I am of Asian descent, and I mostly identify as Californian more than I do as Asian. That’s because my whole family is from and currently lives in California. I’m 100% Asian by blood, and 100% American in culture (whatever that means… I value independence, family and good food).
I understand that many Asian-Americans did not resonate with the movie. I recognize that everybody has their own story to tell and this movie just told one of the fictitious rom-com ones. Still, the direction and acting in the movie was well-done and I found plenty to resonate with.
I also suppose that I could’ve easily been one of those others who claimed to not resonate with the movie. Honestly, if it weren’t for my life experiences in the past couple of years, I would have approached the movie with a mild amusement and appreciation. And what happened in the last couple of years, you might ask? Well, I partook in my own romantic drama by meeting and marrying my husband and his family.
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It wasn’t the Crazy part, nor the Rich part, nor the Asian part exactly that I resonated with. It was the aspect of families from different backgrounds coming together and a confrontation of core values.
And so, you don’t have to be crazy, rich, nor Asian to resonate with the movie. In fact, there are SO many people who have gone through the ‘meeting of the families’ with similar trepidation and hurdles all over the place!
Note, if you haven’t seen the movie yet AND plan to AND don’t want to hear all the story plotlines, then stop reading and please come back after you have watched it to hear my side of it.
Here’s how the movie went for me:
We saw Crazy Rich Asians in theaters on Sunday. Really interesting to go out on opening weekend and yet find the theater mostly empty. We were in west Chicago where the population is mostly Mexican. Furthermore, we were the only people of Asian descent in the theater, which wasn’t weird, it just meant that there we were the only ones giving hollahs and cheers at seeing our favorite stars on screen [I love Constance and Ken, while husband loves Jimmy O. Yang].
The experience of watching the movie itself was quite pleasant. Generally, I’m not a teary mess when I watch movies and so I only really cried during two parts: when her mom came to console her [man I love my mom] and of course at the end when Nick pops the question.
Now, resonating with Crazy Rich Asians really starts with resonating with the main character, Rachel Chu. Even though my situation isn’t the exact same as Rachel Chu (of course it’s not going to be exactly the same), there was still plenty in common as an Asian-American woman who wants to have a self-made career in being a professor and making my own life.
Rachel’s character was so well-developed that she did not follow a single trope. She had an integrated identity as an academic, romantic partner, and being a culturally aware, self-actualized, funny girl. Here are some examples:
- She does not boast about her achievements yet confidently tells people her position during introductions. She is unapologetic about her family background and emphasizes the hard work that got her here.
- During the Mahjong scene, she is contemplative, gentle, and coy. Being an expert in game theory, she knows what her opponent knows and uses that knowledge to affect the game and the ultimate outcome (one that has the best welfare for all parties) at the end.
- In conversations with Nick, she expresses her true need and commitment to intimacy and truth in a relationship, *paraphrased* “It’s not about all the crazy situation and stuff that happened, it’s that I didn’t hear it straight from you.”
- When attacked by other girls, she rose above and buried the fish. She did not slide into playing the same cat games, get greedy, or get overwhelmed when others accused her of being a gold-digger.
- Even when she played out her ‘bok bok bitch’ plan, it involved talking about microeconomic policy with a princess and wearing a deep-v gown without typical hollywood cleavage. Like I said, no single trope can encapsulate her. it’s just… her!
- And my favorite, which I will use in the future *wink*… “Hubba hubba!! Awooga awooga!!!”
Of course, I am not exactly Rachel Chu (she is herself, already), but I do seek the same academic-side, vulnerability, authenticity, silliness and deep connection that she does. And so I resonate with the character for who she is.
I also resonate with the character for what she goes through in the movie. She met someone special and met his family. I too met someone special and met his family in the past couple of years. I felt completely upended coming face-to-face with their expectations and being unsure if I really fit into the picture.
My husband was born in China, was raised by his grandparents for the first years and then came over to the US to join his parents who had sought higher education opportunities in California. So for the last 25 years, the family has lived in the US, moving around to various states and cities due to changing job circumstances. They speak mostly English at home and are quite integrated into American culture. Still, they are Chinese.
While getting to know my husband’s family, I never got the exact message, “You’ll never be enough,” like in the movie. But I did get some comments like, “You’re not Chinese. You’re American. Your family is American.”
Yes, this is true (I admit it at the beginning of this post). But it still caused me to be shaken when told straight to my face.
This aspect of ‘enough’ isn’t the same as in the movie. In the movie, ‘enough’ meant pedigree, wealth, ability to assimilate… Still, I got undertones about what was not ‘enough’, which meant an inability for our families to perfectly match together in tradition.
I felt like there was so much for me that I had to learn about their culture. To be honest, I didn’t really have any Chinese (like grew up in China) friends at that time. It was totally different! The China that my ancestors were from was different from the China that I had visited once as schoolkid, which again is so different from the China of today.
Today, China has so much development and abundance. Not as much per capita as in Singapore, but much more than I knew about. I was surprised that leaving food on the table was a sign of abundance, a good value instead of a bad one.
And so when I was faced with this new situation of getting to know my in-laws, there was a lot to mentally process.
I had thoughts like, “How do I fit within this family?” “What are their expectations of me?” “Do I want to be a part of that?” “If so, how will I establish my boundaries in this relationship while also adopting them as a part of me?”
The situation was made really complicated in my head especially when I went to China to meet the family.
When I got there, I behaved very similarly to how Rachel Chu behaved. I did not adapt. I felt foreign even though I looked Chinese. When people heard that I and my family didn’t speak Mandarin, there were confused faces. The conversation couldn’t really go to the deep topics that I normally enjoy talking about. So I felt like I couldn’t be myself.
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There were also other times in our romantic relationship where I came up against competing expectations. For example, when they invited me on an international vacation and offered to pay for it, I felt belittled, as if I wasn’t able to pay for it on my own. I also felt like my companionship was being bought, which made me feel cheap. Of course, these were not their intentions–they simply were generous and wanted to alleviate a burden. But just like Rachel Chu, I was bothered that these acts didn’t come straight from my spouse.
There have been other times, too, when family actions seemed to interfere with the relationship (in good, bad, and neutral ways). And I’m sure that they’ll keep coming as we have more and more of life to live with each other. The best thing now, though, is that I have learned that I have to remain true to myself and speak my boundaries in order to not second-guess and doubt their identities as good people.
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I’m deciding to take a high ground here and not enumerate on all the situations in the past that had bothered me about our families and the mismatch of expectations. Just trust me that there were a lot of little things that I had to progressively climb the brave mountain to become more okay with each one. Instead, I want to focus on what I DID to navigate it.
One of the first things I had to do was conscious complaining. I found a friend whom I could catch up with periodically to dump all of the complainings on. This friend was safe–all confidentiality and zero judgments. This was important since I probably said insensitive and naive things that I wouldn’t want to be repeated. Lastly, this friend could really empathize and tell me that ‘those things are normal for Chinese people,’ which really grounded me back to reality and put everything into a healthier perspective.
Second, I had to focus on what my ultimate core values were. Autonomy told me that it was not okay for another family to have a say in what I do. Intimacy encouraged me that I want to actually have a close relationship with this new family in the long-run, which is more important than the actual issues between us. Honesty told me that I had to speak up on what I was feeling. Self-development encouraged me that I would definitely grow in my courage and self-expression to have an actual serious conversation about this. Spirituality helped me put faith in God’s sovereignty during the process.
And then lastly, I had to set the actual boundary. I had never been vulnerable yet with my in-laws at the time. But two Thanksgivings ago it was really tugging at me and I had to have a sitdown conversation when I came to visit them. I cried a LOT when divulging on how it made me feel to have their involvement in my life, even though I couldn’t explain well the reason for it. I pushed hard for a new guideline on communication, which felt suuuper uncomfortable. And they listened, asked questions, and agreed!
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Now, I make it sound super simple, but it kinda was even though it’s going to feel super tough in the first 10 minutes. The key will be how much you stick to it despite the initial pain. Resolution comes through perseverance and keeping your mind set on the fulfillment of your values.
What would Rachel Chu have done? I really believe, based upon the kind of character she is, that she would’ve done the exact same thing if she were in my situation. She’d gracefully confront, knowing her true values in achieving deep relationships and self-actualization.
If you or a friend are going through something similar with the clash of family values, you are not alone! This is a universal struggle–take heart! I’d love to hear your story. Leave a comment or setup a time to chat with me so I can learn about it.