Just a few days ago, Jon Chu’s latest movie Crazy Rich Asian came out in theaters. Today, I went to go see this movie, the first in twenty-five years to have an all-Asian cast and Asian-American leads. The movie itself was a hilarious romantic comedy, but to me, it was so much more than that: it was about Asian American representation. And this is my story about what Asian American representation means to me.
The earliest memory I have is also my most shameful.
I’m around three years old, at my daycare center, waiting to be picked up by my parents. Parents were streaming in and out, and kids were running to their parents, arms wide open. I stood silently to the side, observing. A few minutes later, my father came towards me, arms wide open.
“Time to go home,” he said enthusiastically.
And then I told him to go away. And in his eyes, I saw a world shatter.
Seventeen years later, that memory remains one of my most vivid, one that I think about most often as I try to figure out what it means for me to be Chinese American. I grew up in a predominantly white town, and most people I knew and saw around me were white.
Kids don’t know anything about race or skin color. It doesn’t matter to them.
But they see and observe the people around them. Just as I saw, at age three, that my father didn’t look and act like the fathers of my classmates. Here’s the thing: it didn’t take somebody saying, “Asians are bad.” All it took was three-year-old me sitting in my daycare center eating cereal and playing with toys, not seeing anybody who looked like me or my father or having someone tell me, “Different is ok.”
And at age three, I became keenly aware of the fact that I was different. At age three, I began to try to dissociate myself from “the different.”
At age seven, I told my mom to stop packing my lunch. “I’ll eat at school; I don’t really like dumplings or fried rice.” But I lied. I loved dumplings and fried rice, but my friends in first grade “didn’t like the smell.” I just didn’t want to be different.
At age ten, I met a girl who’d just moved from Greece. Another one of my friends told her, “Wow, isn’t it so cool to be from Greece? I’d rather be from there than, like, China, right?” And I laughed, because I didn’t want to be different.
At age thirteen, a Chinese classmate told us she was Buddhist. “Isn’t that like, a half frog, half human thing?” people asked her. They spent days trying to convert her to Christianity. And I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t want to be different.
I just wanted to be like the girls on T.V. and in movies: beautiful, smart, cool. But there seemed to always be some unspoken, default rules: those girls never spoke Chinese; they didn’t eat Chinese food; they didn’t listen to Chinese music; they didn’t look Chinese.
I just wanted to see somebody, in popular culture, who looked like me. Someone like me who was more than just a sidekick, a villain or a maid in the background. Someone like me who could be the lead in her own story. Someone who spoke a different language at home, listened to music in a different language, ate different foods, had different cultural values, but not have all that BE the story, but part of the story. Because her story could be anything she wanted: a superhero, and princess, and spy, and novelist, and so much more.
That’s why Crazy Rich Asians meant so much to me. To listen to the mostly-Chinese soundtrack, to see the family eating dumplings, to hear the parents talk about filial piety, was to see my own family and myself. To witness Rachel (the main character) have a story in which her Asian-American experience and heritage were so casually and seamlessly woven into her character and story, was to see my own Asian-American story on that screen. To see so many moviegoers around me, of all different races, laugh and praise the movie, was to see that the American story is inherently different and unique to each and every one of us, shaped by our pasts and experiences, and that’s ok.
That’s why is so important to have Asian representation — really, minority representation in general — in popular culture. To see our different selves, to have our different stories told, to be different yet normal at the same time, is one step towards having that three-year-old better understand that she’s beautiful, she’s different, and she’s proud of her family and heritage.