crazy rich asians, a reflection

A Chinese cover of Yellow from the Crazy Rich Asians soundtrack.

I saw “Crazy Rich Asians” a few days ago with my mom, and my family has spent a lot of time talking about this movie, what it means to us, and why we resonated with it so much. I was aware of this book when it came out in 2013, but I had some skepticism about its content, and didn’t really bother exploring what it was about. I thought it had to deal with rich Chinese people from China, which, now living in Orange County, I am all too familiar with.

When I found out that it was being made into a movie, I was excited that an Asian cast would make it to the big screen, but otherwise, didn’t think too much about it. It wasn’t until the trailer came out a few months ago that I realized this was not the type of Asian representation I was expecting. It was significantly more.

To explain my connection to this movie, I have to explain my family’s rather complex immigrant story. My grandparents on my mom’s side met in Fujian Province in China. My grandmother has spoken Fujianhua, or Hokkien, to me since I was a child. Although I don’t speak to any degree of fluency, I can completely understand conversationally. My grandparents were part of the Chinese diaspora to Southeast Asia, residing in Hong Kong and Indonesia. My mom lived in Palembang, in the South Sumatra province of Indonesia (where they faced all sorts of discrimination) until she was 18, and then moved to Hong Kong. She speaks Mandarin, Indonesian, Cantonese, Hokkien, and English - these were the languages I was surrounded with growing up. My dad’s side of the family immigrated to Northern Ireland when he was young, where Chinese people made up less than 0.2% of the population. He grew up there, eventually studying engineering in London, and then moving to the United States to work at JPL. My parents met in California, where my brother and I were born.

I grew up as a Chinese-American, because that’s what I was - I was an ethnically Chinese person who grew up in America, but I always felt different than other Chinese-Americans. I received confusing looks when I entered kindergarten. My English pronunciation was off, but not because I didn’t know how to speak, but rather because I was used to hearing Northern Irish, UK, Hong Kong accents, not American ones. I was put in ESL until I could speak “correctly”. I didn’t understand why “colour” or “favourite” were wrong ways to spell. I listened carefully to how other people said “aunt”, and tried my best to emulate. I attended Chinese school and am still proficient in Mandarin, but felt alienated because Mandarin was not the primary language for anyone in my family. My parents wanted me and my brother to speak Mandarin because it is the most widely spoken, and did not speak any of the other languages with us. Other than when she was talking to me, my mom was always speaking Cantonese, Hokkien, or Indonesian. My grandmother on my dad’s side speaks Cantonese to me, and I answer in Mandarin. My aunts, uncles, and cousins speak to me in English with their unique Irish/Cantonese accents, and I respond in my Americanized English. Throughout my entire life, I have never met another Chinese-American with a background even remotely similar to mine. I’ve mentioned that my family is from Belfast and that I have UK citizenship, and received blank stares or laughs. Most people think that I’m kidding (would that be a funny joke?). I’ve been asked whether I was adopted, or if I’m actually half white and just look full Asian. When I was younger, I would mention foods that I would eat at home, like pempek and gado-gado (Indonesian foods), and get confused when my Chinese friends didn’t know what I was talking about. I had no idea where cultural boundaries lay in my incredibly multicultural home.

Crazy Rich Asians hit almost every component of my cultural identity. The movie is about Asian-Americans, British-Chinese, and Chinese people in Southeast Asia, and I resonated with every single one of those groups. The grandmother, like my grandmother, grew up in mainland China and is more “traditional”. The mom, like my mom, aunts and uncles, carry a distinctly Southeast Asian experience - not quite as Chinese as their parents, but not fully anything else either.  I understood the American jokes, the Cantonese jokes, the Mandarin jokes, and the Hokkien jokes. I resonated with this movie more than I ever reasonably expected to resonate with anything in mainstream media ever, and that feeling is incredible. If there is ever a question as to my representation is important, it is this. I’ve never felt more seen.