Narrative Unity

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant—”

Let me tell you a story.

It is 2013. A (white male) casting associate approaches my desk. “Look, I know this is…kinda…racist but do you know anyone in Chinatown or who’s Asian who would like to be in an episode of —- (small cable reality show)?” I laugh off his question and answer politely saying I do know some folk and ask him to send me the casting information, flipping through my mental rolodex of Asian American friends who have told me they really want to be on a real TV/movie set. But I hesitate before sharing any names, because really, what roles would they play? What grotesque caricatures would they need to mime? He never gets back to me, but I see the end result of the episode. I QC every gong sound effect and make sure the episode is clear of any copyright infringements. It’s my job and I’m damn good at it. Of course, the episode is awful — Long Duk Dong stopped midway during Sixteen Candles and asked, “Isn’t that a bit much?” The Asian “opponents” of the show’s white “heroes” have a catchphrase: “We’ll show you how this is done ASIAN STYLE!” The Oriental villains intimidate the two leads like they’re on the set of a pan Asian, no budget production of The Westside Story. But the “heroes” who will not kowtow to these Asian thugs win the day and seize the (Asian style!) loot.

It is 2015 and my Boss’ Boss (white male producer) walks into the office I share with my boss toting a small toy Japanese flag. He is back from a 2-week shoot where they have worked long days and even longer nights. As bosses go, my team actually likes him. He is competent and a laughing, steady harbor in a sea of constantly panicking, antagonistic Production crew. He plops the little flag ceremoniously into my pencil cup.

“Here, this is for you.”

“Thanks?”

“It’s a Japanese flag!”

“Cool, I’m Chinese American.”

“No no, you’re all the same.”

And he laughs and laughs his heavy smoker’s laugh all the way out of my small office. My boss a half-Cuban, half-Italian American man who makes small talk generalizations like, “All the best classical composers were German!” says nothing. I for once decide not to laugh politely or banter for points. I am tight-lipped to this senior producer’s face and immediately go back to work. The flag stays in the cup as a plastic totem of who I am to whom.

It is 2017 and I am sitting next to the most prolific and widely read Asian American female author for the past couple generations. I try to contain my excitement over the fact that we are breathing the same air, but fail miserably as I steal glances at this attentive, quiet, graceful woman who has done so much good and perhaps a fair amount of hurt with her work–though, whether this is her fault for perpetuating stereotypes or society’s inability to move past singular narratives is a question I try not to wrestle with while I’m sitting so close. So far, the evening has been a fascinating exercise in helping bak yun or lo fan (or whatever word your folk use) understand the multifaceted humans who are Bay Area second and third generation Chinese American women.

At one point an Important Person (white male) frustratedly asks, “But what about Chinese exceptionalism?” and I, unbidden, loudly guffaw. I make an attempt to look worldly and nonchalant to cover my embarrassment for his unwitting embarrassment, but I probably just look befuddled. The question underlying this topic is, aren’t you proud to be Chinese? The sentiment underlying that projects onto my face the ancient civilization of China, the inventor of paper, gunpowder, and mysteriously beautiful and docile women. Or maybe he sees a strong authoritarian country of economic prowess, where the speed of industrial development is matched by the rise of families who can pay for homes in America with suitcases of cash. It’s hard to say, but the topic is so surprising to most of the other Chinese American women in the room that I feel safe in my chagrin. As stammered answers to the question swirl around me, I contemplate the black & white frozen faces of California miners (old timey white men) on the wall of the restaurant. My mind tries to fill in the gaps, where are the Chinese miners? The Chinese building the railroad? The Chinese immigrants forced to do “women’s” work that white miners refused to do? I turn my eyes back to the table, politely wait for a fellow participant to finish her answer and then open my mouth to speak.

Together these three tales reflect one story. It is a story that keeps repeating itself across different eras and across different industries; from people with good intentions, from people who are content to flatten and package identity and culture for profit. And I am sick of this narrative.

But I get it. I am in the business of storytelling. It’s a thriving economy of competing narratives– what is right and wrong, what will make you feel complete, who can you trust, who is at the center of your story. Of course, it is largely an illusion of choice for only a few narratives consistently win out. In our most prosaic moments — family dinners, turning on Netflix, loitering outside church deciding on lunch — those narratives drive who speaks and who is heard. Their dominance bullies us into believing that this is how it is, that’s the way it’s always been. It’s the TruthTM.

But let me tell you a story.

That night in 2017 the competing narratives of Dominant Culture and Strong Emerging Voice circled each other like Miss America contestants, ferocious in their politeness. But different from so many spaces I’ve traversed before, the dominant narrative had to endure the pretense of listening while the lived experiences of a dozen or more Chinese American women filled the dining room. The clink of silverware played counterpoint to their soft/loud/boisterous/genteel/passive/assertive voices. It was wild and beautiful and the room could not contain the universes hidden within each woman.

This is my story: I have been complicit through active engagement and passive silence in letting a wrong and harmful narrative flourish. But another narrative exists that delivers good news to the poor, proclaims liberty to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, sets free those who are oppressed, and forgives all debts. It’s a narrative that I desperately cling to through my bouts of ashamed self-awareness and unrelenting arrogance. This Narrative affirms that I can be redeemed; asks that I take part in redeeming; shows me how my narrative thread is part of a wholly magnificent tapestry.

So tell me a story. Is it yours or does it belong to someone else?


About the author: Vanessa is a third generation Chinese American and Angeleno who received her Directing/Production MFA from UCLA, along with crippling student debt. Her nonfiction work explores Asian American identity and culture as seen through her feature doc The Laundromat and podcast The Bull & The Badger. To make a dent in the debt, she works in the film/tv and tech industry writing, directing, producing, and managing post production.

My Summer of Asian-American Rom Coms

Nothing compares to the thrill of meeting a new crush in an exotic place. For me, it was at a summer Jesus Camp. I didn’t go on many vacations as a kid, so Big Bear, California, was like the south of France. That’s where I met Paul, an older high school boy. I was 14 and I liked Paul almost as much as I loved the John Hughes movie “Pretty in Pink.” I was drawn to his cool rock ‘n’ roll vibe (he was a drummer). Paul was a Korean-American Ducky, but with the cool ease of Blane. I fell head over heels for Jesus and Paul.

All of my life, I mapped out my life in films, especially romantic comedies. As a teen, I cared less about specificity and more about the adventure and aspiration of rom-coms. But as I grew up, my love for the genre waned, because none of the leads in these movies ever looked like me. On a recent list of the 55 best romantic comedies of all time, not one starred an Asian-American woman.

That was until this past summer when audiences saw two romantic comedies starring Asian-American women: “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” And it’s not a moment too soon: When Asian women are missing from two-thirds of the top 100 Hollywood films of the year, we are in dire need of films led by women who look like me.

It makes a real difference when the protagonist looks like you. When I saw “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” I felt seen for the first time in a rom-com. The story, based on Jenny Han’s bestseller, centers on Lara Jean Song Covey, a 16-year-old Hapa Korean-American girl played by Lana Condor. Lara Jean, who has two loving sisters and a widower father, is an avid reader of romance novels, and prefers to write love letters to boys (and store them in a box) rather than engage in any real romantic relationships ― until her little sister sends her letters to their would-be recipients, and her quiet life transforms into a teen romance drama.

Lara Jean perfectly embodies my teenage self: vulnerable, quirky and always lovestruck. Like Lara Jean, I wrote love letters to my teen crushes; I even sent one to Paul after summer camp (I never heard back). And like her, I have two sisters. Watching the three sisters on screen was like reliving the beautiful parts of growing up in a family of girls.

If “To All the Boys” is the rom-com that speaks to my teens, then “Crazy Rich Asians” is the rom-com for today. Based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling book, the film centers on Rachel Chu (played by “Fresh Off The Boat”’s Constance Wu), a Chinese-American economics professor who is dating Nick Young (played by Henry Golding). Unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick grew up in one of the wealthiest families in Singapore. They visit Singapore together for Nick’s friend’s wedding, where Rachel meets Nick’s friends and family for the first time.

I relate to Rachel as a Chinese-American woman professor, but even more, I understand why she feels like an outsider in Asia despite maintaining semblances of her Chinese language and culture. I was born in Taiwan, but no matter how fluent my Mandarin, I remain a foreigner there. But in the United States, where I’m a citizen, I am told often to “go back to [my] country.” In many ways, Rachel’s relationship with Nick is a metaphor for how many Asian-Americans feel about Asia: longing for a homeland that feels simultaneously familiar and foreign.

With its international cast of Asian actors, “Crazy Rich Asians” delights as a rom-com, and it’s also one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to show a slice of the Asian diaspora. The film showcases a variety of Asian actors, a significant departure from the one-dimensional depictions of Asians we see so often in Hollywood rom-coms (if Asians appear at all). With a cast of multiple attractive Asian men, “Crazy Rich Asians” crushes the stereotype of “Long Duk Dong,” the buffoonish Asian exchange student from “Sixteen Candles” (1984). Not since the independent film “Saving Face” (2004) have I seen a rom-com feature multiple East Asian women in major roles. From Awkwafina’s comedic relief to Michelle Yeoh’s dramatic performance, “Crazy Rich Asians” enriches the rom-com genre with its strong Asian women. The last major Hollywood film to feature this many Asian women was the drama “The Joy Luck Club” (1993), released 25 years ago.

On the surface, having Asian-American women-led rom-coms may not seem like progress. After all, rom-com stories center around women wooing or being wooed, not saving the world or leading a feminist revolution. But Asian-American women live in a society that exoticizes and fetishizes them as objects, and films that depict them having agency over their desires can be empowering. Historically, romantic depictions of Asian women in studio films have ranged from the tragic geisha in “Madame Butterfly” (1915) played by white actress Mary Pickford, to Nancy Kwan’s objectified sex worker in “The World of Suzy Wong” (1960).

These depictions shape how women like me are viewed by mainstream society. Amanda Nguyen, who was nominated this year for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of sexual assault survivors, says “the objectification of Asian female bodies and the stereotype that Asian women are submissive …dehumanizes us and … creates a greater chance for sexual violence.” In the entertainment industry, Asian-American women fall victim to this sexualization not just in front but also behind the scenes. Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” co-creator and showrunner Maurissa Tancharoen recounted a 2001 incident in which an executive sent her an unsolicited email showing an Asian pornographic actress engaged in graphic sex with the subject line, “Is this you?”

As Asian-American women protagonists of romantic comedies, Lara Jean and Rachel Chu dispel these stereotypes. They are not tragic geishas or sexual objects. They do not exist for the male gaze; they’re women of color in control of their own affections. In “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” Lara Jean is not waiting around for a boy to choose her. Rather, she negotiates her relationships with measured consideration and personal growth. In “Crazy Rich Asians,” Rachel faces her obstacles with resolve and strength and stays true to herself. I teared up with pride watching a particularly poignant scene in which she tells Nick’s mother (played by Yeoh) about what it was like to grow up as the immigrant daughter of a single mother who built a life from nothing.

When it’s done right, the rom-com can help redeem how Asian-American women are viewed in society ― not as objects of other peoples’ fantasies but as empowered subjects pursuing romantic yearnings on their own terms. Lara Jean Song Covey and Rachel Chu are positive role models for a new generation of Asian-American women. Like them, we’re ready to take on small-town America and big, beautiful Asia in pursuit of our dreams — romantic and otherwise.


About the author: Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen is a sociologist and writer based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism and co-author of Tokens on the Small Screen: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Prime Time and Streaming Television. She is an Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology at Biola University.

Website

***This article was originally published by the Huffington Post. Reprinted by the author with minor edits.***