Reflecting on ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and Being “Asian Enough” as an Asian American Adoptee

By Guest Contributor: Katie Mantele (@chenqiaoling)

On August 15, 2018, the release of Crazy Rich Asians was celebrated by members of the Asian diaspora across the globe, and especially by Asian Americans who have both longed for and championed more diverse Asian representation in Hollywood. As many other op-eds have pointed out, it is the first major Hollywood studio film that stars an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club twenty-five years ago.

As a 20-something-year-old Asian American woman who was adopted from China and raised by white American parents, the significance of this film was not lost on me, nor was the fact that I have lived up until now not seeing any faces that resembled mine portrayed in such a contemporary and nuanced way.

Like many other Asian Americans, I did not have many Asian role models to look up to as a child. When I try to think of some, only two people come to mind: Olympic figure skater, Michelle Kwan, and Disney’s Mulan. I remember watching television and movies with my parents and getting overly excited whenever an Asian face appeared, even when I was seeing an extra in a commercial or a character who only had two speaking lines. I was happy to see someone like me appear in a home where no one looked like me, even if it was through a screen.

As a Chinese adoptee in a white family, I stick out. When I am out in public with my mom, people assume we aren’t together. When I’m with my dad, we’re both overly self-conscious of the looks we get from strangers who probably think I’m his Asian girlfriend. When I’m with my sister (who was also adopted from China but who isn’t blood-related to me) at a Chinese restaurant, we’re automatically assumed to be fluent in Chinese, only to disappoint the waiters by asking for the English menu. And when I’m with my extended family, I look like the guest or the friend, especially in photos.

I was taught by my mom and through Chinese adoption related events about traditional Chinese culture. My parents and I thought that my knowledge of these traditions would make connecting with other Chinese people — and by extension, other Asians and Asian Americans — easier; but it actually made it harder.

Similar to Crazy Rich Asian’s Rachel Chu, I naively assumed that I would easily connect with other Chinese people simply because we were both Chinese. I didn’t anticipate the gap between us to be so large, or that some would just think of me as a “banana,” as Peik Lin calls Rachel. (I loathe that term and will never use it .)

In Crazy Rich Asians, we see Rachel’s struggle during her time in Singapore with not only jealous ex-girlfriends, but with a potential mother-in-law who disapproves of her because of her Americanness. (My mother and I even wondered whether or not I would be seen as enough if I were to date an Asian guy from a more traditional family). Like Rachel, I was devastated whenever these disconnects would occur, no matter how small.

During my first semester of college, a self-proclaimed ABC (American-Born Chinese) who was in my Chinese 101 class kept calling me white. “Relax, it was just a joke!” he said after I yelled at him to stop.

I get frustrated and upset every time I think about this incident because it exposed an insecurity I had and always will have. I felt weak and defenseless in that moment because I knew that I couldn’t relate to him and other Asian Americans who weren’t adopted in all the ways that I thought I could, and that they thought they couldn’t relate to me.

When Wong Fu Productions announced their new series, Yappie, I was excited to watch it and support this team of Asian Americans who I admired for years. I looked forward to watching each episode as they were released, and was impressed with how they tackled the heavier content. But then episode 4 happened: Brett, the white boyfriend of a Korean American character, realizes that he may have Yellow Fever after his current girlfriend reminds him that his last girlfriend was also Korean. “She was adopted,” he replies at the 3:07 mark, the line clearly used as comic relief and to imply that adopted Asians aren’t really Asian. In Neflix’s Ugly Delicious, chef David Chang is seen chatting with actor Steven Yeun and entertainer David Choe over Korean BBQ. Chang expresses how he wants to open his own Korean restaurant, only to be laughed at by his friends and Choe saying that there would be “no authenticity.” Chang later adds that he’s a “Korean vanilla ice” and says that he’s like “a Korean who was adopted by white parents who has an Asian woman fetish” as his excuse for not wanting to speak Korean.

It devastates me every time an Asian American who wasn’t adopted Others me and my adoptee community because of our upbringings. Like other Asian Americans, we also experience “Motherland Moments” where we feel like a fish-out-of-water when we return to our countries of origin; and like other Asian Americans, we are also subject to racist comments about our eyes and being stereotyped for the way we look in our adoptive countries. I worry about this every time I see my extended family. If Asian Americans can empathize with Rachel when she is being Othered as an Asian American in Asia, why can’t they do the same for Asian adoptees?

I genuinely loved Crazy Rich Asians, and my family and I already have our tickets to see it a second time. I felt pride and joy after watching it for the first time with my mother, both of us having teared up multiple times throughout the film. I loved how dynamic each character was and how Asians from all over the world lit up the screen. I am thrilled that an Asian American lead played an Asian American character in an Asian American story. I also really want to be friends with Peik Lin (and finding a Nick Young wouldn’t hurt, either).

But as many valid critiques have pointed out, Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t represent every Asian American or every Asian; and that’s okay. It’s a stepping stone in right direction, hopefully opening the doors for more creators of Asian descent and other people of color to create stories that matter to them on a larger scale.

I didn’t write this piece to highlight the lack of adoptee representation in the film, because that isn’t what the film was meant to do. I wrote this piece as a reminder that Asian adoptees are Asian, too, and because the well-deserved praise for an Asian American story has had me thinking about what “Asian American” means. Representation certainly matters, but it matters within communities, too. With Vietnamese adoptee, Lana Condor, as the Asian American lead in Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, I’m hopeful that our adoptee status no longer act as a barrier, but instead is recognized as just another part of the complex and diverse Asian American experience.

Katie Mantele is a Chinese adoptee and a graduate student at New York University. You can find her on Twitter at @chenqiaoling.

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