Pregression: A Cold Take on Crazy Rich Asians

Expos, Writing

Afras Sial

I will admit that I arrived a bit late in the game, watching “Crazy Rich Asians” for the first time last week. But I think the film arrived a bit late too— too regressive for all the progress some lauded it for making. Instead of breaking through bamboo ceilings and working to dismantle structural issues in Hollywood, it seemed to simply want to raise that ceiling a bit higher, elevating the position of Asian Americans within the existing racial hierarchy.

For instance, take the scene in which Michael (Astrid’s husband) comes out of the shower, a scene that trains the viewer’s gaze on a bare Asian male body, daring the viewer to desire it. This brief scene contains little content except for a call to the viewer to objectify Asian male bodies. It questions them, asking them to extend their love of the muscular male form to Asians. It recognizes existing standards of beauty and kindly submits a request for Asians to join.

Next, like other recent movies featuring main characters with marginalized identities at the forefront, this film had the opportunity to show producers that Asianness was not an impenetrable veil; that Asianness would not prevent the average (i.e. white) viewer from relating to (i.e. recognizing mutual humanity in) the protagonists. But with the choice of actor Henry Golding to play a character of full Chinese descent, we find ourselves with an old habit of Hollywood: whitewashing.

Now, I certainly support increasing the representation of multiracial and mixed-ethnicity people on the big screen. However, this casting choice both erased the mixed-ethnicity identity of the actor and whitewashed Nick by getting a partially white actor to play him. Thus, the producers managed to whiten the features of one of the characters to whom we were supposed to relate the most. They weakened the racial experiment the film could have represented by providing a bridge across the racial gap non-Asian viewers theoretically would have had to cross to connect to the characters.

A real disappointment, unlike no other, was the scene where Goh and Rachel arrive at the Young estate and are met by two South Asian guards. No lines, no expressions, no attempt at humanization. That was the treatment received by these two of the few actors of non-East Asian descent that made it into the film— just wariness, like the fear of an animal on the preserve that might accidentally damage your car or mistake you for prey. All I can say is that a racial hierarchy manifested clearly at that moment, with East Asians and their presumably white and Asian American audience at one end and the brown figures in the scene at the other. It was like I could imagine the actors saying to the audience, “Hey, we’re not like them, we’re like you.”

On another note, I understand that compared to the extreme wealth of the Young family, Rachel’s salary as an economist was not impressive. But, she was still a game theorist at a premier research university. Given the widely recognized need to encourage more female participation in the economics profession, the largely unchallenged diminishment of Rachel’s career accomplishments and aspirations were unhelpful. It was a missed opportunity to develop this strong female character outside of the common context of romance.

Overall, the story was nice—a decent Asian American remake of the “Prince and Me”— but it sputtered as a breakthrough social moment. Of course, these are just my imperfect reflections and I know for some, especially some East Asian Americans, it was nice to see someone racially recognizable in a Hollywood production for once. However, I think it is beneficial to pair their praise with some critique, so we do not lose sight of where we really want to go while making these small progressions. We cannot settle for near-whiteness; we need full humanity.

Asian American Representation

Expos, Writing

Kathy Zhuo

 

When I watched episodes of Fresh Off the Boat, I related to the duality of being both Asian and American.

When I walked into the movie theater to watch “Crazy Rich Asians” this summer, I didn’t expect to be so emotional, alternating between crying and laughing throughout the entire movie.

When I watched “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” I felt nostalgic and craved the Yakult yogurt drinks that were a staple of my childhood.

The importance of Fresh Off the Boat, “Crazy Rich Asians,” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” extends beyond the increased representation of Asians and Asian Americans in film and television. In 2008, I was embarrassed of my dumplings and fried rice; I had wished that my parents would stop speaking Chinese and making me go to Chinese school. Now, in 2018, I crave authentic Chinese food, and I take pride in the fact that I can speak Chinese. An indirect, but arguably more important, effect of increased representation is that Asian Americans embrace their identities and take pride in it. Asian American media representation is a celebration of culture, heritage, and language rather than a mockery of it. Beyond just the Asian American community, this also promotes diversity, acceptance, and understanding across different cultures, making America the multicultural society it claims to be. It sparks dialogue about the Asian American identity and their status in America. This type of dialogue is what paves the way for change and more representation in politics and other traditionally white-dominated fields.

It wasn’t until I watched “Crazy Rich Asians” that it really hit me that historically, Asian Americans weren’t very well represented, if at all. In most Hollywood movies, Asian Americans are portrayed as a nerd, a karate kid, or highly sexualized. For the first time, I saw people who look like me and share my experiences portrayed on the big screen in a way that wasn’t negatively reinforcing Asian stereotypes. Television and film give kids and adolescents their role models, so it’s important that there are Asian characters on screen. The positive traits embodied by these characters teach Asian American kids that they too can be like the characters they see on the silver screen and aren’t limited to the restraints society seemingly imposes on them. Seeing themselves portrayed on screen, these kids gain the confidence that other kids have when they watch Spiderman. Similar to how African American kids were empowered by “Black Panther” and how young girls were empowered by “Wonder Woman,” the representation of Asian Americans empowers us and tells us that, yes, we are worth it.

Evidently, not all Asians are Singapore’s most eligible bachelor, rich, or even have a stable job. Asian Americans are a diverse group of people who have different experiences and come from different backgrounds. I want to know the story of the Vietnamese immigrant, the Indonesian adolescent trying to make it in the art industry, or the Thai hero. These stories are all worth being told, and “Crazy Rich Asians” provided the first step to making it happen.

Lingua Franca

Expos, Spotlights, Writing

Darren Jian

“Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery. Those are people who crossed an ocean to come to this country.” ––Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom

“How long I should wait?”

Upon hearing my dad say those words, I suddenly felt something bubbling up deep
within me, like magma struggling to find a pressure outlet. It was a bleak, windy, January evening, and the last rays of light had just disappeared behind the looming Bay Area hills. There I was, a scrawny third grader in the locker room of the Carlmont High swimming pool. My friends and I were drying our hair after swim practice, and they looked up to stare at my dad, as if he were speaking in an alien language. A wave of feeling rushed over me: sadness, frustration, embarrassment, and above all, shame. For the first time, I felt ashamed of my dad. In front of me stood a successful businessman and a talented engineer, a handyman and a homework helper — my very own dad, struggling with the grammar of the English language. He would frequently tell me the details of his origin story, how he had to work several side jobs to ensure that he was the first in his family to attend college, how he founded his electronics manufacturing company in 1980’s China with one assembly machine he purchased for 200 yuan (about 30 U.S. dollars), and how he used that machine to generate a large profit in his company’s first year, despite having one of his designs stolen by a rival manufacturer. He could do nearly everything, from managing his own business to designing kitchen appliances, and I was dumbfounded by the fact that he couldn’t master English, something that came so easily to me.

“Dad, it’s ‘how long should I wait,’ not ‘how long I should wait,” I said, mimicking a heavy Asian accent. I turned to my friends. “My dad always makes mistakes when he speaks English. Like, instead of ‘don’t worry,’ he says ‘don’t wuh­lee.’”

My friends giggled and I felt an unexpected surge of happiness. Bringing up some of my dad’s most comical errors was almost therapeutic for me. I could feel all my frustration over his substandard English beginning to drain away as my friends and I exchanged laughs over his accent and the ridiculousness of his blunders. I raked through my brain for more examples of his awkward slip­-ups.

“And when he orders pasta at a restaurant, instead of ‘spaghetti,’ he asks for some ‘spa­tah­kee!’”

I couldn’t stop myself. I continued to list every single English mistake I had ever heard him make, all the while continuing my exaggerated impression of his accent. Once I was done, my friends were still laughing. Although my dad’s miscommunications had only just evoked a visceral reaction within me for the first time, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my chest, as if I had finally released a flood that had been building up for centuries. I was finally able to express the embarrassment I felt whenever others couldn’t understand my dad, the embarrassment at the fact that he couldn’t speak English as well as I could. I felt as if his accent and difficulty communicating reflected on me, making me seem less American in the eyes of others. By poking fun at his slip­ups in front of my friends, I had distinguished myself from him and cemented my status as a societal insider. My friends had thought my anecdotes were funny, and I was sure my dad would take my mild teasing in stride. After all, I thought, he was probably used to being uncomfortable in public, with English like that. I looked over at him. He stood off by the side, with an expression on his face I would only later recognize as a grimace. I thought nothing of this, and as we walked back to the car, I happily chatted about school, the things I had learned in class, and the exercises I had done during swimming practice. Only then did I realize how quiet my dad was. He walked silently alongside me, and he seemed transfixed by the glowing lights emanating from the houses in the hills above us. I didn’t understand why he was so solemn, so I assumed that he was just tired after a long day.

On the ride back home, I asked, “Are you okay?”

He responded curtly, “I am okay.”

My dad was obviously bothered by something. I was confused. I reflected back on all I had said that day, but my mind was drawing a blank as to why he might be upset. I then thought about how I had brought up his language errors in the locker room. I told myself that it couldn’t be the reason––my dad knew that his English wasn’t the best, and he definitely didn’t mind me poking a little fun at his mistakes. Besides, he was probably used to being uncomfortable in public. Curious, I pried deeper.

“Are you sure? You seem a little angry.”

My dad sighed, “Son, ask Mom to pick you up from practice next time.”

I was taken aback. I now knew that he was deeply unhappy about my actions after swim
practice, but I couldn’t understand why it affected him so much. To me, my dad’s accent and difficulty with English were very public aspects of his identity, and I thought that he would find my impression of him and the recollections of his mistakes to be funny.

“Why are you so upset?” I asked.

“Today, you make fun of me in front of your friends. I know my English is not good, but I have no time to learn. I feel bad you do not respect me.”

I thought about the frustration and shame that led to my outburst, the satisfaction I felt while gleefully imitating my dad’s accent and revealing all of his conversational slip-­ups. I suddenly became very interested in the seat in front of me. As I moved my hand across the cold, hard, unforgiving surface of the seatback, I began thinking about how he interpreted my teasing as public humiliation, how he felt disrespected and unappreciated as a father. I hung onto my dad’s words––the fact that he struggled with English not out of a lack of skill, but because he was too preoccupied with work to learn the language. What I didn’t realize was that for him, English was at the complete bottom of the priority list. It was so far at the bottom that he was willing to put up with the social setbacks of struggling with English and even face scorn from his own son in order to focus on supporting his family. Compared to his sacrifices, my worries about fitting into American society seemed to be unimaginably shallow and of microscopic importance. I was so blinded by this need to be accepted by others that I came to associate my dad’s entire existence with his inability to master a language, instead of with his ability to love, support, and provide for me.

Today, I have come to view my dad’s mediocre English not as an embarrassment or a source of frustration, but rather as a mark of all that he has given up to guarantee a better future for me. In fact, even as I write this paragraph, he is in China conducting business in Mandarin and Cantonese. I know that as he works to ensure my well-being, the idea of learning to speak English without an accent is not even a thought in his mind.

Alex Yoo

Interview

11/29/2017

How was it like coming to Georgetown from your hometown?

Coming here [from California] was different. East Coast is different from West Coast, people are a little uptight. *laughs* They’re less relaxed here. The weather is the worst part. It’s too cold here, honestly.

Tell us about your family and background.

My parents were both born in Korea but they spent the majority of their lives growing up in America. My dad grew up in Hawaii, my mom in Seattle. They went to college here so they’re very Americanized but they still stay very strong to their Korean roots. And that kind of grew into me too. I try to stay very close to my Korean culture. They ingrained in me that out there in the real world, I shouldn’t have to think of myself as Korean, Asian, Asian American – I should just be myself. I don’t have to put a label on myself outside of the house. I can be whatever I want.

Do you ever feel like you have to specify that you’re Korean-American?

Kind of, yeah. I was born in Palo Alto, and at age 4, I moved to Korea, lived there for six years, and then in 5th grade I moved back and grew up the rest of my life here.

I love sharing my Korean culture so I was the president of Korean Club at my high school. It was a pretty big club. It grew because we brought in Korean BBQ, we brought in food, so a lot of people showed up. But a lot of the club members were White or Indian. There were a lot of Korean people in the club, because it was a Korean community, but we just called it Korean Club so we didn’t limit it to Korean students.

Tell us more about Korean Club at your high school.

We just did it for fun. We tried to present on a topic each week – I would always present on North Korea/South Korea relations and the VP would talk about South Korean economics- the jaebuls, the tech industry- and other guys would talk about different things they’re interested in, like cosmetics or whatever. It was educational, we always brought in food, and we would end it with like K-pop music. It was just a fun environment.

What was it like growing up Asian American in Korea and in America?

I don’t remember anything before the age of 4, but once I got to Korea, I was alienated – just because I had darker skin from the sun. I was in preschool or kindergarten and I spoke zero Korean, so I couldn’t communicate with any of the kids there. The teacher couldn’t understand my feelings or what I was trying to communicate so it was extremely difficult. I became extremely introverted, which still stays with me today.

So my mom put me in intensive Korean training at these academies after school, where they just grind you on Korean. I just kept on learning Korean, Korean, Korean. And then at the point I was conversationally functional, I forgot all my English. I didn’t speak any English except for hi, hello, my name’s Alex. So my parents put me in an international school where I could relearn English, from 1st grade to 4th grade.

Going to an international school- it was a homogeneous population, all Asian people. So when I moved back to California in 5th grade, it was extremely weird seeing black and Latino and white people. My English was so bad. I finished up to 4th grade in Korea, which is probably like a 1st grade English level. I was in 5th grade and I barely knew how to write. Reading was bad, math was bad, I was in low level classes. It was just a very different experience. Growing up in a homogeneous population, you learn to be assimilated, so everyone else is like an alien to you.

Have any particular experiences shaped your Asian American identity?

In middle school, my best friends were Korean, Indian, a lot of Asian people. In high school, it was majority white and you didn’t see many Asian people on campus. It’s hard finding your own identity with your culture when you don’t see them as often.

 

Interview by Joy Kim and Rebecca Lin

MSG: A Scapegoat of Fear and Ignorance

Expos, Writing

Jackie Du

Coming from a lower-to-middle class town where the Asian population is few and far between, it was difficult to find authentic Asian food of any kind in Jackson, New Jersey. There was maybe one Chinese buffet and a handful of other small Chinese takeout places. As I progressed through public school, I would often hear the other students say that these more-or-less innocent establishments were causing people to be sick or serving cat or rat meat in certain dishes. I didn’t want to believe those rumors, so I asked my parents about it. They told me that those rumors were, of course, false and rooted in deeper societal problems. People would often eat at such restaurants, but then talk about how dirty the food was or how their favorite orange chicken dish contained mysterious ingredients. One huge concern was the prevalence of headaches and sickness people observed after eating at Chinese restaurants.  Many began to attribute these symptoms to the use of MSG in cooking these particular foods. As a result, society viewed the ingredient as harmful and connected it to the making of Chinese food. In reality, the fears surrounding MSG come from ignorance and unsubstantiated rumor rather than scientific fact.

Originally, MSG was created by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda in 1909 as he tried to find the savory flavor that he desired from his wife’s seaweed broth. The result was monosodium glutamate, or MSG, and it produced the umami flavor. American companies such as Campbell’s Soup and Heinz began to import huge amounts of MSG beginning in the 1930s to put in their soups and sauces. The seasoning was a household item by the 1950s by the brand name of Accent. MSG was marketed by the Third Shaker campaign to be as ubiquitous in households as salt and pepper, hence the third shaker. So why and how, then, did this once popular and harmless ingredient become so feared and stigmatized?

In 1968, a Chinese American doctor wrote a letter to the New England journal of medicine discussing how he developed headaches, numbness, and other symptoms as a result of eating at several Chinese American restaurants and the term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was born. Subsequently, faulty experiments were conducted under the assumption that MSG was the culprit of the symptoms. In these experiments, not only were unnaturally high doses of MSG were used, but also inappropriate forms of testing such as directly injecting high doses of pure dissolved MSG into the skin of mice. Society began to fear the ingredient and directly tied its “harmfulness” to the Chinese restaurants that were already considered to be dirty and unusual. However, this fear stemmed from a more insidious origin: xenophobic ignorance.

In the 1800s, when Asian immigrants worked en masse on American railroads and mines, they were seen as an economic threat to Irish and American workers due to their hard work and willingness to take lower pays. Propaganda was spread declaring Chinese workers as parasites and described their culture, behavior, and food as revolting. Chinese immigrants who tried to stay in the railroad industry were unjustly shot or lynched, making for a deadly occupation for them to continue working in. Those who left created their own restaurants and laundromats to make an income. The Chinese were allowed to continue those businesses because these industries were associated with women’s work, and so the Irish and American laborers were not as threatened. However, the xenophobic and racist atmosphere still permeated society as publications such as the New York Times published articles in the late 1800s detailing Chinese consumption of rats, cats, and dogs in their food. In addition,  passing the Chinese Exclusion Act (the first law significantly restricting immigration) drove a greater wedge between cultures. Discrimination and fear of the Chinese ran rampant. Under the exclusion act, Chinese cooks were banned from working in the U.S.A until the G.I Bride act of 1945. Nonetheless, fears persisted and began to center around MSG, as Americans were told by news and the media that eating Chinese food, and by association many other kinds of Asian cuisine, caused headaches, dizziness, and a host of other symptoms. Even though statistics show that instances of food poisoning from European and American food are about the same as that of Asian food, Western society places no blames on Eurocentric cuisines.

What’s truly astonishing is the prevalence of MSG in general and not just in Chinese and Asian cuisine. MSG naturally exists in many of the foods we eat besides Chinese takeout. It’s in breast milk, tomatoes, parmesan cheese, soups, and all kinds of snack foods like Doritos and Pringles. Chain restaurants such as Chili’s and Applebees use MSG in most of their dishes. The seasoning is usually referred to as autolyzed yeast extract instead of MSG to make people think it isn’t being used. Our bodies also naturally generate large amounts compared to how much we intake from foods (50  grams per day vs. 1 gram on average from foods). If MSG really is so harmful, shouldn’t it be banned from all foods? Clearly it isn’t, yet the stigma of this ingredient is tied to only Asian food— more specifically, Chinese food.

With modern research, MSG is, scientifically speaking, entirely safe to consume for most people. Although some people have a sensitivity to it which may result in light headaches or stomach discomfort, the ingredient is not largely harmful or deadly. It seems that the stigma associated with MSG is founded upon little to no evidence, and fears surrounding it originate from generations of ignorance and xenophobic tendencies. People make no complaints about getting sick from Doritos and tomato soup but will be quick to make false accusations about the “unusual” and “questionable” quality of Asian food. In reality, that bowl of fried rice isn’t going to cause headaches as much as the preconceived fears of the cultures and people behind the cuisine.

MSG