Monday, August 27, 2018

On Real Names

Last week, Kelly Marie Tran had an essay published in the New York Times about the harassment she experienced online for not being white. It's good. If you haven't read it, I suggest doing so do.

That is not the point of this post though. What I want to talk about is how she chooses to end her essay with the words: "My real name is Loan."

While Tran is Vietnamese rather than Chinese, it is common for people in several Asian ethnic groups to have multiple names; an eastern one in their ancestral language and a western one. Growing up, I called the latter my American name.

In my case, my American one is my legal one and the Chinese one unofficial.

For some of my friends, it's the reverse. Their Chinese (or Korean) name is the legal one and they use their American names in day-to-day conversation.

Generally, speaking, the American names are for ease of use. It really sucks repeating your name a half dozen times and listening to someone constantly butcher it as they make a valiant attempt to get it right. To me, both my names are real, regardless of which is the one that appears on a legal document.

A conversation came up on Twitter between Asian American writers about "real names" and what made a name real and how the term might not have sat well with them, because like me they have multiple real names, and it's not as though one of them is more real than the other.

But in Tran's case, without knowing her personally, I feel like the use of "real name" here is that if she had the choice, she might have wanted to be credited as Loan Tran, rather than Kelly Marie. But having an Asian name hurts more than it helps in Hollywood. Chloe Bennet is half-Chinese, half-white, and acts under a white-passing name because she could not get work under her legal name of Chloe Wang. For Tran, even if she used Kelly Marie regularly in day to day life, there probably wasn't much choice about whether she wanted to use it professionally.

I've written before about how hard it is for Asians to get entertainment work in the US. Many times they have to make a go of it in their ancestral country, and maybe if they get popular enough there, they can transition to doing work in English (like Daniel Wu). But that's not an option for everyone.

By saying that her real name is Loan, Tran wanted us to know that there was a part of her she felt she had to hide, and because of that she couldn't fully be herself. But she can now, and I hope she will. I want to see her in more films in the future.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians and Being Chinese American

I saw Crazy Rich Asians last week. I don't normally watch romantic comedies. It's just not my genre. But it's been ages since I've seen an Asian-led cast in English speaking media. (The last one I could think of was Better Luck Tomorrow, though most of the press has focused on Joy Luck Club since it was a major studio release.) Usually if I see that many Asians on screen it's because I'm watching something produced in China or Japan. But hearing most of the dialogue in English without dubbing?

That's unusual. And that's why I decided to go see the movie.

I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, since it was not as comedic as I feared. There was a fair bit of drama and I was in tears at the end, which was all good to me. I'm not sure how closely it adheres to genre convention since it's not my thing, but apparently other people enjoyed it as well, with both critics and the audience giving it a solid 93% at Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing.

On the one hand, I'm relieved, because my Twitter feed had been bouncing with buzz leading up the movie and it would have been terrible if it just face-planted on launch. But on the other, I don't know that it'll actually lead to a renaissance of Asian-led media. That requires the people who greenlight these things to regard Crazy Rich Asians as the sign of a hungry audience rather than a one time anomaly.

But I saw a few things that really worked for me.

My family immigrated to the US starting with my grandparents. I don't really speak Chinese in any functional capacity. I just know a few words here and there. And my family's dialect is Taishanese, which is not taught anywhere, so learning it in school was never an option (and as a child I really wanted to!). So when the protagonist Rachel doesn't fit in because she's a "banana" being yellow on the outside and white on the inside, I really related to that.

Most of my Chinese friends growing up were from more recently arrived immigrant families, either being born abroad themselves or born from immigrant parents. They spoke Mandarin and to them, Mandarin was synonymous with Chinese. Though my friends didn't mind that I didn't speak it, there were a lot of awkward moments of visiting their homes and getting greeted by their parents in Mandarin and being told "Oh no. Laurie doesn't speak Chinese." Which was 99% true, but if they'd greeted me in Cantonese (which is closely related to Taishanese) I would have had a vague chance at understanding a word or two.

I read that at one point a producer wanted Rachel to be played by a white woman, and thankfully that was shot down. While that would also be a fish out of water story, it would have been tonally different, because a white character wouldn't feel an obligation to belong. But an Asian one looks like she should fit even if she is unable to do so, and that's something I understand very well, as I watch the bilingual language jokes go by on social media and realize that I'm incapable of understanding them even though my heritage says I should.

Not everything was alien though, or a remainder of how I don't fit. The sound of the language (not Mandarin--given that it's Singapore it ought to have been Cantonese or Hokkien), the clicking of the mahjong tiles (the parlor scene!), and the soundtrack (wow, the soundtrack) made me feel welcome and comfortable. And I loved the mahjong parlor scene. Even though I don't entirely understand the game myself, I know enough that when the scene started I knew it was face-off time, and there's a really good article about the particulars of scene from the perspective of those who play.

Crazy Rich Asians is not going to be everything to everyone, but even if it's not, I feel like it's something I've wanted to see. I just didn't know it.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Spice & Wolf VR

I'm not entirely sure what a virtual reality anime is, but Spice & Wolf is getting one. It's one of my favorite novel series at the moment, for being a generally low key romance about a traveling merchant escorting a wolf goddess home.

There was a proper anime series a few years ago, but the adaptation stopped after the fifth book, whereas the novel series itself is over twenty volumes (and counting, even though by now Holo has gotten home).

So, the VR anime.

The visual is gorgeous and it's being written by the original author, Isuna Hasekura. But being VR, one of the things I figured is likely, is that the player would take on the role of Lawrence and interact with Holo. The reverse would be be unlikely, as would the possibility of the player interacting with both characters.

This is because Holo is the wolf goddess. She's cute and feisty, she's the face of the series, and she's on all the merchandise.

And it turned out that my original prediction was eventually confirmed.

But I think not having Lawrence does him a disservice.

Though I like Holo, I actually read the series for Lawrence. I love him as a male lead because he has very practical concerns and does a lot with what little he has. He can't fight, but somehow finds himself meeting demigods, smugglers, and soldiers, and yet every situation he gets into he (or Holo) manage to diffuse it without resorting to violence. That is, if those kinds of situations arise at all, since this is a low key series and the source of conflict is not always a grand one. Most of the time, Lawrence can solve the book's problems just by using his knowledge of the local economy. And, particularly for anime, he's not a complete idiot about romance.

Though Lawrence is a bit slow at the start, once he realizes that Holo likes him in return the series gets a lot more fun as he and Holo readily flirt with each other. Their banter, and constant trying to one-up each other, is a highlight of the series. Usually Holo wins, but Lawrence gets in his digs, and he's smart enough to realize when it's better to let something go rather than win for the sake of winning (sometimes Holo's comments bite because she's upset and hiding it). He spends a lot of the series trying to understand her and why they might not be seeing eye to eye.

Also, Lawrence has excellent life goals. After all this traveling is over he wants to settle down and open up a shop.

I find Lawrence incredibly endearing, and while he's not the sort of man one would expect to end up with a goddess, I can see why one might fall in love with him.

And that's why I'm disappointed that the VR anime is making Holo while the viewer is playing from Lawrence's perspective. It's clear that it's being made to appeal to heterosexual men, but for those of us who find Lawrence appealing as well, it's unfortunate.