Crazy Devoted Asians: Asian Americans and Filial Piety

by NiNi Banh

I sat in a theater on a Saturday morning waiting to see Ant-man and the Wasp. A preview that came on the screen took me by surprise. It was for Crazy Rich Asians — a romantic comedy with vibrant, lively colors, a mostly Asian cast, and seemingly not reliant on Asian caricatures. It felt so surreal to see a trailer for such a movie.

Then, Crazy Rich Asians took the entire world by storm, ending its August opening weekend with $26 million in sales, and it stayed in the top spot of the box office for three weeks straight. As the first mainstream, non-period drama to have a mostly Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club twenty-five years prior, it was — and still is — on the tip of everyone’s tongue, recommended between friends and family for weeks and weeks. Crazy Rich Asians is the new, lively face of the romantic comedy genre with its $232 million in sales as of October 2018. Not only did Crazy Rich Asians make up its worth in sales, but it also is a fresh, fun, and exciting look at what romantic comedies of the next few years could be like.

Crazy Rich Asians is, at its core, a typical romantic comedy; there are no twists or genre subversions to try and differentiate it from other of its kind. The main character, Rachel Chu (played by Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu), a Chinese American economics professor at New York University, is invited to a friend’s wedding in Singapore by her boyfriend, Nick Young (played by newcomer Henry Golding), to meet his traditional Chinese family — who all happen to be crazy, crazy rich. Rachel’s Western, individualistic upbringing clashes with the Young family’s Eastern, family-oriented, isolated values on a social level. This marks her as an outsider that Nick is bringing in. Rachel comes from a poor family and was raised by a single mother. Nick and Rachel’s cultural and socioeconomic differences set up the main conflict of the movie in what is a classic romantic drama trope — the main character desires love and commitment but is blocked by her partner’s family in some form.

Despite its typical plot, what makes the magnetic charm of Crazy Rich Asians so distinctive from the rest of the genre is that it’s a pioneer: an Asian romantic comedy that is filled to the brim with an aesthetically-pleasing, vibrant, and dynamic color palette and a narrative that isn’t generalized and reduced to stereotypes. It’s a diverse film in more than just an ethnic sense, but rather a cultural and storytelling sense as well. Gone are the racial caricatures that have plagued American-made movies about Asians. There’s no socially inept and nerdy but oversexualized comic relief like Long Duk Dong of Sixteen Candles, or weird, quirky girl whose quietness defines her character like Lilly Onakuramara of the Pitch Perfect franchise, or repressed, no-nonsense, workaholic nerd like Harold Lee of the Harold & Kumar franchise. There are real characters who feel like real people on the silver screen. The writers don’t rely on stereotypes to build these characters’ personalities, but rather steep their writing in the specific.

Nick grew up overseas with his family and has a deep connection with them. He is the first heir of his family’s multipurpose business. He wants to bring Rachel home and integrate her into the fold. He’s both the Chinese son who loves and honors his parents, but also the man who grew up during the early 21st century, influenced by the more individualistic nature of the millennial generation. Rachel has built her career and success by working for her dreams, something that is frowned upon by Nick’s mother who believes more in the stability of tradition over the fleeting uncertainty of passion.

While Rachel is in America, looking for dresses to wear to meet Nick’s family for the first time, her mother, Kerry, sums up one of the core experiences that speaks to and unifies Asian American moviegoers (regardless if they’re Chinese or not). Rachel doesn’t understand the fuss of having to make a good impression on the Youngs because she’s Chinese and speaks Mandarin just like them. Kerry tells Rachel that there is a big difference between Rachel as an Asian American and Nick and the Youngs who are Asian. She points out that Rachel is physically Chinese but culturally American. Herein lies why Crazy Rich Asians is the movie that speaks to so many people on a widespread level. In its specific narrative, delving into the push and pull of Western and Eastern culture, immigrant and native upbringing, progressivism and traditionalism, and devotion to self and devotion to family, it reveals the universal experience of Asian Americans who are torn in varying degrees between the culture they inherited and the culture that they grow up around.

Rachel faces this harsh reality early on in the movie once she and Nick arrive in Singapore and she meets Nick’s family. It’s a quiet scene — as none of the drama that unfolds in this movie ever reaches extremely dramatic shouting — but it conveys much through its awkwardness. It starts when Rachel initiates a hug with Nick’s mother, Eleanor, a gesture that she seems put off by and uncomfortable with. Rachel is also confused by Eleanor’s flippancy when she walks away to tend to food in the kitchen while Rachel is in the middle of a sentence. It’s a nonverbal display of how much she doesn’t respect that Nick brought an American girl home, even if Rachel is Chinese American. Eleanor is intimidating and cold, politely listening to Rachel summarizing her life story of growing up without a father and supporting her mother as she grew up. But once Rachel mentions how she loves teaching college, Eleanor’s demeanor changes and she makes an innocuous comment about how chasing after one’s dreams is such an American ideal. This comment prompts Rachel to say to Nick as they leave the room, “She hates me.”

As a first-generation Vietnamese American, I have been Rachel, influenced by Western individualism, and my mother has been Eleanor, committed to more traditional values of comfort and security and collectivism. I grew up wanting to be a doctor because that was what my mother wanted me to be. For my kindergarten career day, I had unrealistically wanted to dress up as a Power Ranger, which I already knew my mom wouldn’t let me go through with. But instead of a police officer, firefighter, or teacher like all the other kids in my class came as, my mom dressed me up as a surgeon and wrote me a short speech to give about how I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my other relatives who were doctors. Because of that, I never stopped to consider if I wanted to be a doctor or if that was just what my mom and my family wanted me to be. I entered college as a biology major because I didn’t think I had any other options. My mind was already made at this point — regardless if my decisions and career path were because of myself or my family, I was going to become a doctor. I learned the hard way through a series of increasingly stressful biology and chemistry college classes that it was definitely my family’s influence that led me to think medicine was for me.

During my sophomore year, I switched to a creative writing major, and that was when my mom became Eleanor and I became Rachel. Our relationship went from already difficult and emotionally uncommunicative, which was standard for an Asian-American daughter and an Asian mother, to cold and flippant. To an outsider, there wasn’t anything different about my relationship with my mother since she didn’t try and stop me from changing my major, but the frustration on her side was there. I was no longer going to fulfill what she wanted for me and instead, was going to pursue my own far-fetched, flimsy, uncertain dreams. “What can you do with a writing major?” she asked. “You’re giving up a secure and lucrative career as a doctor. You can’t get that from being a writer.”

Even after having more obvious and more immediate success in my new writing major, my mother still didn’t accept my new life path and tried to control it because she was stuck in the same mindset as Eleanor. In the movie, Nick is pestered by reminders from not only his mother, but also friends and relatives, about how he is the first in line to inherit the family business. And he clearly avoids a decision about a move back to Singapore to do so. Eleanor is uncomfortable with Nick’s evasiveness and pesters him about his duty to his family, and, in that, I saw my mother. According to my mother, this is what I owe to our family: to do not what is best for me, but what is best for our family as a whole so that we may have success and flourish.

The core conflict of Crazy Rich Asians comes from this tension: Rachel and Nick want to be together but come from two different worlds that ultimately don’t mesh together. Eleanor wants Nick to respect his familial duties and positively honor how his choices and image impact his family. At the film’s resolution, the answer it provides isn’t that one side is right but that neither should be prioritized too much. Rachel’s Western individualism and idealized dreams are what Americans have been raised on as a society, and they are important values to hold, but culture, history, and family are just as important. Eleanor’s fear of Nick forgetting where he comes from – should he stay with and eventually marry Rachel and move to America permanently — is valid because their family would be broken up. Nick will lose what he’s had his whole life.

So there are two compromises for a time. First, Rachel makes a choice when she acknowledges how important Eleanor’s wishes are and rejects a marriage proposal from Nick. She even tells Eleanor that she doesn’t want to take Nick away from her, but she also doesn’t want Nick to resent Eleanor if he felt as if she was trying to control his life too much. In making her choice to turn Nick down, Rachel keeps everyone happy: Eleanor by letting go of Nick, Nick by not ruining his relationship with his mother, and herself by being the bigger person and walking away. However, when Eleanor realizes the sacrifice Rachel has made, she puts aside her stubborn traditional values and gives Nick her blessing to propose to Rachel again.

I see the answer to the struggle felt by numerous Asian Americans around the country. We’re used to the idealized American dream and to the idea that we have the choice to make our own version of that and accomplish it however we want to. But the barriers standing in our way are our families’ expectations that end up weighing on our shoulders. I’ve come to resent those standards and just want to be free, but I can’t be free to express and be myself if I just go to one extreme of the spectrum. I have to compromise with my family and find where my desires and theirs meet comfortably in the middle, and that compromise may take years longer than a two-hour movie. But Crazy Rich Asians has put that potential for old and new to coexist together in the spotlight.

NiNi Banh is a Creative Writing major and Latin minor at HBU. She has had a love for writing since she was six. Her biggest dream in life is colorfully expressing her faith through her art.

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