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.