Can we get some crazy broke Asians, too?

The success of ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,’ and Mitski’s ‘Be the Cowboy’ breaks open a conversation about Asian-American cultural representation.

Can we get some crazy broke Asians, too?

The success of ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,’ and Mitski’s ‘Be the Cowboy’ breaks open a conversation about Asian-American cultural representation.

Crazy Rich Asians has a 93 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and topped the box office in its opening weekend with a $25 million gross, nearly making back the cost of its budget. The movie received wild praise from just about every publication you can think of; an illustrative compliment is the international cover of Time proclaiming the movie “is going to change Hollywood.” The argument here is easy to understand: Crazy Rich Asians is the first Hollywood release with a majority Asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, and the industry acknowledges financial successes by hoping to duplicate them. By proving the existence of an Asian audience, the triumph of Crazy Rich Asians should naturally lead to at least a few more Hollywood-backed, Asian-centered films for the big screen.

No one to the left of Ben Shapiro quibbles with the benefit of public-facing creative diversity in its most expansive definition — stories spanning races, genders, countries, experiences, emotions, and so on, giving consumers more to think about. But what about the Asians who hated Crazy Rich Asians, or at the very least just thought it was okay? How much does their opinion count here? It’s true; they’re out there. Their nitpicks are manifold. Some of them don’t like how the movie, which is set in Singapore, focuses exclusively on depicting the upper crust, purposefully eliding the country’s very real income inequality gap and strident politics. Some of them don’t like the movie’s narrow slice of Asian representation: it’s all light-skinned, posh, Chinese people. Some of them don’t like the movie’s presentation of unfettered capitalism as a neutral good. Some of them don’t like Awkwafina’s hip-hop-inflected accent. And some of them just don’t like romantic comedies.

On the one hand, Awkwafina’s accent is pretty bad; on the other, the scope of the movie is right there in the title: it’s about Asians who are crazy and rich. But the discussion surrounding Crazy Rich Asians has largely been streamlined to a very basic point: more Asians on screen is a good thing, even if they’re telling the same stories that have dominated Hollywood since time immemorial. Worrying about artistic quality is a privilege afforded to demographics who’ve achieved representative parity, one might say. Melanin-deprived consumers of a movie like You’ve Got Mail or 50 Shades of Grey didn’t have to worry about what it meant for the cinematic future of their people; the next one was already in the can.

Jeremy Gordon and Wei Tchou explore the many shades of Asian-American culture representation on The Outline World Dispatch.

So if Crazy Rich Asians didn’t speak to you, you need not despair. The future will come, eventually, as this movie opens doors for the next generation. “I hope Asian-American kids watch [Crazy Rich Asians] and realize that they can be heroes of their own stories,” the film’s star Constance Wu wrote in a thoughtful statement ahead of its release. “So for those who don’t feel seen, I hope there is a story you find soon that does represent you.” We don’t know what the next great Asian-American movie will look like, though there’s already a Crazy Rich Asians sequel in the works.

In the same week Crazy Rich Asians was released, another landmark Asian-American piece of art took a completely different approach to its politics: Be the Cowboy, the third studio album released by Mitski. As a great musician who also happens to be a 27-year-old Japanese-American woman, Mitski has staked out a role at the forefront of indie rock’s diversifying wave. The lead single of her last album, Puberty 2, was “Your Best American Girl,” a post-Weezer alt-rock stunner where her narrator broods about seeking validation from the family of a (presumably) white paramour: “Your mother wouldn't approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I finally I do.” Beyond its acceptance from a general indie rock-loving audience, the song was specifically praised by Asian women for crystallizing those angsty feelings that arise from realizing there are fundamental cultural differences between you and someone else.

But in the lead-up to Be The Cowboy, Mitski consistently rejected the notion that she should be elevated as some kind of spokesperson for her race or gender. “My lyrics are about being fucked up,” she told GQ. “I'm not a Power Ranger. I've been stronger than I'm expected to be because I'm a woman. I'm weak and I'm not allowed to be, because then I lose my ability to control my destiny or whatever. Also, I'm Asian so suddenly I also have to be every single Asian woman. Which is half the world.” She seemed to recognize and mistrust the forces that make celebrities and idols and archetypes and role models out of regular people, just because they wrote a song, and the way that those forces would cynically diminish her art and the art of others out of convenience. Become too famous, and you’d never be allowed to fail again.

Perhaps it’s fatuous to remind yourself that true diversity includes all those “fucked up” feelings, as she put it, but in the current climate almost every popular marginalized person, real or not, invites an unending conversation about whether they’re doing it the right way. The offensive representation of years past — think Mickey Rooney in yellow face in Breakfast at Tiffany’s — certainly seems galling in the present, and a new generation of cultural consumers holds creators and characters to a much higher if not impossible moral standard. In her comments, Mitski asked for the freedom to be human; to opt of a system that largely rewards a sanitized depiction of humanity. She, and other Asian creators, need not be considered successful by their ability to sell something to the most amount of people possible.

Or, as she tweeted at the start of 2017: “if I became famous right now asian women musicians across the west no matter what kind of music they make will be told they sound like me.” And what empowerment is found in trying to convince the powerful you’re capable of making a lot of money?

“‘Asian-American’ is a mostly meaningless term. Nobody grows up speaking Asian-American, nobody sits down to Asian-American food with their Asian-American parents and nobody goes on pilgrimages back to their motherland of Asian-America.”
Jay Caspian Kang, ‘New York Times Magazine’

This is the part where I dutifully inform you of my ethnic background: I am second-generation Chinese-American on my mother’s side, biracial by way of my Jewish father, and I self-identity somewhere between “Asian-American” and “Chinese-ish.” I hope this confers some partial authority, even if it’s less than the full-bloods. Given how profoundly disparate the diaspora is, you have to be careful about trusting someone just because they insist they have a personal stake in the discussion. If you’re supposed to swear by the Chinese-American who shares a lengthy story about her upbringing to explain why Crazy Rich Asians matters so much, what do you say to the Singaporean national who thinks it’s saccharine, reality-distorting garbage? Whose perspective is afforded more weight, when parsing their very meaningful differences is rarely a part of how we talk about race in America?

The pan-ethnic concept of “Asian-American” is only a few decades old, a phrase painting over differences in countries, skin tones, socioeconomic backgrounds, immigrant experiences, and much more. As Jay Caspian Kang once wrote: “‘Asian-­American’ is a mostly meaningless term. Nobody grows up speaking Asian-American, nobody sits down to Asian-American food with their Asian-American parents and nobody goes on pilgrimages back to their motherland of Asian-America.” But the Chinese-Americans are not only different from the Japanese-Americans and the Korean-Americans; they’re different from the Chinese, their American identity coming into sharp relief when they visit the motherland, and realize they’re alienated in an entirely different way.

If Crazy Rich Asians is about anything aside from the benefits of being rich and hot, it’s what it means to be Asian-American. “They’re Chinese, I’m Chinese,” movie protagonist Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, who is Taiwanese-American) says of her boyfriend Nick Young’s (Henry Golding, who is Malaysian-British and biracial) family, before her mother corrects her: “You’re different.” Later, when Nick glibly jokes with his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, who is Malaysian-Chinese) that he brought home a nice Chinese girl, she corrects him: “Chinese-American.” Rachel is full-blooded Chinese, and even speaks the language, but she’s an American; she doesn’t have any place in or understanding of Singapore culture. In the movie’s most emotionally devastating moment, Eleanor makes this pointedly clear to her by claiming, “You will never be good enough.”

“It’s difficult enough to confront your own place within one set of systems framed by white hegemony — how then do you turn around and discuss Asians’ own bigotries and histories within countries your ancestors come from, but you’ve never lived in?” Refinery 29’s Connie Wang wrote of this realization, which she dubbed “The Motherland Moment.” As someone who could probably pass for Emma Stone’s brother, I’ve been conscious of this separation my entire life. I didn’t grow up speaking Chinese at home; I didn’t bring tupperwares of stinky tofu to lunch. My experience was closer to the one found in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a Netflix original movie that debuted last week along with Crazy Rich Asians. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before tells the story of Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor, who is Vietnamese and was raised in Illinois by white parents), a half-Korean girl trying to navigate a minefield of high-school crushes. Based off a young-adult novel by biracial Korean-American author Jenny Han, the movie is a fresh spin on the teen romantic comedy: The boys are sensitive and thoughtful, not dull; Lara Jean controls her narrative, instead of letting things happen to her; there’s some genuinely charming humor, mostly related to how awful talking about sex is when you’re that age and still clueless.

But the unique thing about To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is the way Lara Jean’s Asian-ness is both present and not. She worries that boys won’t like her, though not because she’s made to feel like a foreign invader. There are touches of Asian culture — her white dad attempts to make Korean food; her sister downs the Japanese fermented dairy drink Yakult — but they never feel conspicuous (contrasted with the lovingly shot culinary porn of Crazy Rich Asians, taking extreme care to remind you how special Asian food is). Some of the relevant issues you might expect to be explored in a more didactic movie, like the variance of skin tones among the three half-white sisters, or the fact that four of Lara Jean’s crushes are white, are ignored entirely. It’s a feel-good movie, yes, but it presents another kind of utopia in which the struggle of what it means to be Asian-American has been mostly worked out, replaced by the more evergreen struggle of what it means to be a teenager.

Lara Jean Covey with her sister and her crush, the super dreamy Peter Kavinsky.

Lara Jean Covey with her sister and her crush, the super dreamy Peter Kavinsky.

Lara Jean’s story feels universal, and yet: Han insisted that prospective producers not whitewash the roles, because of course it’s important that she and her family are Asian-American. I was touched by this delicately incorporated consideration of race, opposed to Crazy Rich Asians’ more explicit agonizing over the salient topics. It’s a privilege to not obsess over them, sure, but that’s one part of the biracial experience — getting a window into the future where the traditional barriers defining race and identity have melted away, allowing everything to swirl. But To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before isn’t explicitly about any of this. It’s just a movie about a high-school girl navigating her crushes.

Towards the end of Crazy Rich Asians, I began thinking about the many Asian-Americans saying that they were finally getting the chance to see people who looked like them on the big screen. But this is just not true. For one, almost all the Asians in the movie are a specific type; the only dark-skinned Asians show up as maids and manservants. It was sobering to realize that I had more in common physically with the pudgy, spectacled, sexless nerd played for laughs than the impossibly debonair Golding.

But I’ve also been watching Asians in movies my entire life, thanks to directors such as Akira Kurosawa, John Woo, Wong Kar-wai, Ang Lee, Takashi Miike, Shohei Imamura, Yasujirō Ozu, Sylvia Chang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Chan-wook Park, Bong Joon Ho, Kenji Mizoguchi, Katsuhiro Ôtomo, Hayao Miyazaki, and many more. That these directors don’t necessarily make English-language movies, or that they produced their best work years before I was born, didn’t prevent me and thousands of others from seeking them out and finding great meaning in their diverse Asian narratives. There they were, yellow and tan faces, epicanthic folds and all, falling in love, cracking jokes, acting like villains, and everything else. It made me wonder, somewhat uncharitably, if when people sound the demand for “representation,” what they really want is something they don’t have to go very far to find — something that provides familiar satisfaction.

I liked Crazy Rich Asians, and I’m glad it exists, but the reality of Asian identity in America is that our proximity to whiteness and false monolithic identity makes it so that a $25 million dollar opening weekend gives us joy at being seen. Something better is surely possible — something that doesn’t depend on satisfying the conditions that have created the structural imbalance thus far. Exploring the contours of one’s identity is rarely so easy as waiting for it to be explained to you by someone else, much less a piece of mass-market entertainment. I’d rather carve out space for the messy, untamed thing, the one that rejects the old standards of glamour and authority. It might require more invention and struggle, but even after all this work, we can still imagine a more limitless future.