What watching Crazy Rich Asians meant to me (as a Chinese-American Jew living in Israel)
September 1, 2018
Disclaimer: This is NOT a movie review (although I did enjoy the film and think you will too).
Unless you live under a rock (no judgements) you've probably heard that Crazy Rich Asians hit the big screen just over a week ago. For those of you who didn't know, this is the first movie in 25 years to feature an entirely Asian cast. Needless to say, Asians across the globe (especially Asian Americans) are super excited to see Asian characters being played by actual Asians. It's a bigger deal than you might think.
Most probably don't realize this (unless you're also Asian, but even then) that there aren't a lot of Asians in mass media. Traditionally many Asian characters are played by non-Asian actors, and many Asian characters represent unflattering, even racist, stereotypes. Once in college some students doing a survey on advertisements and media for class approached me and asked "Do you feel that media and advertisements represent you?". I said no because although many companies do try to include minorities in their media, Asians are almost never featured. I never saw Asians in the mass media I so often consumed.
I remember as a child when Disney released Mulan. It was very exciting for my family. Naturally I had the illustrated book version and the Barbie doll - my first and only Asian Barbie.
Crazy Rich Asians is something like that.
In anticipation of the film I hurriedly read the best-selling novel (which I highly recommend) and watched interviews with various cast members on Youtube. Living in Israel I had to wait a bit longer for it to reach a theatre near me, but that didn't stop me from seeing is ASAP.
As I was enjoying every moment of the very fun and funny film, surrounded by Israelis, I couldn't help but have a lot of different feelings. As a Chinese-American, this movie was a big deal, but I can almost guarantee that I was the only Asian person in the entire place. I thought about the reactions to the movie of those around me, my non-Asian Israeli peers. I found myself swimming in thoughts and emotions.
Here are some of them:
First and foremost, I felt proud.
I felt proud to be Asian and know I have a rich culture that I have personally left unexplored. I was proud to see Asians being portrayed on the big screen as sophisticated and successful. And when being portrayed as stereotypes, it was on our own terms and by our own people. These are all things I have taken for granted.
I've spent a lot of my time exploring my Jewish roots. Sometimes I feel guilty that I haven't given the same attention to the other half of my identity. To you it might sound silly, but this movie has inspired me to dig deeper into my Asian roots.
I also felt different.
I'll be honest that there are times when I relish in my tokenism. I do enjoy being something completely different from the majority of people around me. But as I sat in this room full of Israelis, I couldn’t help but imagine seeing this movie in the Sacramento suburb where I grew up. A richly diverse, and heavily Asian area, there is a small chance I would find myself in the movie theatre without at least one other Asian enjoying the sight of other Asians in a blockbuster movie.
I’m a big believer that when it comes to hate and racism, nurture really can overtake nature. I grew up in a mixed-race family so when I say I was taught not to see color no it’s no joke. People have always just been people. Of course as I got older and went into the world that idea got complicated for me. It got especially complicated when I moved to Israel - a place where virtually no one else looks like me or comes from the same background as me. (Yes, there are other Asians, and even Chinese people in Israel. I'm not LITERALLY the only one.)
Which leads me to my third point...I felt worried.
Asians are often overlooked as a minority that experiences racism or hardship because we are traditionally successful. This movie, showing crazy rich Asians, doesn’t help with that image. Asians went through a long history of discrimination and still experience racism today.
Being in Israel the image of Asians is very different. Here the large population of Philipino and East Asian caretakers and service workers mean I’m often assumed to be of a “lower class”. When people hear me speak American English perfectly or find out that I work in digital marketing they are confused. When they read the “white” name on my ID they ask where I’m from, surprised by the answer "California". I simultaneously hate being associated with a second class of people, and feel sympathy for these workers who should not be treated any different just because of their occupation and/or race. But as I said, I went into the world and the idea that people are just people got complicated.
In any case, I hope everyone will go see Crazy Rich Asians. I hope you'll support a film that is long overdue for the Asian community. But I also hope you'll see it because it is fun, funny and entertaining!