One of the biggest cultural shifts that happened in my family is our hugging policy. We went from decades of being on waving terms — sometimes energetically — to giving each other white people hugs at family meals recently. This happened shortly after we forced ourselves to say ‘I love you’. But only ever in English. It felt appropriate to practise intimacy in a language that isn’t ours, the way a home cook might make a soufflé and say, “Et voila!”
Though they feel like big leaps, there’s one thing about non-migrant families that I never realised I envied. This struck me at the start of the film Crazy Rich Asians, a Hollywood blockbuster that features an all-Asian cast for the first time in 25 years, and topped US box office on its opening weekend — making a neat $83.8 million internationally to date.
Ostensibly, the story is a romantic comedy about a Chinese-American woman Rachel Chu (Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu), who finds out her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) isn’t just rich — but crazy rich — during a trip to Singapore where she meets his family. Based on author Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel, it’s a self-aware satire on class, social absurdities and a fun peek at the lives of the ultra-wealthy.
I watched the film at a sold-out preview in Sydney. Having read the book, seen the trailer (on repeat) and heard multiple warnings about spontaneous sobbing, I had a sense of what’s to come. What I didn’t expect, however, was the music that starting playing at the opening credits. It was an old-timey ballad by Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng called ‘Waiting for Your Return’, covered by jazz singer Jasmine Chen. And it threw me because for the first time at the movies, I felt an urge to text my parents: “Guess what,”I wanted to say, “I just heard a song you would recognise.”
Like most migrant children, growing up in a Western society also meant playing cultural double agent
This thought returned again and again as the film went on, from the appearance of actress Michelle Yeoh in the first scene (“Look, that Hong Kong action movie star you love!”), to the group text scene on WeChat (“Doesn’t this look like your chats?”) to an 80s Canto-pop cover of Madonna’s Material Girl that I was sure they had a terrible VHS karaoke version of.
Those were the scant pop culture references we shared as a family. Like most migrant children, growing up in a Western society also meant playing cultural double agent. The more we take in the world around us, the more we grow apart from the touchstones that tether us to our parents.
As much as I enjoyed the film’s (ab-positive) female gaze, the glorious food scenes, and pithy one-liners hurled by the Singaporean uber-rich (“Think of all the starving children in America!”) — one of the scenes that stayed with me was when Nick’s family gathered around the table to make dumplings, the way his grandmother had taught them.
It was then — for the briefest moment — that the conversation flowed. For migrant families, what better way to bond than over a food-oriented task? Here are adults who’ve spent their lives straddling multiple cultures, meeting at the storm eye of what matters — a desire to feed, and to be fed the very same things that have comforted generations before us.
As Vox writer Alex Abad-Santos points out, Crazy Rich Asians may have the DNA of a romance, but more than anything, it’s “a thorny love story between assimilation and acceptance”. If so many of us find main character Rachel Chu relatable, it’s not just because we can see our own faces in hers, but our own awkwardness reflected in her struggles.
For too long, assimilation means separating ourselves from our stories. But a film like this reminds us we don’t have to choose
After all, it’s a stretch for most of us to picture being the youngest economics professor in NYU, date the “Prince Harry” of Singapore, have the kind of friend who lends you designer dresses (and lets you crash in her five-star home) at the drop of a hat. But for anyone who grew up in a different culture, it’s impossible not to feel the sucker punch when Rachel defiantly owns the label of an “immigrant nobody”.
In director Jon M. Chu’s eyes, Crazy Rich Asians “is not about getting the guy.” Rather, “it’s about Rachel reconciling the two sides of her own cultural identity as an Asian-American woman.”
And while there are valid calls for more diversity — where representation isn’t limited to South-East Asians on the screen, the good news is, more Asian-led projects are being commissioned following the commercial success we’ve seen. Right now, we’re seeing critical praise for YA rom com adaptation of To All the Boys I've Loved Before, and more network pilots with all-Asian casts are in the works.
When the film opens, I plan to see it again with my parents. I want to see if their faces would light up like mine at the street food scenes, if they would laugh at the slang-laden text speak, or cringe at the old canto-pop songs that they had once sung to, and thought we’d forgotten.
For too long, assimilation means separating ourselves from our stories. But a film like this reminds us we don’t have to choose. There’s pride in being a misfit. And there’s pride in seeing one shine on the big screen.
Candice Chung is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter at @candicechung_