Finally Proud to be Chinese
After reading Crazy Rich Asians four years ago I waited patiently for a movie announcement so I could see the characters and story I had fallen in love with on a big screen. The book had already been so powerfully moving to read with its honest and familiar depiction of Asian culture, but I was not prepared for the emotions I would experience watching the movie.
I’ve never been ashamed to be Chinese but I don’t think I’ve ever been proud to be Chinese either. Watching Crazy Rich Asians I was bursting with pride because it took parts of my life story and my identity and shamelessly showed it off to the world.
Growing up in Mississauga, I was fortunate to be living in a multicultural and diverse city where it was easy to get dim sum on Saturdays with my aunts and have 3 Chinese grocery stores within a 5 minute drive. I attended a high school where Asians were the majority population and had a tight knit group of friends who were CBCs (Canadian-born Chinese). I didn’t question my identity because everyone around me looked and felt the same.
One of the first times I noticed something different about myself was when I attended Thanksgiving dinner at my high school boyfriend’s house. He was white. And I remember being so conscious of how I needed to perform in front of his parents. I wanted them to like me but I was worried that I wouldn’t fit in because in my family, Thanksgiving is not a formal sit-down dinner occasion. I felt like my culture had not prepared me for this moment.
I was careful to explain that I was born and raised in Canada because I didn’t want them to assume I was a new immigrant from China. I remember feeling both a pride in answering questions about my culture and an embarrassment in proving how different I was from them. And so, I answered their questions but watered down my culture to provide surface level responses that weren’t too Chinese.
By the time I attended Queen’s a year later, I had acknowledged that I was different but I felt like the best way to acknowledge it was by not acknowledging it at all. I wasn’t ashamed but I wasn’t proud either. And when I pursued a student leadership position on campus, I was careful not to bring attention to my Chinese identity because I didn’t want to be accused of “playing the race card.” I didn’t want people to say that I had only succeeded because I was a racial minority. I felt like I needed to ignore my Chinese identity so that other people could relate to Jenn the human. But I had forgotten that being Chinese is part of Jenn the human.
On the other end of the spectrum, I have also felt like I didn’t quite belong in Hong Kong as a CBC. I was too Chinese to be accepted in the North American majority and I was too North American to be accepted in the Hong Kong majority. There’s a line in the movie that I can still hear in my head: “Your face looks Chinese. You speak Chinese. But [in your head] and [in your heart] you are different.”
I’m sure a lot of my immigrant friends can relate to this sentiment, and I admire how poignantly the movie was able to capture this internal conflict. Whenever I visited my family in Hong Kong, I was “dressed like a white girl” or “had too much attitude like a white girl” or “too tan to be Chinese.” And even though I can speak Cantonese fluently I was constantly reminded that I wasn’t good enough to be considered a local since I couldn’t read or write the language.
Crazy Rich Asians bottled up all these emotions and blended it into a beautiful romantic comedy with laugh out loud moments and heart wrenching tearjerkers. But it wasn’t the love story that had me cheering and crying — it was the struggle between Chinese identity and North American identity, and the tensions in the immigrant experience.
With all the hype surrounding the movie I expected to be blown away, but I did not expect to leave the theatre with puffy eyes from all the crying and so many thoughts I had to write them all down. I left the theatre feeling proud to be Chinese. The movie proved that you could cast an Asian to play a spoiled rich kid, a snobby socialite, a powerful and elegant matriarch, and a handsome love interest with rock-hard abs. There were no stereotypes like nerdy males or highly sexualized females because the movie proved Asians are humans with a well-rounded and multidimensional story to tell. I was proud to be Chinese seeing things I had personally experienced projected on a big screen in front of hundreds of people.
I couldn’t even make it through the opening credits without feeling emotional as a Mandarin song started playing — in a Hollywood movie!!!! As soon as Michelle Yeoh spoke Cantonese I could feel tears forming. And when the lahs rolled off the tongues of the actors I felt so validated hearing the unique speech that I use every day depicted in a Hollywood movie. But my favorite scene is the Mahjong one. I still get goosebumps thinking about how powerful that scene is. In so many movies, there are references to football or poker that the audience is expected to understand as part of the white middle-class experience. But the Mahjong scene was for people like me in the audience. People who grew up playing Mahjong and understood the significance of the moves the characters were making in addition to the lines they were saying.
My biggest hope is that Hollywood and society realizes that Asians are talented and capable actors that deserve to have their stories be told. There is no shortage of Asian talent, just a shortage of opportunities for Asian actors. Because what struck me the most was that despite the risk of an all-Asian cast, the story is easy to relate to as part of the human experience. Everyone can relate to the bond between mother and child or a love story between two individuals from different social classes. It just happened to be told by so many beautiful, strong, independent Asian actors. And I hope that the box office numbers proves that representation matters.
The last movie that had an all-Asian cast was Joy Luck Club, released 25 years ago. I hadn’t even been born yet. If I had grown up with role models like Constance Wu or Awkwafina I would have realized that there is no shame in being Chinese and that I don’t have to diminish parts of my identity just to fit in or be liked. But I am so glad that young Chinese-Canadians/Americans will see themselves on a big screen and know that they are more than good enough and that they belong.
I hope this historical moment is an impetus for change so that we don’t have to wait another 25 years. Because there are still so many stories to be told and so many people who deserve to feel proud of who they are. And there’s no excuse now.