American Themes in 'Crazy Rich Asians'

The most influential character in the popular Hollywood film about Asians in Singapore is America. 

August 27, 2018

          Given that the marketing campaign for Crazy Rich Asians relied so heavily on stories of racism in the American movie-making business (a quarter century between major films with all-Asian casts, stories of Hollywood executives who asked where the American actors were, etc), I expected the theme of American racism to be center-stage in the film.

Perhaps this was a back-to-your roots movie (I haven’t read the novel). Rachel goes to Singapore with her boyfriend Nick and finds her personal Wakanda. She feels deep pride in her ethnic heritage and an uncanny familiarity in the patterns of life in an Asian country – how people shop, dress, talk, eat, socialize, relate across generations, etc. Slowly but surely, she comes to the realization that this is who she really is. The Rachel of New York City was an assimilation façade, a character created to meet the limited roles available to second generation Chinese immigrant women in racist America.

Somebody should make that movie, but it is emphatically not Crazy Rich Asians. The America presented in Crazy Rich Asians is just the opposite. It is the place people go to escape abusive husbands and domineering mothers, the country that allows you to invent your identity and your destiny. Nick, the scion of Singapore’s wealthiest family, could never have dated a commoner like Rachel in Asia. But in America, such things are possible. Rachel, the daughter of a struggling single mother, could never have risen to be a star professor at an elite university. But in America, such achievements are legion.

In fact, it is striking how ugly the Asian Asians come off in the film. The young people are grossly materialistic, status-obsessed and back-stabbing. The old people care about narrow notions of family honor above basic human decency. The common thread across every like-able character in the film (Rachel, Rachel’s Mom, Nick, Peik Lin) is that they spent time in the United States. 

The story told in Crazy Rich Asians is one example of the myth deeply woven into the American identity, especially the immigrant experience. You leave the world of suffocating traditions and superficial charades to come to America, where you can be your authentic self, find your true love, achieve unimaginable dreams.

Some of this rings true to me. I grew up in an immigrant Indian household with certain expectations about what I would study, who I would marry, which profession I would choose, etc. Much of it felt suffocating because outside of my home, the cultural winds encouraged different things – creativity, authenticity, invention. There were superficial aspects of that, as in pop culture. But there were highly substantive dimensions as well, mostly what I found in academic settings.

Like many of the Asian-American kids I grew up with, I was encouraged by my family to study math and science, and plan for a career in medicine, accounting or engineering. Turns out that I’m terrible at those subjects and have no interest in those careers, but I loved the humanities and the social sciences. For a while, my parents were not having that. It was my teachers and professors who encouraged my talents and interests, who told me to do what I loved and pursue creative dreams. And here I am, running an interfaith organization that I founded, and writing books and blogs on subjects I love. 

All in all, a much more mundane version of the story presented in Crazy Rich Asians.

What it leaves out, of course, is the crazy rich racism that many ethnic minorities face in America. Old world traditions may feel suffocating to the individual reaching for authenticity, but American racism is deforming. It is a strand of the story that is totally missing in Crazy Rich Asians.

One of the reasons I find this so interesting is that the pendulum has swung in the other direction almost entirely. These days, the ‘America as Promised Land’ story told in Crazy Rich Asians is out of style, especially on campuses. The stories that ethnic minorities are encouraged to tell are quite the opposite – we are meant to emphasize the deforming aspects of American racism, and the ‘back-to-your-roots’ authenticity of our ethnic heritage. ‘Where is your Wakanda’ is the subtext of campus diversity programs, because it’s certainly not white racist America. 

Personally, I felt that Kumal Nanjiani’s ‘The Big Sick’ did a much better job of telling both sides of the story - America as a place where you can escape suffocating traditions, and one rife with deforming racism.

How does Crazy Rich Asians find both a mass audience and critical acclaim while telling a two-dimensional story about America as a land of hopes and dreams? Maybe it’s the contents of that marketing campaign.       


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