Before you have your first slice of pizza, you have no idea what you’ve been missing out on. Once you get a taste of that melty cheese, tomato sauce, and crispy crust, though, you can’t imagine life without it. Watching Crazy Rich Asians was like that for me: I never knew how good it felt to see only Asian faces onscreen until it happened. And now? I’ve been living in a white-washed world for 27 years, and I don’t want to go back.
OK, maybe pizza, a quintessentially Italian American food, was a weird example to share how overwhelmed I felt by Crazy Rich Asians. But it’s indicative of the way life has always been for me, relating to the world through the lens and interests of white people. I was adopted from Seoul at seven months old by a loving (and very white) family in upstate New York. I was the only Asian person in my graduating class; at the time, I could count my Asian friends on one hand. I learned a bit about my heritage in bits and pieces—by going to a Baptist church briefly as a kid, attending a Korean mentor program at the local college, and exploring New York City’s Korean restaurants. But I always felt, as Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) describes Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) in the movie, like a banana: white on the inside, yellow on the outside.
As I watched the film last week, among a crowd of mostly Asian people, I realized I’d grown up without any meaningful pop-culture examples of women who look like me. When I was growing up, the biggest Asian figures in my life were, well, figure skaters. I idolized Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi, both of whom were so talented and beautiful. I tried ice skating to be more like them—and failed miserably. The yellow Power Ranger was cool, but not as cool to me as the pink Ranger. And I liked Japanese American Claudia from The Baby-Sitters Club fine enough, but it was the four-eyed, red-haired Mallory who I related to most at 13.
I rarely saw Asian characters who weren’t a stereotype. To be fair, I didn’t seek them out, either, because I didn’t feel Asian. In fact, I was so afraid of being seen as a stereotype—or worse, an outcast—that I distanced myself from things like Korean pop music, anime, and Pokémon to appear “normal.” Maybe if I had seen a movie like Crazy Rich Asians as a kid, I wouldn’t have felt so alone.
Crazy Rich Asians might be the first time I didn’t see a white person for two hours, period.
Instead, I had to wait until I was 27; Crazy Rich Asians was the first time I saw a full Asian cast in anything. It might be the first time I didn’t see a white person for two hours, period. But after that initial, “Wow! Everyone is Asian!” feeling, I realized the movie is no different than any other (predominately white) romantic comedy I’d watched before. This isn’t a story that’s only accessible to Asian people; the friendships and relationships are nuanced and interesting, but they’re not groundbreaking. A makeover to impress a boyfriend’s family? Seen it. A battle against mean girls? Done before. What really got me was that I could finally see myself in the leading role. And the best friend role. And even the weird brother role. All of these characters are Asian, and none are the punchline.
My friend Marianne, who is half Filipino, agrees. “Seeing people who looked like me portray characters in a rom-com storyline that would typically have a white cast—with an ambiguously brown sidekick because, you know, diversity—was a huge deal,” she says. “I related to Rachel’s overall experience of, yes, she is Asian, but not quite Asian enough.” Kristina, who is also Filipino, echoed this. “I felt emotional seeing a protagonist [Rachel Chu] that not only looked like me but was complex, confident, vulnerable, and passionate.”
But Rachel wasn’t the only relatable character. The theater roared when Peik Lin (Awkwafina) made her grand, pajama-clad entrance. Later, as we watch her family’s lavish lunch, I teared up when her mom said “simple food, lah,” a Malay term used frequently in the book that didn’t have to be subtitled or explained. It just existed. The audience cackled when Peik Lin’s dad scolded his youngest kids to finish their chicken because there are “lots of starving children in America.”
This difference stuck out to Emily, who is Korean and says she was moved by the way the movie navigated the cultural differences between Asian Americans and “Asian Asians.” This came through in the differences between Eleanor, an Asian tiger mom dedicated to family and loyalty, and Rachel’s mom Kerry, a first-generation immigrant who raised her daughter on her own. “What the film does beautifully is not pit these two women or cultural styles of parenting against each other, but embrace the validity in both,” Emily says. “I grew up with a mix of both, and it was touching to see both sides explored in the movie—and also gain a greater sense of appreciation for my family too.”
I may not ever understand what it’s like to be a crazy rich Asian, passing down traditions of dumpling-folding and Mahjong (although my Jewish grammy is great at the game), but I do understand feeling like I’ll never be enough. Rachel’s monologue about knowing she’ll never measure up hit close to home, and I considered how I would be seen if I dated a man from a traditional Asian family. Would I be accepted? I’d like to think so.
By the time the credits started to roll, everyone in the theater was clapping, cheering, and wiping away tears. It felt like a celebration of being Asian, and that buzz has stayed with me ever since. I hope this shows Hollywood that an all-Asian cast won’t keep people from relating to a movie. Just like how I, a Korean American woman, can relate to She’s All That and A Walk to Remember, people of all races can find similarities in stories about family ties, relationships, and that outsider-looking-in feeling. It’s time for more stories to be told with all kinds of people represented, and I hope Crazy Rich Asians is just the first of many Asian-led movies and TV shows I’ll see in my lifetime.
Maybe I’ll even see a story about an adopted woman trying to figure out her identity. Maybe I’ll even write it.
Photos: Warner Bros./Everett Collection