“The first studio film that puts an Asian-American story at its center, is making people unexpectedly cry….it provided something very specific they didn’t even realize they were longing for until they saw it.” – Huffpost, 22/8
Quite a number of people have experienced strong emotions from this movie. For some people, it was the ending Mahjong scene. For some people, it was the relationship between mother and child. For some it was the food and caring aspect. For others, it was hearing those Chinese songs that we kept to our families because it was weird; being played in a Hollywood movie in a positive light. What’s behind the tears?
For me, one scene in particular stood out. It was Astrid’s introduction scene of her walking in and choosing earrings. As I was re-listening the soundtrack for that scene, I was full crying – it caught me by surprise actually, I choked up in several other parts of the movie – it took me a few days to reflect on why this scene and the associated soundtrack was especially emotional for me.
I realize that I had never seen an Asian woman (in an English-speaking context) portrayed glamorously and admired by all. When I was a kid, the trendy clothes and imaged belonged to the Caucasian girls, not me. All I could hope to be was the intelligent helper, the Yellow Power Ranger, a great sidekick, but not the cool and pretty blonde one who gets to wear the trendy clothes and have be with the handsome blonde guy as well. I didn’t dare aspire or compete with what they had: the boy bands or the famous actors. After all, why would a non-Asian guy even want to like an Asian girl? I didn’t think I was allowed – I was only allowed the Asian guys and I had to stay in my Asian-ness. And so I did, I took refuge in the more accessible world of East Asian pop culture: TVB dramas, j-dramas and k-dramas as well as pop music. The sight of Astrid walking in set to snazzy old Hollywood jazz and then Mancini-esque music was so strange – an Asian woman admired without having to be ‘Oriental’.
How disappointing it was then when I finally went to Asia as a teen / young adult and found out I didn’t fit there at all, I was too Western! The Asian actors and trends were as far away as ever. I couldn’t aspire to the Western ideal but then I didn’t fit in Asia either. It’s a common ABC experience – stuck in the “in-between”, not Asian enough or Western enough.
Why was it so emotional? For us, we saw parts of our story being told and where tons of people would get to hear and hopefully understand. For so long, our stories as Asians in the West were finally being seen on the big screen. We didn’t have to mentally translate the story to ourselves for once. We weren’t the sidekicks or the usual stereotype.
At the heart of it, we want people to see us and our struggles – we want to be known and accepted. We’re not leads in the Asian stories, and we aren’t in Western stories either. It seems unfair that other people get unlimited opportunities for their stories to be told and known but we don’t. Even in this Postmodern age which likes stories, whose stories get to be told? Who gets to choose?
One problem with not being able to tell your story is that when you have a chance, you must be excellent. Think of the times you saw David Ould on The Project, or John Dickson on Studio 10. We hardly get a chance as Christians to be on TV so we badly need our representative to succeed. This places a lot of pressure on the representative. Their success reflected on the whole group of Christians. It directly correlates with our acceptance into mainstream society. Think of the Asians we see on Australian TV. They are excellent. They are Masterchef winners, X-Factor winners. The message is: you must be excellent to matter, to be accepted. When you are a minority, you have such limited opportunities, so you are not allowed to fail.
Its the same issue with this movie. It’s under so much scrutiny that a non-Asian rom-com would never get. It’s being given the high expectation Asian parent treatment. Because we know that our success directly correlates with our acceptance into Western society. But, when there’s heaps of you and heaps of stories, you don’t feel pressure because you don’t have to represent everyone and you are free to stuff up.
Another problem with not seeing yourself in diverse roles is that you don’t know you were allowed to dream. Perhaps some of us dream of winning Masterchef. Why not dream of being a Masterchef judge? For me, with not many role models growing up, I thought that I was only allowed to choose something safe, so I chose out of the Asian choices. Even when I became a mother, I thought I had to be like the other pastors wives I saw, give up my career and have 4 kids. There’s nothing wrong with that, at the same time, I didn’t know I was allowed to steer away from the popular narrative. I thought I was letting down myself and others in not meeting those expectations.
From what I observe, in our families and churches we have learnt not to speak about our pain. If we speak about the pains of growing up in an Asian household, we risk the relationships with the ones we care most about and can’t live without. If we speak about our pains of being a minority in a Western society, the simple response is just “go back to where you came from”. And so we stay silent and be excellent. We tell others to do so as well. We may not even recognize our pain. We have limited Christian vocab and frameworks to verbalize the brokenness. We tell each other that our identity in Christ is all that matters. To me, this is as helpful as a bunch of women meeting in a Christian Womens’ conference and never addressing the fact that they are created as women but telling each other, our identity in Christ is all that matters. It is a bit bizarre.
What’s also concerning to me is that when we do talk about our Asian-ness, its almost always in shallow (awesome food!) or negative terms (when referring to the 1st generation). It may be portrayed as a liability for our godliness. But even as cultures are corrupted by sin, all cultures have inherent goodness and beauty.
For many of us, this movie revealed our ethnic brokenness. That we have either struggled to be Asian enough, or struggled to be Western enough and been largely rejected by both. This movie reveals an existential need that our presentations of the gospel have so far been unable to address.
The Jews badly wanted someone to represent them, to represent their pain as a small minority under Roman rule. When they saw his miracles and power, they wanted to make him king. They were allowed to dream outside of the bounds of Roman rule, to have their own land, and rule. They needed him to represent them, to be excellent. Instead, he did strange things like hang out with un-excellent people, his closest friend was scared to be associated with him, deserting him and he embarrassingly died on the cross. Everyone spent 3 years pinning all their hopes onto him. To them, he failed spectacularly.
Jesus was on about something a bit different. The response to this movie shows that many of us are ethnically broken. We are stuck, in-between and often silent in our struggle. He knows us completely, in our pain, in our full ethnic selves, not despite our ethnic selves. As fully man, Jesus was able to sympathize with our condition. He was the only one who could represent us perfectly and therefore, take our place. We didn’t have to be excellent because He was. He is the only one who knows us fully and accepts us.
Which parts of the movie were emotional for you? Why do you think you had the response you had?
EDIT: Thanks for this response all. I’m in the process of developing training material to tackle this issue in our churches. If you are interested in this training, fill out this form.