I watched Crazy Rich Asians a couple weeks ago and found it to be a thoroughly entertaining and solid rom-com... but it was obviously so much more than that. It's 2018, and it's been a quarter century since the last time there was a Hollywood movie with an Asian cast – The Joy Luck Club – which came out while I was still in college. That was literally last century, but it seems we didn't make much progress since as far as that's concerned.
So I and many others worldwide waited for the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians. Will it meet its lofty expectations, or will it disappoint and prove that the world isn't ready?
Alright, not bad, both critics and moviegoers seem to like it, but Hollywood ultimately cares about one thing...
Oh thank god.
My family immigrated to the United States in 1985. Starting a new life in an unfamiliar place is always hard. Going through puberty is usually difficult. Downgrading socioeconomically from middle-class Philippine society to working-class suburban Philadelphia, while trying to learn how to understand English well enough to survive on a daily basis on top of all of that was psychologically and emotionally draining. But that's life for many immigrants who are seeking the American Dream and you just have to deal with it. My parents and siblings were all dealing with it, so I did, too.
I ended up doing really well in school in my first couple years as an Asian-American student. This was unusual. In all my previous years as a student, I was thoroughly middling and didn't distinguish myself in any way, shape, or form, unlike my older siblings who excelled in academics, arts, and/or athletics. I think that there were a couple factors at play in this change. One was being in a new school where there was no history of having to live up to my older siblings' reputations and I could simply be me. The other was my severe lack of social skills and friends, especially the first year, which meant that all I did was read, play Lego, watch cartoons, draw dragons and ninjas, and do schoolwork. In other words, I was a nerd and I didn't even know what that was.
Then I watched Revenge of the Nerds, whose four-movie run started the year before, where a smart, lovable loser named Takashi would lose a game of poker to a guy named Booger because he didn't know that a "frush" actually beats a pair. That same year saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom introduce a comedic Asian sidekick kid named Short Round, and Sixteen Candles introduced us all to Long Duk Dong who loudly declared, "No more yanky my wanky, the Dong-er need food!"
I also fell in love with another movie that came out in 1985. Goonies is a classic adventure movie about a small group of misfits seeking long lost pirate treasure. It had the same Asian kid who played Short Round assume the role of Data, a smart, gadget-obsessed geek (with a funny accent!) whose inventions caused no end of mischief and comedy. I loved this movie, you have no idea. When it showed up on cable TV I would always watch it.
These characters were what my peers were exposed to when I showed up at school as a very short, skinny, insecure, Asian kid with imperfect English. Can you take a guess as to what nicknames people tried to call me?
I don't blame my schoolmates for this. They were all young, immature, ignorant kids themselves, who only saw these portrayals of Asians in the movies around them. These characters were the closest they, or I for that matter, could see as having any kind of resemblance to me in mainstream entertainment. But I couldn't, I wouldn't, identify with any of them (okay, maybe Data just a little bit).
When I went to high school, I became inwardly angry without knowing why. I didn't fit in, but I knew I didn't want to be an Asian stereotype. I didn't want to be that book smart nerd! So I made sure I didn't get straight A's. I didn't get bad grades (okay, Chemistry and English weren't my best classes) either, but maybe got an average of a B+ to an A–. If they were any worse, I'd feel super guilty for all the hard work my parents were doing to put me through school, so it was this weird balance that I decided to strike, but I felt guilty enough that I would intercept my report card when it arrived in the mail. I don't think my parents ever saw my grades throughout high school. It's a good thing I had a great art teacher who helped me develop better-than-average art skills which got me into art & design school, otherwise I have no idea what I would have done instead.
Until I saw Crazy Rich Asians, I had never seen a big, mainstream Hollywood movie portray people who resemble me as anything but these foreigners with thick accents who were socially awkward and were played for laughs. Instead, it showed Asian men as sex symbols and as leading men. I had honestly never ever seen that before. The lingering shots on shirtless, good looking Asian men who were also smart and successful was a revelation! We can do that? That's allowed?
It also showed socially awkward, underdeveloped man children. Loyal friends. Boorish ingrates. Funny fashionistas. They had a full range of them!
If only my 12-year old self could have seen this. People who looked like me could actually be... anything, including people who I might actually want to be. And my middle-aged current self is glad to see it.
To all of the little Asian boys & girls out there, I'm happy for you. To Jon M. Chu, Kevin Kwan, the cast & crew, and everyone else who made this movie happen, thank you. Representation matters.
And with the announcement of a sequel, it won't be another 25 years before the next one.