Img credit: Warner Bros
Note: This is Part 1 of a series where we’ll be using Crazy Rich Asians as a launching point to explore different aspects of ministry to Asian-Americans.
I jumped onto the Crazy Rich Asians bandwagon last week. My interest was piqued by social media posts from friends, but I was finally convinced not to wait until the DVD release when my mom, who never requests to watch movies, said she wanted to go.1 I didn’t cry and I’m not going to say it was the Asian Black Panther, but I did walk out enjoying it more than I thought I would. Since then, I’ve been trying to pinpoint why.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who was surprised. Crazy Rich Asians has surpassed all expectations in the box office, grossing $24.8 million last weekend, dropping only 6% from opening weekend (most movies drop 30-60%). If you’re friends with Asian-Americans who loved the movie, now may be the time to ask them why. Here are a few of my thoughts on one reason so many of us enjoyed it, plus a takeaway for those ministering to Asian-Americans in the church.
Why (I Think) We Like It So Much
Many have declared Crazy Rich Asians a watershed moment— the first Hollywood film in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast in lead roles. Some friends said they cried at the sight of Asians on screen who are likable, aren’t martial artists, and speak perfect English. I get this. Recently my kids were listening to one of our favorite Christian kids’ radio programs and on one episode a Chinese coach spoke in broken English with a horribly exaggerated accent. The show ended with him making a kid in detention repeat, “Wax on, wax off.” I’m glad to see non-cringeworthy or sidelined Asian characters in a good movie.
What I’ve found interesting these past two weeks has been that in spite of this being a powerful moment for Asian representation, the enthusiasm I’ve seen from friends has not been mainly about seeing Asian faces on the big screen. For many, even more powerful than seeing their ethnicity represented on screen has been watching their stories told.
At first glance, it’s strange that so many Asian-Americans would relate to the world of Crazy Rich Asians. It takes place in Singapore, not America. Most of us aren’t crazy rich, nor are we dating someone who is. Plus, the movie is a romantic comedy and the book it’s based on is satirical, so it’s predictable and parts of the movie are ridiculously over-the-top. So why did it feel so familiar?
There were the obvious things Asian-Americans recognized as we watched Crazy Rich Asians— the languages, locations, and even a dumpling-making scene. There was a jab at the stereotype that all Asians speak broken English, a reference to lactose intolerance, and an explanation of “banana.” Perhaps this is what some people are referring to when they talk about the movie representing Asian culture. But these are fairly superficial facets of culture. Anyone can study Chinese, visit Chinese places, and enjoy Chinese cuisine.
Culture is more than country, language, food, and inside jokes. Since Crazy Rich Asians revolves around a confrontation of cultures, there are a few times where characters clearly (and a bit unnaturally) articulate their values for the sake of the audience. However, just as in real life, the nuances of Chinese culture subtly pervade the film, animating characters’ emotions and choices in a way that Asian-American viewers implicitly understood. This is what many of us enjoyed the most.
We Know The Story
Throughout Crazy Rich Asians, certain aspects of the characters’ history, psyche, and relationships probably seemed like simple plot devices to some. The protagonist, Rachel, is unable to meet the expectations of her boyfriend Nick’s tight-knit family and is rejected as an American outsider. Nick bears the burden of familial expectations as his grandmother’s favorite. Nick and Rachel feel the tension between family and their romance. None of this is revolutionary in the genre of fiction and romantic comedy. But to many Asian-Americans who watched, these plot conflicts and characters were not just choices a writer made for the sake of a good story, they were carefully crafted glimpses of our reality.
The dumpling scene, for example, was not just familiar to Asian-Americans because we’ve also wrapped dumplings with family, but because the relational dynamics we saw on screen are part and parcel of the air we breathe. We understood the deference given to Nick’s grandmother when she walked in and flinched at the remarks she made about her daughter-in-law’s dumplings. We know the sway Asian parents often hold in the lives of grown children and the complicated in-law relationships that often follow.
We have also felt the ways Asian families often silently pull through during trouble and what it’s like to navigate unspoken gratitude — “Family doesn’t need to say thank you.” And we know what it is to be shaped by the two cultures portrayed in Crazy Rich Asians. As Americans, we have been directed by the schools we’ve attended, books we’ve read, and movies we’ve watched to pursue our passions. As Asian-Americans, we understand we can’t disentangle our own pursuits from how they affect our families of origin.
In the end, Asian-Americans are familiar with the unspoken cultural narratives directing Rachel, Nick, and even Nick’s mom and grandmother’s stories because in many ways, these narratives have also driven our stories.
Did We Watch The Same Movie?
Since Crazy Rich Asians came out, Asian-Americans have commented on how they wished they could give others a ticket to the movie in lieu of trying to explain themselves, their culture, and their experiences. Though I can empathize with the sentiment, I’m not sure the movie itself can accomplish that goal without interpretation from those fluent in Chinese culture.
Reading reviews, I’ve been struck by how varied the plot summaries are. All stories require some interpretation, but romantic comedies are usually pretty straightforward in nature. Still, the more I’ve read, the more I’m seeing how an understanding of Chinese culture is crucial to picking up the heart and main tensions of the movie.
Some reviews summarize Crazy Rich Asians as a classic Cinderella story (except with Asians) mainly depicting a clash of classes. Nick’s mom is described in some articles as the “evil-stepmother” motivated by fear of losing her son. One reviewer wrote, “The journey of the film is Rachel and Nick agreeing to love each other on their own terms, family expectations be damned.”
Unlike these reviewers, most Asian-Americans watching the movie would recognize the story not primarily as a clash of classes but of culture. Some reviewers pick up this cultural conflict, but still couch the movie in terms of the negative trappings of traditional Chinese values verses the better American value of individual happiness. Asian-Americans who watched could understand Nick’s mother not as a simple “mustache twirling” villain (actor Michelle Yeoh’s words), but as motivated by concern and sacrificial love for her son. We also would retell the ending very differently than Rachel and Nick learning to do things “on their own terms.”
As I read reviews, it was as if I had watched a completely different movie than some of these writers. That’s because in a way, I had.
Cultural Narratives and the Church
Watching Crazy Rich Asians and seeing its reception by Asian-Americans around me has reminded me of the need for Christians who are able to exegete and speak into Asian-American culture well.2 While it is fairly inconsequential when a reviewer misunderstands a movie because they don’t understand Asian culture, there are greater implications when it comes to the church.
If you’ve ever had the experience of receiving the right words from a friend at exactly the right moment, you know it’s not just because they said what was true, but because they chose the truth you needed. They understood the deeper issues behind what you were going through and applied God’s truth in turn. Bringing the wrong cultural assumptions into interpreting another person’s story often means choosing the wrong truth to minister to him. A counselor watching Crazy Rich Asians thinking Nick’s mother is just a controlling, vindictive person who hurts because she was hurt by her mother-in-law (a very American idea) would give very different advice to Rachel than a pastor understanding the intricacies of guilt, shame, and parental responsibility in Chinese culture.
Being a good student of culture is one reason why pastors like Tim Keller have made such an impact in our generation and thinkers like C.S. Lewis still do. As you listen or read from these men, they not only point out what you do but why you do it and how Western philosophies have shaped your thinking, even without your knowledge. Having exposed the heart through unpacking culture, they then apply the word of God in a way that feels relevant to a wide audience. Understanding the wider narratives influencing the stories of individuals within a culture is an important part of gospel ministry.
Crazy Rich Asians is giving rise to fruitful conversations about Asian culture and Asian-American identity. Here at Reformed Margins, we have sought to help unpack some aspects of our culture so we can see how God speaks specifically into our stories. In upcoming posts, we will use the movie tangentially to explore some common threads in the Asian-American experience. Our hope is to serve both Asian-Americans and those who minister to us. Whether or not you loved Crazy Rich Asians, we hope you’ll join us.
What about you? Did you watch Crazy Rich Asians? How did you like it and why? We’d love to be able to interact about this movie not only as Asian-Americans, but Asian-American Christians.
1 This is happening enough for NY Times to write an article on Asian immigrant parents going to watch the movie with their kids.
2 The difficulty of understanding and ministering to those in another culture is not unique to those in ministry with Asian-Americans. Missionaries and others working cross-culturally face the necessary and difficult work of contextualization as well. We’re just focusing on Asian-Americans in light of Crazy Rich Asians.