Crazy Rich Asians: Reconciling Identities

A Film Reflection

By Sean Cua (Class 2021)

 

Ever since I was very young, I had been brought up with a saying that goes, “lan mhm see huana,” which roughly translates to “we are not Filipinos”. Whenever I’d ask why this was the case, I’d just be told “lan si lannang (“we are Chinese”), followed by a long explanation of how my great-grandfather came to this country along with my great-grandmother, and how I had to protect the sacred “pure” blood that I had. To be frank, I didn’t really understand why I had to do this, but it had been so ingrained in my mind that whenever I needed to specify my nationality in any document, I would write “Chinese” instead of “Filipino”. I was proud of myself for doing that – proud of actually telling the world, “Hey, I am Chinese! A pure-blooded Chinese [who can’t speak Mandarin or Hokkien very well and who can’t speak Cantonese at all, but for all intents and purposes looks like one]!”

 

This went on until I was older, when I eventually learned the term “tai diok kha,” or “mainlander”. Apparently, we were just a subset of “Chinese” who had gone abroad before they had been affected by the communist upheaval in China. My relatives then explained to me that those who were left behind–these “mainlanders”–had lost the sense of culture that made one a true Chinese, thus they were also frowned upon by everyone else. I was at least old enough to understand that being Chinese is more than just having the blood and looking the part, but then this opened more questions than answers. What exactly was being true Chinese all about? How can one call themselves Chinese if they don’t even identify themselves with the China that currently exists today? Where exactly do I belong?

 

In its heart, I believe that one of Crazy Rich Asians’ core themes was to open the discussion of this confusion and this question of identity that most people, not just immigrant Chinese, experience today. Rachel Chu (portrayed by Constance Wu) was a person of Chinese ancestry and could speak Mandarin, but lived her whole life in America and was an American citizen. At one of the crucial segments of the movie, her boyfriend’s mother, Eleanor Young (portrayed by Michelle Yeoh), told her that she did not accept Rachel even before they had properly met because she wasn’t part of the “gai khi lang” (“own people”) circle. Even before Eleanor had mentioned this, Rachel already knew the woman’s disposition towards her and to much of the movie’s target demographic and me, her struggle felt eerily similar. She had never been fully American because she was Chinese, and she will never be fully Chinese because she had been partly Americanized – who and what exactly is she, then? In a culture whose simple desire to protect itself led to its strict and restrictive inclusion criteria for those of its own kind, where do people like Rachel fit in? Going further, what exactly does it mean to be Chinese? What exactly does it mean to be Filipino?

 

In this way, Rachel’s journey throughout the movie hits this type of audience in a way that has not been made this real in a very long time. She initially tried to adopt the beliefs, mannerisms, language, and behavior of those around her, and when this had become futile, instead chose to don her culture and her personality–standing out instead of fitting in. Though she initially attempted to copy and immerse herself in this crazy rich Asian culture, she chose to shine instead in the culture that had brought her up into who she was today. Through her narrative, director Jon Chu crafts an idea: rather than letting the culture of those around you define your story, your past and present culture and upbringing are your own story and it is ultimately up to you how you choose to tell the tale. It becomes very easy to get lost in the confusion of needing to belong at a specific culture, so much so that we forget that a culture is dead without its people. An entire culture is made up of subcultures from many distinct individual lives who create a community of shared traits, beliefs, practices, and behaviors. To me, these are like different strokes on a painting – no two strokes are exactly alike but it’s in their differences and varied utility that contributes to a beautiful masterpiece. In the end, Rachel decided to stay true to her culture – her and her mother’s Chinese-Americanship of struggle, tribulation, and triumph – and her firm resolve spoke to the hearts of Eleanor, Nick, and to many of us here today.

 

To those who haven’t seen the movie, watch it. I don’t need to add to what’s already been said by countless other people, movie reviewers, and Facebook posts for you to know just how many lives have been moved by this rom-com. As for me, yes, I am a Chinese who doesn’t live in China [and who can speak better Chinese now, though still quite far from being at the level I want to be at yet], and a Filipino who, despite not looking like one, now writes in his nationality as “Filipino” in all his current documents. The history of how my ancestors overcame their circumstances for me to be here today, as well as the present day-by-day journey I walk, are both part of the story of culture I choose to weave for myself.  

 

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