These cautionary words, from a first-generation immigrant mother to her Chinese American daughter in the landmark new film “Crazy Rich Asians,” hit home. My mother once said something just like it to me.
Like many Western-born children of Asian immigrants, I grew up seeking a place to belong. Despite our American citizenship and upbringing, Asian Americans routinely endure racism that characterizes us as perpetual outsiders; in the schoolyard, for example, I was frequently told to “go home to China.”
Yet, I also know firsthand how Asia grows more distant with each passing generation. For many of us, to be Asian American is to feel adrift in the space between Asia and America.
Growing up, I dutifully attended years of heritage school, hoping the lessons might preserve my connection to the “motherland.” I spent Saturday mornings becoming fluent in Mandarin and absorbing traditional Chinese folklore and oral histories. Saturday afternoons were reserved for lessons in cultural dance, watercolor painting and calligraphy. On Sundays, I learned from family gatherings the etiquette of sharing dim sum and how to expertly wrap a beautiful dumpling.
When I first traveled overseas to meet a bevy of aunties, uncles and cousins as a teenager, I was certain these hours of study would pay off. In Asia, I would finally belong. But it was obvious within a day of setting foot in Taiwan that I was wrong.
The food was delicious, and my extended family was warm and welcoming. I was struck by the natural beauty, and I was mesmerized by the night markets, complete with the shouts of bargain-seeking shoppers and the scent of barbecued meats. I wanted so badly to belong in this joyous, raucous world.
Somehow, though, I was still seen as different. Perhaps it was how my stride seemed to take too much space. Or the way my clothes fell upon my body. Or the awkward, nonnative accent of my Mandarin. Whatever it was, I was indelibly marked as an outsider. My family joked that street vendors were charging me prices typically reserved for tourists. One shopkeeper shooed me away, saying she didn’t sell clothes large enough to fit “a foreigner.”
Later, my mother found me crying between racks of discount wares. It was there, in an unfamiliar shop in an unfamiliar country, that I received the gentle advice that now, two decades later, bolsters my unapologetic embrace of my identity as an Asian American woman:
I may look Chinese, my mother reminded me, but it can never hide my Western upbringing.
Those words were not a rebuke, but the start of a journey. Today, I recognize that my unique perspective shapes who I am — a 36-year-old Asian American woman and a proud advocate for the Asian American community. If my home can be neither quite America nor Asia, then I must build a community that embraces me as both Asian and American.
That’s why I chose to pursue undergraduate coursework in Asian American studies and why I went online to forge my own discourse, founding a long-running blog that has expanded the conversation about Asian American identity.
It’s also why “Crazy Rich Asians” is such a watershed to me. Since the arrival of America’s first Asian immigrants, we have not been the arbiters of our own narrative. Popular culture has drawn upon racial stereotypes to portray Asian Americans as strange, suspicious and hopelessly un-American, and we have lacked the power to combat those images with media that defines ourselves for ourselves.
Boasting a predominantly Asian and Asian American cast and crew, the movie is a rare example of Asian Americans taking the reins to tell a story completely from our own perspective. It succeeds by drawing inspiration from our real lives.
And it’s clear that America is ready to hear our stories. The movie opened to enthusiastic reviews, earning $26.5 million and a No. 1 box office spot during its opening weekend in North America.
In the movie, actress Constance Wu’s character, Rachel Chu, learns to reject the feelings of inadequacy she experiences when she is not accepted by the Singapore elite her boyfriend grew up with. Instead, she leverages both her New Yorker street smarts and her familiarity with Chinese custom to win their affections.
Rachel comes to see herself as a dual citizen of both Asia and America, and I have, too. We Asian Americans deftly navigate both these worlds and proudly claim all the space in between. My Asian face and American upbringing create a thoroughly Asian American spirit. These days, I celebrate it.