Nearly every single Asian-American I've met has experienced the Lunch Box Moment. For me, it was when my black bean dessert paste nearly caused a riot in my class — for others it was vermicelli or kimchi, or a box of soybean drink. Chances are, if you are Asian-American, this humiliating cafeteria awakening was the first time you realized you were not quite the same as the white, Black, and brown kids that also went to your school. The Asian part in Asian-American finally stood out in neon, and we've since spent decades trying to understand our otherness by returning to this original sin, swapping our own Lunch Box Moments back and forth like some sort of demented trauma trading cards (see: here, here, here, here, and here).
But the Lunch Box Moment pales in comparison to the Motherland Moment.
“I remember going to Taiwan for the first time and feeling this warmth that I didn’t expect, and realizing that the restaurant owner isn’t staring at me [like they do at home] — he’s treating me like his son,” says Taiwanese-American director Jon M. Chu over the phone, whose latest project, Crazy Rich Asians, is considered one of the biggest moments for Asian-American communities in decades. “And then he calls me guai-lo — which is ‘white devil’ — and it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m not part of this either.’”
And then he calls me guai-lo — which is ‘white devil’ — and it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m not part of this either.
Jon M. Chu
For Asian-Americans, the Motherland Moment is much less discussed. It’s difficult enough to confront your own place within one set of systems framed by white hegemony — how then do you turn around and discuss Asians’ own bigotries and histories within countries your ancestors come from, but you’ve never lived in? It’s confusing enough to be Asian-American, but what does it mean to be a guai-lo, kano, nikkei amerikajin — a gyopo?
The way we gloss over the reality of Asian-Americans’ relationship with Asians was one of the reasons I loved the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy. Written by Chinese-Singaporean Kevin Kwan in 2013, Western media touted the first novel as a soap-opera-like peek into the dramatic world of old-moneyed Chinese in Singapore. The sole Asian-American in the book, Rachel Chu, goes through her own Motherland Moment as she contends with her rich boyfriend’s unwelcoming family, who believes that she’s a gold-digger after their wealth. But sandwiched between descriptions of million-dollar shopping sprees and top-shelf real estate was something much more hard boiled: frank discussions of the particularly uncomfortable double-standards some Asian-American men place on Asian-American women, the racism of East Asians towards Southeast Asians, and the hierarchy of the Chinese diaspora (land-owning overseas Chinese on top, then Hong Kong Chinese, then Taiwanese, followed by Mainland Chinese, and finally ABCs — American-Born Chinese — bringing up the rear). Kwan identifies these prejudices is as cavalier as matter-of-factly as his characters namedrop luxury labels. It was thrilling. It was also terrible in its truth.
These breakdowns confirmed my suspicions that no family member of mine would ever cop to as Mainland-born, American-raised people. It was the exact kind of dirty laundry we’re loathe to air in front of others, especially since we’re already wrestling with the particular challenges of being a minority in America — which is where we live.
When it was announced that the first novel in the series was being turned into a proper Hollywood movie, complete with an American marketing team, starring an American cast, and made for an American audience, I felt like I should be thrilled. But I was mostly suspicious. After all, the story was not really about Asian-Americans, despite its cast. I was worried that a story about one specific group of Chinese people who have nothing to do with America would be sold as an accomplishment that all Asian-Americans could hang their hats on.
And that’s what ended up happening — and it’s not hard to understand why. Following decades of Asian-American activism and agitation, this was the moment to prove our mainstream appeal was nigh: We just needed a proof of concept. The commercial success of Crazy Rich Asians’ book sales in America made it an attractive story to translate to film, The director, Jon M. Chu, best known for films like Step Up, Justin Bieber’s documentary Never Say Never, and G.I. Joe Retaliation, jumped at the chance too. Chu understood the unique burden that this romantic comedy — a genre that has long been dismissed as inconsequential — needed to shoulder. While Chu’s previous movies were mass market guilty pleasures, Crazy Rich Asians is the first time a project became this personal.
“Two years ago, I thought about how I was contributing to the world. Literally my brain went from ‘Oh I’m lucky to be here’ to ‘I have earned every right to be here,’” says Chu. That idea — that Asian-American representation is overdue, and can be financially and culturally valuable — was the central thrust for Chu’s decision to partner with a traditional studio like Warner Bros. instead of a streaming service like Netflix. The movie’s existence was essentially to prove a point: “For 25 years the world has told Asian-Americans that we’re not worth the effort. So to get people to pay $20 to leave their homes, pay another $20 for food and parking, then to go into the dark to watch our story…that’s a huge thing. That means we’re worth the effort.”
The message wasn’t just that Asian-Americans are worth it, but we deserve it, too. On social media, the Asian-American contingent of the cast expressed their appreciation of the opportunity that Crazy Rich Asians offer: “I hope Asian-American kids watch CRA and realize that they can be the heroes of their own stories,” tweeted Chinese-American actress Constance Wu, who plays protagonist Rachel Chu. During a New York City screening of the movie hosted by notable Asian-American fashion designers, Nepalese-American designer Prabal Gurung introduced the film: “For as long as I can remember [...] I’ve seen Asians typecast, miscast, or fully ignored. Until now.” At another screening hosted by the variety show Asian AF in Los Angeles on August 6, Filipino-American actor Nico Santos, who plays Oliver T’sien, told the crowd of mostly Asian-American viewers, “It’s our time.”
The pressures we’ve placed on this movie, too, have taken on a very American flavor. We celebrate it as the first Hollywood movie since Joy Luck Club to feature an all-Asian cast or an all Asian-American cast (Constance Wu points out that neither are true, but “the first all-Asian Hollywood movie in 25 years with Asian-Americans in lead roles” doesn’t have the same ring to it). We bemoan the lack of diversity represented in its depictions of Singapore, which is also a country of immigrants in which Chinese-Singaporeans are the majority ethnic group (the equivalent of white people in America). We question whether British-Malaysian actor Henry Golding is “Asian” enough, despite the fact that he is one of the few people who can actually and fluently speak a non-English Singaporean language — Malay — in the movie. And we’re expected to believe that Korean-American actor Ken Jeong can explain away his character Goh Wye Mun’s American drawl as a product of his having gone to college in Fullerton, California.
These are logical conversations to have in a high-stakes scenario. After all, there have been so few mainstream stories told about the Asian-American experience. Rightfully resentful Asian-Americans need a place to hang a quarter centuries’ worth of concerns about underrepresentation, misrepresentation, and whitewashing — it’s just a shame that we’re behaving like there won’t ever be another chance to get it right again.
Rightfully resentful Asian-Americans need a place to hang a quarter centuries’ worth of concerns about underrepresentation, misrepresentation, and whitewashing.
This desperation to do it all and get it right explains why a story about a small group of Chinese immigrants on a Southeast Asian island who focus their attention on alienating the sole Westerner in their midst could come to be seen as representative of — and cathartic for — all Asian-Americans. The movie’s central villains in this traditional rom com are Asians in Asia, a Motherland Moment for the ages. But the way we’re reckoning with this movie is framed by our American cultural baggage, our Lunchbox Moments. Ultimately, this movie is about a woman who’s not Asian enough. But Asian-Americans’ biggest issue is being seen as American enough, which is why a movie designed for Asian-Americans can never live up to the expectations placed on it.
Nevertheless, this is undoubtedly a movie made for Asians in America, not Asian-Americans in Asia. And certainly, the first quarter of the movie serves as a sumptuous buffet for a hungry audience. The only Caucasians with speaking roles appear in the very beginning of the movie, in a satisfying scene that shows rich Asians trumping racist Europeans with sheer financial might (it is also the only scene that acknowledges any anti-Asian sentiment by non-Asians). When we first meet Rachel, we see her character beating a man at poker, using her guile and wit — in defiance of the Asian-women-aren’t-assertive stereotype. The men in the movie seize any opportunity to remove their shirts, in defiance of the Asian-men-aren’t-hunks stereotype. And I have to admit — seeing something like actors with fob marks, packets of tissues on the dinner table, and exclamations like “ai-ya” and “lah!” used in a major Hollywood movie without explanation was so fun that I cheered out loud.
But all of this distracts us from the greater point: None of these moments matter for Asians in Asia, for whom Asian representation, Asian storytelling, and Asian power is a given, not a gift (and besides, they can point to hundreds more Asian-produced rom coms that are more authentic to their own experience). It’s their story that has been repackaged so it can matter to us.
Which makes sense when you consider that the story was never really for them. The book was never a hit in the East; even though you can read Crazy Rich Asians in Croatian, Norwegian, and Hebrew, it still isn’t available in any Chinese language, though forthcoming Chinese translations have been slated for after the movie’s international release. (Interestingly, the movie will not be shown in mainland China either, the second-largest international box office after the United State.) The author himself told The Daily Beast that the book was never intended for Singaporeans; Kwan wrote this story about Asians with a North Americans audience in mind.
That’s not to ignore the noble intent of the movie. “This movie shows that there’s an audience for Asian-American movies,” Chu tells me. “This movie will open the crack. And if [Asian-Americans] support it, more movies will get green-lit. Those will be the movies that are going to change everything. This movie shouldn’t and isn’t supposed to be the end-all, be-all Asian-American movie.”
Nevertheless, even though it shouldn’t be, this movie will be the end-all, be-all Asian-American movie until we get many more stories that actually deal with the diversity of our diaspora, the Americanness in our Asian-American identity, and the nuance of our experience. Until then, we get caught in the same harmful stereotype: One Asian story is the same as the next Asian story. One Asian face is the same as another Asian face.
In one of the only moments in the movie that acknowledges this Pan-Asian flattening of cultures (and how we’re sometimes responsible for doing it to ourselves) is a scene in which Rachel’s immigrant mother tells her that her preconceived notions of how Chinese parents operate won’t fly in the motherland: “Your face is Chinese. You speak Chinese!” she tells Rachel, pointing at the obvious cultural hallmarks that have mattered in America. “But in your head and in your heart, you’re different.”
We are different. And I hope that we can tell the difference.