Like the Joy Luck Club 25 years ago, Crazy Rich Asians is one of very few mainstream movies depicting a primarily Asian montage of characters. We aren’t just sidekicks with funny Fu Man Chu Ching Chang Chong accents. Shows like Fresh Off the Boat or Kim’s Convenience have proved that we too can flaunt our Asian culture profitably for the money guy in the studios and networks. While I love that other people can watch shows about people who look a lot like me or have many of the unique problems we face as Asians (with conservative Asian parents), I’m also keen to see us just be mainstream in general. I’ve watched Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory, Game of Thrones, The Office… and they don’t have a lot of Asian people on their roster of regular cast members. And yet I can relate to most of the people in different ways. (Maybe not Phoebe, Rachel and Monica as much, but definitely women in the workplace Pam, Kelly and Angela or even reluctant hero Jon Snow or geeky Leonard Hofstadter.).
Margaret Cho, Constance Wu, John Cho, Ken Jeong have had to evolve Asian roles from primarily martial arts types (Bruce Li, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yan Fat) to real flushed out people with love interests or motivation other than redemption and revenge. I loved Margaret Cho in Drop Dead Divas. It wasn’t an ‘Asian’ role. She happened to be Asian; her Asian-ness was never an issue in the show. And Michelle Yeoh’s impactful role in the most recent Star Trek Discovery series, too, she was an anchor character who could have been from any background. Her martial arts came in handy for the fight scenes, but her Captain Phillipa Georgiou would have been badass no matter what.
I spent a lot of my young adulthood escaping my Asian background. If you heard me over the phone, you’d be surprised to see my round bespectacled Chinese face looking at you when you came to my office. If you looked at my career in North America, you would see that I didn’t really benefit from my bilingual background or Asian experience, I don’t get ‘cast’ for something because I’m Asian or speak Chinese. I’m 12-hour time difference from my birthplace; it’s as far as one can move away from one’s heritage.
On the one hand, I’m really excited about movies like Crazy Rich Asians (even though it doesn’t quite reflect my socioeconomic background), on the other, I also want to see a richer diversity of people at every level, in every organization, in all industries. Let being Asian be like a trait that is a bonus (horseback riding, dancing, singing, archery, speaking French)… let’s not define and label people only in that way, because it then limits what they are allowed to do.
Being Asian in a Western world means being able to slide in and out of being Asian as the need arises. Like my negotiation tactics, managerial style, or analytical skills: a part of me and in my back pocket if I need them, but not defining who I am.
This makes it interesting to parent my mixed race kids, who are half Chinese. Clearly there are values that I bring with me from my Chinese cultural childhood, but we definitely relate to each other in a very Torontonian/Canadian way.