A few weeks ago, a friend texted me about dim sum using only Chinese characters. “Oh no, you’re fake Asian. Hold on,” he continued before he translated his order into English for me. “Fried dough, scallion pancakes with egg, and soy milk.”
“You mean you tiao, but okay,” I replied. “My family only eats it with juk.” I speak very little Cantonese—I’m talking 20 words at most—but when it comes to dim sum, I know how to order.
We’ve been friends for years, and while I can usually put up with his antagonistic brand of teasing, it’s been getting to me lately. I’m “only” half-Asian, something the world feels the need to remind me of at every turn, like when the guy at dim sum hands me a fork and I hear my dad say my name as he’s speaking Cantonese to my Nainai. But I’m also Italian, which for some reason didn’t come up when the popular girl in seventh grade called me a chink, and when everyone—at the coffee shop, in the cab—plays the “but where are you really from?” game. I might be made up of two ethnicities, but I don’t really count as either.
That’s why I’m probably more offended than most at the “controversy” surrounding some of the cast members of Crazy Rich Asians and why, conversely, their inclusion is so legitimizing to me. Henry Golding, the male lead, and supporting actress Sonoya Mizuno are both half-Asian—and thus, according to some critics, not Asian enough to star in the movie. Actress Jamie Chung referred to Golding’s casting as “bullshit” in an interview. (She later apologized.) One op-ed about Golding had the candid title, “We’d Love to See a Full Asian Lead for Once.”
I understand the frustration at the constant whitewashing in Hollywood. (See: Scarlett Johanssen playing a Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell, Emma Stone starring as a woman of Hawaiian descent in Aloha, and Matt Damon somehow playing the hero in a movie literally entitled The Great Wall, as if we haven’t been defending that shit for centuries.) It’s so rampant that a producer even suggested casting a white woman for the lead to Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan—who, of course, gave it a hard no.
But to impose whitewashing narratives onto biracial people feels like erasure of half of who I am. And, for me, it’s not “whitewashing,” anyway. It’s more like “whatwashing”: What are you? What’s your background? It’s what so many mixed-race people who don’t pass as white have to contend with on a daily basis.
Since when does being more than one thing cancel the other out? According to Golding, who’s Malaysian and English, some people implied he won the role because he’s half-white, as if being biracial comes with special perks. Please. Science, for what it’s worth, backs me up here. (See how Asian I am?) A 2008 study from UC Davis found that Asian-Caucasian mixes are twice as likely to suffer from psychological disorders, like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, than full Asians. Lauren Berger, one of the authors, surmises that a lower or conflicting ethnic identity—that is, the extent to which someone ascribes to one identity over another—may contribute to it.
It’s hard to establish any sort of ethnic identity when I keep receiving conflicting messages about what that identity is. I’m too white for my Chinese friends to consider me a “real” Asian, but still Asian enough to catch the occasional slur. And I don’t understand why other people are slicing and dicing my ethnicity in the first place, something both Golding and Mizuno have called out. “If I can’t play that [Asian] part, what can I play?” Mizuno asked in an interview earlier this month. “A part that’s half Japanese, a quarter English, and a quarter Argentinean? How many parts are there for that?”
Golding concisely summed it up in an interview with Glamour: “It was quite strange that people were saying I wasn’t Asian enough. It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re not Asian enough to play an Asian role.’ So what does that mean for people who come from mixed heritage? I grew up in Asia; I’m Malaysian. You can try to justify how Asian you are, but you’re never going to make everybody happy … When does the point come that these stereotypes are thrown to the wind? Making something the norm is the only way of not making it a talking point.”
However, I think one reason for it may be my own doing. I refer to myself as “half”: I’m half-Asian, or, if I’m feeling generous, half-Chinese and half-Italian. I’ve been saying it for as long as I can remember, mostly because it’s succinct and typically satisfies whoever’s rude enough to ask. And it’s accurate (although recent results from 23andMe suggest that there’s some Mongolian and North African mixed in there).
But maybe I should start to replace the word “half” with “both.” I am both Chinese and Italian. One doesn’t have to negate, or overpower, or defer to the other. It’s like how my comfort food is fried rice with lap ceung, but I’m also freakishly good at making dragged pastas like cavatelli. Both can be true.
In a new interview, Golding described this ownership over identity in a way that made me tear up. “There was always a struggle with being Asian and not being Asian enough. It’s going to be down to me to own my race,” he said. “Once you’re secure with yourself, it doesn’t matter who the fuck says whatever.”
It’s validating to see people like me confront similar feelings in real time. They get it! And better yet, they’re talking about it. Sure, the haters will hate. They’ll say we’re fake Asians, that we’re not Asian enough, that we’re watered down. But that won’t make it true.
Deanna Pai is a writer and editor currently based in New York.