Crazy Rich Asians Fed Me

Crazy Rich Asians Fed Me
Image: Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

“You will never be enough.”

Eleanor stood on a grand staircase in a grand home, an obelisk of a history and culture that could not be denied. Regal, immovable, immutable. A force not to be opposed. Below her, Rachel shrunk, and I alongside her.

It felt as though she was speaking to me. An ignorant, strange girl who wore her skin all wrong.

In Crazy Rich Asians, hitting cinemas August 30, American-Chinese university teacher Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) travels to Singapore to meet the crazy rich family of her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), including his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). It’s a familiar tale of meeting the in-laws, a scenario many can relate to, but seeped in a culture and people never before featured in a major Hollywood film.

Rachel isn’t a complete fish out of water, though. She shares at least some culture with Nick’s Singaporean-Chinese family, and she’s clearly put effort into preparing to meet them. This isn’t the tale of an American girl bumbling through a strange, foreign land.

Instead, Rachel’s struggle is one less easily overcome, and one familiar to all diasporic communities: That of trying your best, doing everything right, and still being found wanting simply because of who you are.

Though she wields a quiet authority, Eleanor doesn’t speak to Rachel with malice. She merely issues statements as fact, difficult truths in a tone I’ve heard many times before.

“You are not our type of people.”

She isn’t incorrect. Despite her appearance, it is apparent Rachel doesn’t quite fit in among the Singaporeans. Though she makes a determined attempt to endear herself to them, her Western-tinged upbringing and lack of experience with the community’s nuances cause her to stumble, requiring allies to save and guide her.

“She just thinks you’re some, like, unrefined banana,” advises Rachel’s friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina), referring to one of the more charitable terms for Westernised Asians.

Born and raised in the West, Rachel is not Asian enough to be Asian, yet not Western enough to be Western. Just different enough to be unpalatable to both.

I, too, was born and raised in the West, but when I visited Singapore for the first time as an adult, I was shocked by how much it felt like home. It felt like standing in my mum’s kitchen, surrounded by family. The unhidden accents, the familiar foods, the shared terminology. I immediately felt safe.

But to Singaporeans, I was a gawking stranger. I may have looked as though I belonged, but I marked my difference as soon as I spoke. Like Rachel, I was not their type of people.

As a child, the most I knew about politics was that there was a red-headed lady on TV who didn’t want people like me in Australia. I may have been born here, but I grew up in an environment that constantly questioned whether I should have been.

“My mum-my’s Chinese.” Corners of the eyes pulled up. “My dad-dy’s Japanese.” Corners of the eyes pulled down. “I go both ways.” One eye up, one eye down.

My primary school memories are filled with schoolyard songs chanted by friends and classmates. Sometimes at me, sometimes just as a matter of course – the soundtrack of the playground.

“Ching chong Chinese.” Up down, up down up. “Hong Kong money please.” Down up, hands cupped to beg.

Later we would play together on the climbing frames, pray for the children in Sudan, and colour in pictures of brown and “skin-coloured” children holding hands.

I memorised the second verse of the national anthem and loved lamb chops fresh off the barbie, but I lived in a world where I was never Australian. I merely lived alongside them.

Early in Crazy Rich Asians, Rachel goes shopping with her mother for an outfit to wear when meeting Nick’s family. In another film, she’d be accompanied by her eclectic best friend who would offer hilarious and witty commentary. Here, her mother picks out her clothes with all the confidence of a personal stylist.

I’ve had similar outings with my own mum, who is authoritative in her impeccable fashion and common sense. When Nick’s mother helped him into his jacket and quietly admonished him for not returning home when initially planned, I saw my mother caring with her hands while scolding with her words. Like them, my family has always been a core part of my life.

Rachel and Nick are aware of how involved their mothers are, but neither parent is a nagging, unwanted presence. Rachel isn’t a cowed shadow of her mother, and Nick is far from an overly-attached “mummy’s boy”. (I’m not even going to go into how bad the “Asian men are sexy now” take is. Asian men have been prime rib-eye steak forever, y’all have just been blind and racist.)

I’d never seen an Asian character in Hollywood behave as though they had the history of immigrant parents and cultural customs informing their actions, while still retaining their independence. They respect and love their mothers, and accept their help when it is offered, but use their advice to inform their own decisions.

When I was 10, my favourite colour was yellow. Yellow was the colour of sunshine, daffodils, lemon muffins and smiley faces. It was the colour of turmeric, custard buns and the only Asian Power Ranger, who was also objectively the best one.

So when Coldplay released Yellow, it quickly became my favourite song.

I’d heard the colour used in reference to myself and people who looked like me. Though I’d examined the yellow daisies in our garden, threading their stems through my fingers, I was unable to see how we matched. I didn’t much mind though. I was yellow, and yellow was beautiful.

Not long after, I began to understand that “yellow” when applied to a person was not merely a descriptor. It was derision.

Someone told me that yellow clothes made me look sallow and ugly. I learned that while yellow hair is desirable, yellow skin is not. My affinity for the colour became strange, uncomfortable and shameful. The yellow girl likes yellow. Of course she does.

When I was 11, my favourite colour was blue.

Image: Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

I live with my parents, which is not uncommon among and even expected for young unmarried people in Asian communities. But I feel awkward admitting it to others or inviting over friends, knowing what Western culture thinks of adults who haven’t yet left home.

Outside the confines of my home, being Asian is often an anomaly to be explained, behaviour to be justified. A deviation for others to graciously excuse or wilfully ignore.

Peik Lin welcoming Rachel into the home she shared with her parents and siblings normalised my life. There was no awkward moment where she explained why she was still living at home after university. It was just accepted, my life displayed as though it didn’t require justification.

In one scene, Rachel, Nick and their friends toss pocket-sized packets of tissues to each other at a hawker centre, reaching into my memory of being gifted the same on my own visit. In another, exclamations of “Alamak!” and “Walao!” bounce untranslated across the cinema screen in bright message bubbles. These words marinated my childhood, but I’d rarely heard them beyond my mother’s mouth. Yet here they were, writ large in a Hollywood film.

These easily-missed details could have been omitted, and knowing what they mean doesn’t affect the plot. But for these characters, and for myself, the presence of such moments woven throughout the film is as obvious and integral to life as breathing.

As Katherine Ho’s Mandarin cover of Yellow filled the cinema, it crashed against my calluses. Of all songs, why this one? Didn’t they know what people would think?

But as it persisted, the film reached through my chest to seize a painful grasp on my heart. I felt as though someone had exposed my most private, never-expressed thoughts, ones I wouldn’t even entrust to the confidence of a diary.

And rather than standing in judgement, they had not only understood my feelings but shared them.

The melancholy melody, in those words, in this context, looked my 10-year-old self in the eye and told her she and her experiences had worth. It showed her that yellow could be beautiful, and did it in a way she could believe.

As often as I’ve said that representation matters, and as much as I’ve stood by this conviction, I now consider that I didn’t fully understand it before I saw Crazy Rich Asians.

Intellectually, I was aware that I’d never seen anyone like me portrayed in film or television or even a short story unless I wrote it myself. Academically, I knew it had shaped my thinking and the thinking of those around me.

But it’s a far different thing to see it played out and feel it settle in your chest, in your stomach. As though you’re full for the first time when you hadn’t even known there was a word for hunger because that gnawing in your stomach was just part of existence. Who would I have been if I hadn’t starved all those years?

We can all relate in some way to the characters that populate Hollywood, regardless of race or culture. But it’s one thing to relate, and a different thing to see yourself reflected.

I’d never had anything tell me it’s OK to exist as I am.

Image: Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

The B story could have been more fleshed out. I wish there was at least one character who lived in a typical HDB flat, to contextualise the Young family’s wealth and let us see the rest of Singapore. The film could also have gone in harder on the Singaporean accents.

But you could find similar nitpicks in any movie. It was still one of the best romcoms I’ve ever seen, and I’m not going to quibble about garnish when I’m starving.

I don’t want to hear white critics swooping in to tell me the movie is too fluffy, or too fantastical, or fails to examine the psychological and sociological consequences of extreme wealth.

I want to imagine that I can fall head over heels in love; be embraced and accepted by the community I lost; eat a whole bunch of kueh along the way, and not once have to explain what kueh is.

Image: Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

When the credits rolled, I immediately wanted to demand they play it again. I’d never had a cinematic experience like that before, and who knew when I’d have another?

I was under no delusions. Joy Luck Club earned over three times its budget, but we still had to wait 25 years for another major Hollywood production featuring Asians in all leading roles, and numerous opportunities for casting Asians continue to be cheerfully passed by.

I wanted to grasp hold of this film and not let go because I couldn’t believe I was allowed to have it.

Crazy Rich Asians isn’t about how others see Asians or catering to a non-Asian audience. If they enjoy it, that’s great. But this film is for Asians, and about how we see ourselves. It’s Asians finally in control of their own conversation.

Though Rachel fumbles in her attempts to connect with Nick’s family, her gestures don’t echo hollow. Her efforts are genuine, her intentions pure, and she understands the importance of respect, community, and the close bonds of family, being ready to quietly sacrifice individual happiness for that of the whole.

As an Asian raised in a Western country, Rachel’s experiences are different from those raised in the East. She may not possess the complete richness of Asian culture that they do. But she is not incomplete, and there is nothing deficient about her.

She is Western, she is Asian, and she is enough.