I recalled the difficult years that my mum had to endure for marrying the love of her life. She was never good enough and yet despite the constant put downs, my mum showed my late Ma Ma (grandmother) unconditional respect.
In my Ma Ma’s final years, my mother and I spent many evenings carrying her up a flight of stairs to wash her in the bathtub. Back then, I could not fathom how my mum could be so respectful towards a woman so uncaring. I remember the night when my mum earned her place in the family. While bathing her frail body, my grandmother said something to my mum that I’ll never forget: “My son married the right woman”. When Nick proposed to Rachel with his mother’s diamond, I relived that liberating moment when my Ma Ma admitted her errors in judgment and my mum was finally deemed worthy.
Another difference of Eastern culture is our value of collective harmony which can cause us to be preoccupied with ‘what people think’. While this encourages our communities to be selfless, it can also perpetuate an unhealthy culture of shame. Growing up in a crazy, but not-so-rich family, meant that my parents worked extra hard to turn their rags into riches. In doing so, it was expected of my brother and I to excel, because our excellence would bring honour to my family. This meant that our achievements became a means for boasting and our failures a reason for shame.
While I tried to meet my family’s expectations at the expense of personal happiness, I was never good enough and it became utterly exhausting. While my parents have changed their perspective on success and failure, I still have many friends who have excelled in the outside world and yet they fear returning home. For many of us, being in the presence of family is a painful reminder that we’ll never measure up.
The tension between East and West
This is why the pivotal ‘mahjong scene’ was so moving. As a ‘poor, raised by a single mother, low-class, immigrant, nobody’, Rachel fails in every way to meet Eastern standards, and yet she comes out on top because she knows the depths of unconditional love. Rachel is extremely close to her single mother and has no fear in being vulnerable before her family and friends. This is in contrast to the static Young family, who are overly concerned about their image and the need to ‘save face’.
Although Aunty Eleanor is respected and successful by Eastern standards, Rachel is able to expose her deepest fear: a broken relationship with her son. Although Rachel has the opportunity to accept Nick’s proposal, she makes an astounding sacrifice so that she doesn’t drive a wedge between he and his mother:
“I’m not leaving because I’m scared, or because I think I’m not enough…I just love Nick so much, I don’t want him to lose his mum again…”
Rachel’s decision was powerful because it communicates the tension between East and West. While Western individualism encourages personal happiness, Eastern values demands sacrifices for collective harmony. While Asian women are often stereotyped as silent and spineless door mats, Rachel’s sacrifice displays the immense strength that it takes to uphold Eastern values in a Western world.
As Rachel walks off with her supportive mum, Aunty Eleanor is left alone at the mahjong table to reflect on her attitude and decisions. For Asians living in the west, we too are left to decide. Will we repeat the mistakes of previous generations? What weaknesses of Eastern culture should we reject? What strengths of Western culture can we adopt?
‘Crazy Rich Asians’ certainly lived up to the hype. When the credits rolled in, I breathed a sigh of relief and the tears began to flow. Perhaps I was grateful that the efforts my family had gone to understand a new culture, was now being reciprocated in Western cinemas. Perhaps I was relieved to see people of all backgrounds willing and able to empathise with our story. Perhaps I was relieved that Asians were finally being portrayed as funny, attractive and likeable lead characters.
I walked into ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ expecting to be entertained. I didn’t anticipate the impact that it would have on my identity as an Asian Between Cultures. I walked in feeling embarrassed by my heritage. I walked out recognising that the best parts of me have been shaped by the resilience of migrants born outside of privilege. For the first in perhaps forever, I felt proud to identify with my people.
About the contributor
Heidi Tai is an Australian-born Chinese who grew up in Sydney, Australia. She loves a good coffee, getting lost in the Marvel universe and pumping 90’s R’n’B and Hip Hop beats. She is passionate about using words for real talk and shares unfiltered stories about life, faith and culture.
Read more of her thoughts here.
This article was originally featured here.