Crazy Midwest Asians

A few crazy Midwest Asians go to DC.

A few crazy Midwest Asians go to DC.

The movie Crazy, Rich Asians is killing it at the box office, and I know what I’m supposed to feel: joy that audiences have embraced it, gratitude for the people who made it happen, satisfaction that Asian faces are finally accepted in Hollywood, pride that a story so steeped in Asian culture is now mainstream. And I do feel all of those things.

But I am feeling lots of other things too. 

First of all, I can’t shake the feeling of annoyance. I am annoyed that this is heralded as the beginning, as the permission we’ve been seeking to talk about what it means to be Asian in America. This is not the beginning. This struggle has lasted since I was born, and way worse treatment was endured by those in the previous century. I’m annoyed, frankly, that it has taken so long, that we are still “realizing” that people who look different have the same value inside. Seriously. WE SHOULD KNOW THIS. 

A quick look at Asian representation in mass media during my own lifetime shows the nature of our waiting. I remember a small peak of Asian representation in the 90’s (NOT “SNEAK PEAK” THAT IS NOT A THING PLEASE NEVER EVER WRITE THAT - MOUNTAINS DO NOT TIPTOE UP TO ANYONE. IT IS SNEAK PEEK PEEK PEEK) when I came of age. I remember Margaret Cho’s All American Girl being just as funny as other sitcoms. Nay, it was FUNNIER. I was devoted to Home Improvement and the Cosby Show, but I remember exact lines from All American Girl. That was 1994, over two decades ago. The show never made it past one season despite the fact that I thought it was drop-dead hilarious. 

Margaret and the team of comedic pros, including my favorite, the grandma.

Margaret and the team of comedic pros, including my favorite, the grandma.

Around the same time, in 1993, was the Joy Luck Club. Nothing had ever done what it did to me - tear a hole in my heart from whence poured out the searing pain of the mother-daughter relationship. It depicted a common experience: what happens when mothers raised in an emotionally-deprived (and often restrictive and sexist) culture try to love their daughters, who are born into a society that offers them incomparably more. And then in 1998, my best friend, also an ABC, and I went to watch Disney’s Mulan and ended up the only people weeping in the theater. Countless other teen movies had tried to draw tears, but they all (including Free Willy) failed to move my cool, steely heart. But as Mulan first earned the disapproval and then the honor of her family, we bawled in our seats. 

These media representations didn’t tell us what to do as a minority in a majority culture - they just reflected our challenges back to us, magnified. So, I took the easier route - I pretended I was white. It’s doable, at least if you speak without an accent. I had a blessed American childhood, full of unsupervised outdoor play, slumber parties and pranks, and high-school clubs and activities. I was just like everyone else. 

Or so I wanted to believe. There was one piece of evidence that betrayed me: my college essay. Even then, I equated “creative writing” with veiled ranting, and unfortunately in that case, I was rewarded for it: that essay got me into every Ivy I applied to, as well as an invite to the AB Duke Scholarship competition. I knew something was up when the only other kid selected from Ohio for the competition was a legit math genius. I am decidedly not a genius, but I did get a handwritten note from a Duke admissions officer about how compelling my essay was. Hey kids, sometimes ranting works.

The essay was essentially this - I hated how people reduced my accomplishments and my individuality to my race. Some of the assumptions included that I was only good at things because I slaved at it (nope - wish I had, though), that my parents were taskmasters (they were detached and uninvolved), and that I was born with a certain level of talent (I am “gifted” at some things and terrible at others. Just like anyone else). The illustration I used was my hair, which due to some whacked genes went haywire in high school. I don’t have to tell you that this was an unmitigated disaster. High school is when hair care is of critical importance. Girls spend lots of time grooming their long, shiny, silky tresses so that they can toss them about in the wind like wild mares. Apparently that factors favorably into your rating by high school boys. Sadly, my previously fine, straight hair started to grow out unruly, curly, dry, and brown. It did not sway in the breeze. It was greasy as hell. My bangs looked like a rusty birds nest perched on my forehead. It even freaked out other Chinese people. One told me, “You look like a sheep.” And thus the first line of my college essay was gifted to me. In the essay, I ranted against the assumption I kept hearing: oh, I know what you people are like. 

That was years ago, and I spent the intervening years firming up my confidence and sense of identity. And good thing, because after decades in diverse East Coast communities, I have moved back to the Midwest. And I think there were more Asians in my college orchestra than in this entire town. I have already noticed that people treat me differently. I've noticed cashiers who chat up every customer ahead of me only to put on a stony face when I pull up, librarians who seem guarded when I approach, only to relax when I ask a question in perfect English, people who stare extra hard at me when I’m out and about, and so on. Amazingly, after 20 years, I am back to square one. 

Due to this rebirth as a crazy Midwestern Asian, the recent flurry of Asian attention inspires a second emotion, and that is determination. There is so much more that needs to be done. From here, I see clearer than ever that the health of our country depends on our ability to see past external differences and know that all people have the same hopes and dreams. It seems to be the hardest thing to learn. 

How do we fix that? Well, what if every American kid spent time living or studying in a place where there is no English or where they are the ones who look different? Or if all cities and towns were diverse and integrated, like some areas in our biggest cities. I also think the media can still do much more to display inclusiveness. But, you protest, all that is on the majority culture! What can we, as Asians do? 

To answer that, I think back on one of the most memorable graduation speeches I have ever heard. It was my law school graduation, and the student speaker, Tejinder Singh, talked about wearing a turban (aka a flashing sign that says “DIFFERENT! DIFFERENT!”). He spoke movingly about how he dealt with constantly being judged based on how he looked. Let me paraphrase, very inartfully, his message:  

“When people see me, I know they are judging my entire people based on what I, as an individual, do. So I am very mindful to act as a representative, because I AM, whether I like it or not.”     

Like it or not, I too am a representative of my culture based on how I look. And even more so now, with the release of the movie, the world is watching. Scrutinizing, even. I see this as a valuable opportunity -- a chance to change opinions one person at a time, to bring the best of who we are to the table, whether that is our value as outspoken activists, compassionate volunteers, or uniquely talented artists. 

It doesn't seem fair that everyone doesn’t share this burden. But they should, because the fact is that, because of the internet, anything one of does reflects on us as a country. I routinely listen to news broadcasts from Europe and hell yes, they look at what goes on in the United States, what our President says, and they think, “This is what Americans are like these days.” We minorities are surely aware of this. Wouldn't it be a better world if everyone did? 

Until then, we serve as unelected representatives for all people who look like us. The burden is heavy - the price of screwing up falls more sharply on our backs, the benefit of the doubt harder to come by. But for the sake of all future crazy Asians of any persuasion or location, it is time to be our best selves.