By Guest Contributor: Do Nguyen Mai
Media is already saturated with unnecessary and unrealistic displays of wealth. Crazy Rich Asians might be a fun, light-hearted summer watch, but we shouldn’t herald the film as adequate or deeply meaningful representation when so many Asian Americans are darker-skinned, working class people, and refugees. Just as Elle Woods of Legally Blonde is hardly representative of most young women, the lives of the characters in Crazy Rich Asians are far from the everyday experiences of most Asian Americans.
California’s Orange County is home to large Vietnamese American and Khmer American communities, and the county houses the nation’s third-largest Asian American population. However, a study by the Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Community Alliance and Asian Americans Advancing Justice found that 57,000 Asian Americans in Orange County live below the national poverty line. The Los Angeles Times’ Anh Do detailed the single room rented by a Vietnamese American tenant via the local underground economy, a phenomenon common to the community:
There are no windows. Instead of paintings, the walls are adorned by a child’s crayon scrawl. The space is about the size of two master closets — just large enough to fit an Ikea bed, a chair, a desk and makeshift storage for a gas burner and food.
Bui pays $500 a month for the space. Two elderly Vietnamese men, one a retired shop owner, the other a former carpenter, each rent other rooms. The landlords, a family of three, squeeze themselves into the garage of the 1,400-square-foot house.
Furthermore, although Asian American prisoners comprise a rather small proportion of the total prison population, Angela Oh and Karen Umemot found that their estimated numbers increased by over 250 percent just between 1990 to 2000, with over 3,000 new admissions in 2000. Meanwhile, Southeast Asian American refugees are three to four times more likely to be deported for old convictions.
Contrary to the kinds of popular perceptions of Asian Americans that are troublingly reinforced by the depictions in Crazy Rich Asians, there are significant sections of the Asian American community struggling to stay afloat. The heart of Asian America isn’t wealthy landlords or business owners, but rather its most vulnerable intersections: the working poor, refugees, the incarcerated.
The AAPI Data project at University of California, Riverside provides comprehensive data on the Asian American community, and their data breakdowns provide a more nuanced picture of the Asian American community. 13.8% of Asian Americans live below the poverty line, mirroring the national poverty rate. According to the Economic Policy Institute, once poverty rates are adjusted for cost of living and geographic factors, Asian Americans actually experience even higher poverty rates of 16.1%. The Pew Research Center’s notes that Asian Americans have a lower home ownership rate of 57% than the national ownership rate of 63%.
We shouldn’t neglect the disparities present within our communities either. Southeast Asian Americans experience poverty rates higher than the national average of 11.3% and the Asian American average of 15%, up to 27% in Hmong American communities. According to the State of AAPI Series: Income and Poverty, CAP & AAPI Data report, the Asian American average household income is $71,709. In comparison, the Southeast Asian American average is $61,556.25. Most Southeast Asian Americans have not obtained bachelor’s degrees or higher, while most other Asian Americans have completed higher education. Up to 57% of Southeast Asian Americans report struggling to pay their mortgages or rent.
Overprioritizing representation in terms of the mechanisms of wealthy, exclusive Hollywood inevitably contributes to the trivialization and the neglect of frontline fights: combatting the terror of ICE, campaigns for rent control, addressing colorism and anti-blackness in Asian America, calls for living wages. Our community organizing ought not to focus too many of our resources on promoting diversity within a system that is designed to continuously generate disparities regardless of the ethnicity of the people in it. To do so is to hinge Asian American activism on minimal, unradical change.
Crazy Rich Asians might be a fun movie to watch during date night, but praise for the film should not frame it as the paragon of Asian American representation or Asian American activism when too many Asian Americans struggle to survive every day.
Representation isn’t just someone who looks like you. It’s also someone who lives like you.
I was excited to see Crazy Rich Asians. It’s a wonderful film. However, very little in the film resonates with the lived experiences of many like me. We must continue to be critical and understand that we’re still far from not just robust representation, but what should be the goal: inclusive, revolutionary progress.
Do Nguyen Mai is a Vietnamese American poet, researcher, and advocate for Vietnamese America’s future. She is the author of Ghosts Still Walking (2016) and Battlefield Blooming (forthcoming 2019), the founding executive editor of Rambutan Literary, and the editor-in-chief of The Santa Clarita Valley Proclaimer.
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