Crazy Rich Asians and “Banana” culture: how disidentification was the point

I’ve resisted writing about the film Crazy Rich Asians because this thing hit me in layers, and peeling back those layers was hard. The issues I felt were deeply embedded in my identity, and it was super uncomfortable to admit to them. So here you go, one of the most personal film reviews I’ll probably ever write.

On the outermost layer I responded to this film just like any American would. It was a fluffy, feel-good romantic comedy full of gorgeous people, and I enjoyed it; especially because the locale of Rich Person Asia was exoticized to the American eye, and just as alluring and far away as Rivendell or Lothlorien, and just as incomprehensible. I appreciated this trip into escapism.

One layer below this initial burst of enjoyment, I still felt sincerely grateful that this film was made, especially because it portrayed Asian people in a variety of ways — from young, rich, and good looking to old, rich, and good looking.

I understand what was going on, here. It was necessary to portray Asianness as powerful, vibrant, striking, and undeniably alluring, and there is a place for that in a society that has often relegated Asians in America to punchlines. Lots of people have written about the film from this perspective, and I agree with most of their takes.

(And, okay, I’ve read the entire trilogy by Kevin Kwan, and one of the things that struck me about the movie [and all of his books] is, all Asian-ness aside, how little affinity I feel for the very rich. Not even in an aspirational sense, like “hey all of my model-esque friends and I scour vintage shops for couture on the weekends to emulate this privileged lifestyle.” Nope, I just don’t get it. I’m still grateful that the movie portrayed this lifestyle, though, because it’s better than just thinking of Asian folks as prostitutes, shady underworld characters, or shaolin priests.)

On the third layer beneath the (1) enjoyment and (2) gratefulness, I felt an enormous sense of discomfort. Perhaps this was because the movie did exactly what it set out to do: make me, an Asian American, feel deeply uncomfortable about my cultural identity.

As an Asian American, and a half-Asian to boot, I identified way too much with the main character, the fish in unfamiliar waters, Rachel Chu. Not only does Rachel have to navigate all the overt differences between having money and not having money, Rachel also has to step into a culture that she resembles physically but that she doesn’t get intellectually, because she didn’t grow up with it. Oh, man, do I understand that.

There are slurs for Rachel written in the books, and the one that hits me deepest is the term “banana,” explained by Rachel’s friend Goh Peik Lin as “yellow” on the outside, white on the inside. My half-Asian-ness isn’t even expressed by my skin color chromosome, so I’m an albino banana — but the term still makes me ache, for myself, for all of us “white” Asians here in America who pick up the finger bowl and try to drink from it.

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The few moments that I felt comfortable identifying with Rachel were:

  • Whenever Rachel Chu interacted with her hard-working mom in America. This all rang so very true, and spoke to me in a profound way about how hard my mother’s generation (and my mother, all praises to her) worked to make her way here in this culture. It was a beautiful and touching movie about the relationships between mothers and their children in Asian and Asian American cultures. I felt affinity for every second of this love, especially the moments where the love is expressed through tough critique.
  • Whenever food was on the screen, from the amazing street food of Singapore to the carefully prepared banquets of the wealthy folk, to the bowl of noodles at a street-side shop with a friend. Food is central to all cultures, of course, but Asian food has a special kind of ritual and magic for Asian people, and it transcends differences. Kwan loves his food, and his sometimes cringe-worthy writing is always totally redeemed in my eyes when he waxes effusively about food.
  • Whenever Rachel hung out with her pal Goh Peik Lin, who is rich on an ostentatious but not ridiculous scale. I do love movies where women have supportive, non-backstabby friends who are also women, and Lin was able to translate a lot of her culture to Rachel in an empathetic and gentle way.

The rest of the movie unsettled me, and I felt just as out of place as Rachel did.

I’m pretty sure the movie meant to make us Asian Americans (or even half-Asians like myself) feel pangs of trauma whenever scenes of cultural embarrassment took place, and it totally did. There’s a scene in which Rachel picked up a bowl meant for washing hands, and made as if to drink it — only to be saved by her boyfriend, but not until everyone saw it happen.

This scene resonated with me on a deeply uncomfortable level, reminding me of every time my mother had to put her hand on the back of my head to push my wye lower to be more respectful in a public place, or every time she had to grip my hand to keep me from accidentally touching an older relative in a disrespectful way (like on the shoulder, a no-no).

It brought back the sense of out-of-placeness that I felt whenever I visited Bangkok — how I had to learn to be very still and quiet and painfully polite so that I wouldn’t call attention to my lack of knowledge of the social mores of my mother’s city.

It’s terrifying to visit a place where the default assumption is that you know the rules, but you actually don’t. This terror helped fuel the plot of the movie and interpret Asia for a Hollywood audience — but it also firmly prodded me in a painful spot where I’ve never felt that I’ve been enough for my mother’s culture.

For a long time I thought I’d have to learn every part of both of my cultures to truly be a whole human, and also for a long time, I’d beat myself up for not being as Asian as I felt I should be. Given the daily toll on my time to simply function in one culture, I’ve never had the resources to learn to function in two. Every scene where Rachel can’t figure out the rules in Singapore made me ache with that old “you’re inadequate” feeling, and I’m pretty sure that this was the whole point.

In America, I have degrees in English and Communication, and I can speak and write well enough. In Thailand, I’m illiterate. Thanks for reminding me.

So, thanks and no thanks, Kevin Kwan. But seriously, thanks. This difference isn’t one that people discuss often, and I guess I’m grateful for this chance to air my own sense of displacement.

... but what do YOU think?

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