For those who enjoy the luxury of seeing people in movies who look like them, a trip to the cinema is relatively uncomplicated. They can take in a film with the quiet knowledge that there will always be someone onscreen whose features reflect their own.
But for members of underrepresented groups, the seemingly simple act of watching a movie can feel monumental, and such is especially the case when the movie is specifically centered around that underrepresented identity.
Seeing someone onscreen who looks like you shows you that you belong to something much larger than yourself, that your face and your experiences can—and do—extend beyond your own body and carry weight in this world.
Some may argue that you don’t need to have the same face as someone to love the character that they portray; that, if developed well enough, a character’s soul will transcend racial boundaries. And this is true, to a certain degree—I saw myself reflected in the stubborn heart of Saoirse Ronan’s Christine McPherson in "Lady Bird." I did not look like her, yet I still found her relatable.
Except that Lady Bird didn’t speak to her mother in half-English sentences shot through with Mandarin. Lady Bird didn’t struggle to create the right meat-to-dough ratio as she rolled dumplings.
But Rachel Chu did.
It is possible for an audience member to relate to a character of a different race. After all, we are not defined solely by our races. But, being of a certain race does give you traits borne from traditions and experiences that are rooted in that identity. And these traits make up a large enough part of you that, when there are barely any mainstream characters who share that with you, you begin to feel alienated and alone.
So, when I went with my parents to see "Crazy Rich Asians" during its opening weekend, meeting Rachel Chu (played to perfection by Constance Wu) was a cinematic experience like no other. Here was an Asian-American woman who carried herself with the grace and confidence that I had always lacked. Here was an Asian-American woman who, according to her grandmother-in-law, had a nice nose, which looked just like the one on my face that I had always been ashamed of. Here was a woman whose beauty and strength laid in her Asianness.
It was hard to hate the way that I looked after I watched this entirely Asian cast, the picture of perfection, saunter across the screen. It was impossible to hate my face after I realized that it bore the same eye shape as these characters.
I had always struggled with my appearance, which, in a predominantly-white suburb, felt ‘too Asian’ most of the time. But in "Crazy Rich Asians," all of the distinctly Asian features that I had always tried to hide had become things to be flaunted. Everything I had long been embarrassed of was now being celebrated.
So the movie continued, and I sat there in my cracked leather seat, the film’s stunning visuals blurred by tears quickly filling my eyes. I hadn’t realized how hungry I had been for something like this until I was watching it, practically smelling the food of the movie’s street vendors, so similar to the ones I had grown up seeing on summer trips to China. I hadn’t realized how necessary it was to have something you could point to and say “Yeah, we do that” until I was watching a mother coax her daughter into wearing a red dress for good luck.
The deep sadness I had felt about my Asianness was being quietly released, as if with each sweeping shot, the film was slowly squeezing out every bit of negativity from my core.
But this is not just a story about me and my self-acceptance; it is also about my parents and their reactions. It’s been a week since we watched this together, and I still get a bit teary thinking about the way they shared excited smiles throughout the entire movie.
For the first time, we were watching something together that was every bit for and about my parents as it was for and about me. Being born and raised in America, I had never really been able to share in or relate to the things that they, Chinese immigrants, enjoyed.
There seemed to be an infinite supply of ‘dysfunctional white family’ films, but none about dysfunctional Asian families, or really Asian families at all.
So imagine, then, how it felt to watch this dysfunctional Asian family film’s opening sequence, over which “He Ri Jun Zai Lai” was playing. Imagine how it felt to recognize the song as one your mother used to sing around the house.
As that song played, my mother turned to me with a knowing smile. I wanted to hold that moment in the palm of my hand forever—the excited recognition of what was going on, the I know this! face.
In fact, I wanted to preserve the whole two hours of the movie forever. What a surreal experience it was to look over and see my parents chuckling together. They beamed at every joke told in Chinese, pointing in delight at a shot every now and then as if to say, “We know that.”
Really, it is just so difficult to put into words the feeling of being able to laugh at the same jokes as your parents and the feeling that, even if only for a few hours, a generational gap had been bridged.
Walking out of the theater that night was strange. I felt like I was carrying Rachel Chu’s spirit within me, like her determination and resolve had buried themselves deep inside my rib cage. A warmth settled in my heart, and then I realized it: this was what pride felt like. This was what people meant when they spoke of pride swelling in their chests, pride growing so large that their hearts felt like they could burst.
I carried this warmth all the way home with me and let it grow until my heart, too, felt like it could burst.
How special it is to find the movie, the one that completely redefines everything you ever thought about movies.
"Crazy Rich Asians" was that for me. The two hours I spent in the theater were some of the best of my life. Such a statement may seem like an exaggeration, but at seventeen years old, I had yet to experience life beyond the walls of my high school, where I was often reminded of the issues with my Asianness.
I share an identity with millions of other people, and yet I had grown so lonely in that same identity. Never seeing the things I grew up with on a screen had led me to believe that maybe these things just didn’t exist after all, that maybe I was all alone—an alien in my own experience.
This film conquered that loneliness with such force. This film showed me a world that I wasn’t sure existed, one where there were people like me who were proud to be Asian, and one where, above all else, I was proud to be Asian.