Title matters — a heart to heart.
When the novel Crazy Rich Asians first became a best-seller, I had no interest in it. I didn’t read any of the books by Kevin Kwan because I was afraid it would perpetuate the materialistic new money Asian stereotype.
Living in Vancouver as a slightly-crazy, not-at-all-rich Chinese person, I often emphasized to people that I was not like the rich mainland immigrants.
I often felt I had to portray a false sense of superiority attained from working a ‘real job’ and maintained a modest lifestyle with my own money. Somehow that made me better — the skewed notion that I was one of the better ones.
I know now that this is an incredibly toxic perspective.
“Speak English or go back to your country!”
It was 1996 when my mom submitted her application to immigrate to Canada, a year after the first wave of economic immigrants from China had landed in Vancouver.
My mom’s brother, who had painstakingly uprooted his life to San Francisco initially as a visiting scholar, said life is harder in the US — he spoke from personal experience. “And there is more racism. Canada is more tolerant.”
On the premise that Vancouver’s established community of Chinese-Canadians would make life easier, my mom chose Vancouver as her destination to start a new life.
But reality, in hindsight, rarely meets our rose-coloured expectations.
“Speak English or go back to your country!” — this was the first time that someone shouted an outright racist and xenophobic statement directed at me. I was ten.
Every other xenophobic encounter I’ve had in Vancouver after that has blurred and blended together into one. None of them were provocative enough or violent enough on their own.
Together though, they have made me who I am. They were merely part of life here as someone from what is deemed a foreign land. It’s the price we pay, some say, to immigrate to a better country.
I never spoke with my parents about the social and cultural identity issues I struggled with. My parents were in survival mode. They focused on working their asses off so that my life can be just as good or even better than those who were born here.
Their goal was to shield me from poverty — and I didn’t want to trouble them any further.
The Chinese-Canadians who came before us.
It was the first time I heard my mother cry.
She was 34. She was turned down from a server job at a Chinese restaurant that claimed to serve cuisine from the mainland, but the owners and employees were all Cantonese.
Two weeks before her interview, my mom took me with her to the Salvation Army to buy a white shirt and black pants. She then spent day and night memorizing the entirety of the menu in English and Mandarin.
The manager was impressed but turned her down because she didn’t speak Cantonese.
He recommended that she get a job where she didn’t have to interact with people, like in a factory. It wasn’t personal, it was business; the demographics in Vancouver at the time were primarily Cantonese.
It’s the price we pay, I say, to reap the benefits of battles won by Chinese immigrants before us.
But I couldn’t think logically like that at the time. The nine-year-old me stood on the other side of the bathroom door, listening to my mother trying to cover up her sobs.
I grew up in a large Asian community in South Vancouver. My class was made up of a myriad of first and second generation immigrants. Caucasian-Canadians were a minority at my school, so I was never trying to appeal to them. I was seeking acceptance from other Chinese-Canadians.
Whenever I corrected others that I was from mainland China, their immediate response is either “Oh, but you don’t have an accent,” “Oh, but you look normal,” or “Oh, but you are different from them.”
This confirmed my suspicion that being mainland Chinese wasn’t a good thing. If I didn’t talk like a banana or dress like a banana, I would be ostracized.
But those words hurt, and the more they hurt, the more I pushed away from my roots. I began rejecting my own kind and befriended only those who said they are only Chinese on the outside. They were proudly monolingual; they brought pasta for lunch instead of noodles. Bananas! So a banana I became.
Eventually, I felt accepted but indifferent. I was yellow on the outside, and empty on the inside.
It’s tough to accept a new group people who look like you, but don’t share the same history as you.
Big six. Red China. FOB.
As the years went on, the demographics of Vancouver’s Chinese population changed dramatically — parallel with the dramatic economic growth that mainland China was experiencing.
But we were looked down upon. We were the uneducated, brain-washed communists from the mainland. We were the brash, self-centred peasants from the north. As wealthy immigrants from mainland China poured in. The negative stereotypes that were held against us were only exacerbated by money.
“Big sixes. Rude and stupid. If you know what I’m talking about, then you probably hate them too” — a classmate’s MSN Messenger status displayed.
Big six. Red China. FOB. I’ve heard it all from my fellow Chinese-Canadians. I don’t blame anyone. It’s tough to accept a new group of people who look like you, but don’t share the same history as you.
And, I’ve felt the same.
I felt jealousy, disgust, and apathy towards the children of the new Chinese millionaires. I couldn’t relate to them. And they could never relate to me. They have no idea the struggles my parents went through to give me a good life.
But when people around me denounced them, I would jump in to defend. “It’s hard to adjust to a new environment.” “Most of them are forced to be here by themselves. They are lonely.” “It’s their money, why should we judge them for wanting nice things?”
I envied them and pitied them. I disliked them and defended them.
We were whatever stereotype that was trending.
I’m not a crazy rich Asian.
Soon, the rest of Vancouver caught up. They didn’t care that we were different in our own ways though. We were whatever stereotype that was trending.
The images that some projected on me shifted from a poor immigrant to a banana to a crazy rich Asian.
“Do you have one of those?” — an actual question a former colleague asked me, while an orange Lamborghini drove past us. “No,” I said, “If I did I wouldn’t be here.”
“Maybe you’re one of them too. For all I know, you could just quit tomorrow because you don’t need the money.” — a “joke” that a former boss said to me during a work lunch.
There is a lot to unpack here.
But after nearly two decades of finding my place in Vancouver, this is what I know. I’m not a crazy rich Asian second gen living in Vancouver — even if I were, there would be nothing wrong with it.
What I am is a Chinese first-and-a-half gen, trying to figure out my way through society, living in a city where there is a great deal of animosity towards Chinese people coming from both non-Chinese and people who identify as Chinese alike. Including me.
And I’m at peace with that — I won’t stop fighting ignorance, but I’m at peace with who I am.
I hated it. I hated the title Crazy Rich Asian.
So that takes us to now.
When the book became a best-seller a few years ago, I would detach myself from any conversations around it. I wanted nothing to do with crazy rich Asians. I hated the stereotype. I hated the title Crazy Rich Asians.
My vulnerabilities were misguided by internalized oppression, and I projected my own insecurities into the title, making it out to be more than what it was — a fictional story, based on some reality, written with satire as entertainment.
But things change. I’ve changed.
I’ve seen people dismiss the movie Crazy Rich Asians because they don’t want to support stereotypes they dislike or find unrelatable.
To those who feel this way, I want to ask you this question — would you have discounted this film as quickly if the title was different?
It’s okay whether your answer is yes or no or I don’t know.
We all have our own journeys to carry through. It took me almost twenty years to be comfortable with who I am. It took me nearly twenty years to see that a title which triggers negative emotions is just a title.
It took me nearly twenty years to stop projecting my own insecurities into a book or movie title.
For the skeptics out there, my hope is that you will take this opportunity to confront your own insecurities. Whether these insecurities are about your own identity, about people and groups around you, or about your dislike for this film.
We will never get the respect we deserve from others if we do not respect each other.
I sincerely wish that you give this movie or book series a chance. For everything it represents, and everything it doesn’t.
Making Asian American media
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