In a post that is no longer relevant to the recent craze of the Crazy Rich Asians film, I’ve spent the past few weeks ruminating on the film and what has been stirring about in my mind after watching it. It doesn’t hurt that an old post I wrote years ago was referenced twice by two bloggers here and here. So before you click “read more”, understand that this is 100% about me reacting to the film rather than being about the film, which you can read about elsewhere and its relevant controversies all over the Internet.
It was a heavy Monday and heavier week for me emotionally. That morning, I was called over by a family friend in Manila to pick up my dad’s boxes before she throws them away. Over 25 boxes were there, and still more existed before she threw them away because she was getting sick of storing them for us when she insisted on doing so eight years ago when he died. Going through those boxes and the memories of childhood in international school, smelling my dad again on his clothes, and finding my old uniforms among other memories and sketches, as well as my yearbooks and my sister’s things all lay into me like a trucker without any coffee trying to make that last stretch before he passes out on his own steering wheel.
Of those 25 boxes, only three were salvaged, and the rest had to go. All his trophies, his files, his clothes and ours, VHS tapes, floppy disks, and books all disposed of, while the woman with the bourgeoisie demeanor insisted on inviting me over for Christmas dinner when it was merely September, and kept calling me names other than my own because she couldn’t be bothered to remember. Fewer than four words ever came out of my month because she was notorious for interrupting people mid-sentence, to the point my casual indifference to her and unrestrained hostility was visible to everyone else except her due to her inability to see beyond the tip of her nose.
After taking two taxis to my flat and dragging them upstairs, I went to unwind and watch Crazy Rich Asians to get my mind off the past. Little did I know that the movie was nothing but a reminder of my past in international school and in the US amongst Asian Americans, respectively my high school and my university years. It also reminded me of the brief time I lived in Singapore in 2014 after Cambodia, and why I determined it wouldn’t be my place to live in longer than a few months.
To the average Asian American, Crazy Rich Asians is both a way of showing how Asians are “normal” Americans like their white-bred fellow citizens of the United States. It is also a peep into the life of contemporary urban professionals in Asian countries as opposed to being rice-hat wearing bucktoothed dog eater stereotypes that some hicks believe that we still are–and hell, even some Asian Americans believe Asians are this way. It should not surprise anyone that people in one Asian country think the same of Asians in another country, whether it’s the Filipinos thinking Burmese are this way or Thais thinking Filipinos are like this. As Marilyn Manson sings in his Irresponsible Hate Anthem, “Everyone is someone else’s nigger/I know you are/so am I” and this xenophobia is not uncommon anywhere nor is it unique to the west.
This movie was great for some people in Singapore. I don’t need to say that there are no Malays or Indians represented adequately in the film–others are already saying that, and the lack of Singlish is already the real culprit to me.
What others won’t see is what I saw: when I saw the life of the super rich families there and the classist views that were unabashedly condescending towards the Asian American deuteragonist, I didn’t see it as something alien or exaggerated for Hollywood or for Kevin Kwan’s literary fluff: I saw a day in the life of my international school classmates who are no different today than from when I first walked into class as a freshman in 1998. I also remember the big divide being a guy who lived in a flat and dealt with kids whose big complaints even up to now are about how their drivers paint their car the wrong color or how their personal shopper is unavailable that afternoon. I remember even Christmas of 2017 when at a friend’s house when I just wanted to act like an ass and walk around in a tank top because of how they were yellow and brown-faced Trump fans who wanted to “get rid of dirty Mexicans and terrorist Arabs” who don’t seem to realize that their faces are quite similar to those people they are discriminating against. Class and privilege outweighs race and rights to these reprobates.
Don’t think for a second I related to the Asian American deuteragonist either. While I do pride myself for being someone who has had to carve his own identity free of being shoed into taking over a family business or living well because of mommy and daddy’s deep pockets, I am by no means going to swallow that American Determinism and American Exceptionalism from the lie of the American Dream that she tries to embody. Meritocracy is one thing, but I also have to point out that those institutions that recognize and award merit also overlook many other deserving individuals for their effort. Can anyone say “Affirmative Action” together with me?
Sure, I recognize the need to balance life due to institutional racism, but creating bandaids rather than addressing the root of the problem creates bigger division, not just with white haves and non-white have-nots, but with the non-whites who become those who have and the other non-whites who are still have-nots as it becomes more individualistic rather than about communities and ethnic groups being served. Since when did anyone do anything besides supporting their immediate family? I’m sure it helps their family, but I see very few people who do serve their whole communities–just look at all those personal statements for university and people in Asian American Studies courses and ask how much they give back to their community. Their usual questions are “Who is my community? What is my community?” and with good reason for dichotomies even within a group–look at the Mandarin and Cantonese speakers, the children of Taiwanese parents, the Hong Kong kids, and Da Lu (mainlander) offspring. Rarely do these people feel affinity for one another in my experience.
When I used to write for 8asians and print publications for the Asian American community, the only people who cared were the social activists and politically-oriented Asian Americans of all ethnicities. Rarely did anyone else seem to care, even those in Asian American studies groups–it was more of a “let’s hang out and hook up and drink” kind of crowd rather than a progressive group. Similarly, I don’t see the Asian American lead as being anything but a hyper-individualistic American.
So on one hand, I connect with the American and the super rich Asians in the movie because I’ve experienced both lives, and I also have zero connection with both because those experiences were more as the odd man out or being the noble savage caught in the trappings of civilization. I’m a barbarian to both worlds, and while I recognize the upbringing of class I have and the very individualistic values of being an American, I’m uniquely Johnny C, but don’t feel particularly proud about it now, it’s just the world as I see it and live it.
On a typical Manila day, I’m arguing with people in English because I have no patience to dumb myself down and pantomime with broken Filipino or Chinese with the people I encounter when riding public transportation like the rest of the population does. In the same day, I may also be riding that same public transportation with la masa to a wealthy subdivision to eat dinner with friends I haven’t met in months or years who talk about how great this dictator president of the Philippines is and how la masa don’t understand he’s got the right idea about how to help everyone, and I simply say, “Until you’ve ridden public transport or walked around the neighborhood, you know jack shit about what la masa experiences every day, which, by the way: I do.”
And then they retort “But Johnny! You went to international school and come from a good family! What are you talking about?!” and I tell them I earn under $1000 a month and live in a building with drug busts and cockroaches every week by the train tracks, and they spend roughly what I earn each month in a few days on wine, dining, and their toys like diving or equestrian pursuits and traveling while staying at the Ritz-Carlton. At the same time, while I have to go around the city, I still do have many of my privileges for being a dual citizen and English speaker with an accent with my college degree.
The best of both worlds? Nope. Not one bit. Both worlds mean nothing to me. I am an individualistic man, but that is not uniquely American. I have come from a riches to rags family and it paints my class upbringing, but it does not define my worldview. All these do is give me different lenses to perceive the layers of reality people are all stuck in, and how hard it is to get out of their paradigm when challenged by another worldview.
What do I get from watching Crazy Rich Asians? A reference point to tell people what going to international school with spoiled brats was like growing up, and now I await someone’s story to be told so that I can reference that movie so people know not all international school kids are rich bitches, because there are more than just me and a handful of friends who live life somewhere between the cracks in the walls of reality. I have some privileges as a US citizen and dual citizen, and more so because of the people I know and the rich bitch class I was raised in, but I sure as hell don’t milk them as much as people think I would be now. Some of my friends think it should be my story that should be told because it’s neither the super rich international school expat brat or the Asian American victim narrative. My question is, who the hell would want to read about that or watch that? I’ll write this for myself and publish it some day, and whatever comes out of it, I hope it isn’t like what happened to Kurt Cobain and people make me into some sort of cult messiah, or that my own Courtney Love doesn’t try to turn my life into a Broadway musical.