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.***

Shifting Perspectives: A Note from the Editors

In April 2018, writers in PAAC embarked on a remarkable and ambitious collaboration. An open call was made. We wanted storytellers and poets, essayists, playwrights, and theologians. We wanted granularity and dimensionality. What does it mean to be a progressive Asian American Christian and how does this shared identity interact with our various social worlds? We gave it a name—As I Am: A PAAC Writers’ Collaborative.

Every Tuesday, volunteer writers answered our call. We wrote about our often contentious and painful experiences with the conservative church. Some of our contributors used their posts as a means to reconcile pieces of their identity that never quite fit into the rigid boxes that people put us in. Others struck a more rebellious tone:

I’ve always disappointed everyone in my Chinese-ness (and my faith). But I am Asian American through and through: my skin, my blood run with butter mochi, my voice telling my brothers to close the lights, my memories…-Siobhan McDonough

We used the opportunity to scream—raw reactions at the current state of things:

I’m shaking right now—from fury and from fear. You disgust me. You’ve broken my trust and you’ve broken my heart.

I’m scared to be in my own home.

Stop trying to appease me with your empty words, America. I don’t want anything from you right now.

I just want you to take a good look at yourself.—Iris Chen

Our writers took us on a tour of El Camino de Santiago, Southern Californian strip malls, and all the in-between spaces from here to Taiwan to Manila. Our space was honored by writers who chose to share their vulnerabilities, stories of abuse, fragility, and healing.

In short, we got what we asked for and more. PAAC can feel like such a niche designation, but when we read these writers, our only conclusion is that we cannot be pegged into a singular experience.

I will not give up my fire
to be pressured into
a shiny thing
that only holds as much value
as the men around
decide to give to it.

I am more.

I am a universe of fire
contained
in the dark.

I am good.
I am very good.
I am good enough.

–Stella Won Phelps

Let’s call this Phase 1. Phase 1 of As I Am was introspective.

In the spirit of Shifting Perspectives, we move into the next phase of our collaboration. We ask our writers to take us out of the homes and churches we grew up in and push us into spaces where we’re not as visible.

In November, we ask our writers to ride the wave of #AsianAugust, which saw an unprecedented string of high-profile box-office successes featuring Asian American talent—Crazy Rich Asians, Searching, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, etc. What does this cultural moment mean for Asian Americans? Where are we in terms of media representation and where do we need to go?

In December, we ask our writers to flex their creative muscles. Our families all have histories, but for many of us, these histories were lost to us when our forbearers immigrated to this country. We reclaim these histories by reimagining them in the form of myths and folklore.

In January, we build on the wonderful work of PAAC Family’s #HearFromaQueer series as we invite LGBTQ+ writers to share reflections on how their queer and PAAC identities intersect.

And finally, PAACs in love! We shamelessly feed into the Valentine-industrial complex by inviting writers to share with us their love lives. No holds barred, anything goes.

As we look forward to the next chapter, we want to pause a moment to reflect on the work we’ve created together. On behalf of the As I Am editors, I want to tell our writers what an honor it has been to read and publish your generous work.

And to our readers, we extend our heartfelt thanks. Stay tuned, we hope you keep reading because we’re still writing.


About the author: Christopher Paek is a co-editor of As I Am: A PAAC Writers’ Collaborative. He’s also a co-administrator of PAAC’s official writing group, Write On, PAAC.

On Place and Perspective

I love Union Square Park. I’ve always felt so gloriously alone there; so secure in my anonymity. It welcomed my thoughts, stillness, and uncertainties. When I spent  six months living in Manhattan, the park was a place for me to reflect. I watched streams of New Yorkers move through the space, unconcerned with one another save for the times in which interruption – or potential interruption – united our human interest in each other.

When I recall standing in the park, looking around, Paul’s words in Ephesians: “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise” (KJV) come to mind. The word ‘circumspection,’ is an intriguing choice. Paul uses it not as a descriptor, but as a way of being. Though defined as a quality of wariness or prudence, for me circumspection connotes curiosity, earnestness and humility. It’s a consideration of life that says, “Wow!” and asks “What now?”  

So, where do those questions take me? I often say, “Wow” to everything I’ve been able to see and do. But, the question of, “What now?” is bigger. Bigger because I am 23 and I’ve moved four times in the last year and a half. Bigger because I’ve spent the last four years trying to live with uncertainty. Bigger because in a world where I am told I can do anything, I don’t know what I want. I want all the time in the world to consider and explore my options. It is the puzzling urgency of choosing that makes me consider the wisdom of Paul’s counsel.

Perhaps the wisdom lies in the contrast of opposites: the fool and the wise. To walk wisely would be to consider my options with curiosity at their newness, earnestness at their potential and inquisitive humility regarding how much I still have to learn. Walking foolishly would be leaving my life unexamined, focusing only on what I want out of life.

Considering we all want some direction or clarity in our lives, wisdom seems the best  road. Though not as clear as: choose A or B, walking circumspectly is considering choices in light of present, past and future. It is our curiosity that makes the future less scary. Our earnestness drives our present. Our humility helps us understand our past.

The invitation is how are we circumspectly examining our lives? Whether you’re in a new place or between places, where can you walk circumspectly? My own response is thinking on place. What I am puzzling is, how has my inhabiting of other places influenced my ability to inhabit new ones?

The environment of Union Square Park served as a physical place for me to reflect and consider. What places exist for you? Perhaps the wisdom in circumspection includes orienting our physical bodies in a way that centers our minds and hearts to reflect well.

 

I am still looking for that place as I spend a season at home with my parents. I want to  continue practicing circumspection, understanding my choices and seeking wisdom. May you find spaces to welcome your thoughts and seek questions to guide you as you orbit the many complexities of your own life.

 

Katherine Kwong is an audio and narrative content creator based in Ventura County, CA. She enjoys 99% Invisible, The 13th Doctor and good places for watercolor painting. pc: the author

Say Something in Chinese

When I was a kid and my white classmates learned that my first language was Mandarin, they typically had one of three reactions:

“Really? Was it hard to learn?”

“So how did you learn English?”

“What’s my name in Chinese?”

Whatever their initial reaction, it was usually followed with the command, “Hey, say something in Chinese!”

When I was very young, I would oblige by commenting on the weather or their outfit, but I eventually got tired of feeling like a Mandarin-speaking sea lion and learned to respond with, “Something in Chinese,” which usually made it clear that I was not interested in continuing the conversation. I have only recently begun unpacking some of the resentment and confusion I felt toward my cradle language.

My parents settled in the Midwest among a community of highly educated immigrant Chinese professionals. We attended a Chinese church and most of the kids I grew up with could speak a smattering of Mandarin, Cantonese or Taiwanese. But in those days there were no trendy Mandarin immersion schools or Mandarin-speaking kids shows, so our cradle language was quickly subsumed by English. I dutifully went to Chinese school two hours a week from first grade through middle school, but I resented the extra class time and homework. Despite my attitude, I clinched the speech competition year after year, which I sometimes suspect was due to my deeply entrenched study habits rather than any latent gift for gab. I outperformed my peers linguistically overall, to the delight of my parents and their Chinese friends. “Wah, hao bang, ah! Your Mandarin is so good!” they cooed, and I would do a few more verbal backflips in response to their applause.

Many PAAC members I spoke to share similar memories of sitting sullenly through language school, or perhaps skipping it because Saturday morning cartoons took precedence. But others, like my older cousins, grew up in the 1970s when it was much less common to teach children Mandarin or Korean or whatever language their immigrant parents spoke. Some have parents who didn’t want their children to face the same prejudices they did, and thus wanted their children to speak flawless, unaccented English.

A lot of us have experienced some kind of cradle language renaissance during college, even though many people also reported a steep drop-off in their language ability after leaving home. Perhaps we got homesick. Some people, like me, took academic language classes to atone for quitting Chinese school several years earlier. Others immersed themselves in Asian pop music and television dramas, often picking up a large vocabulary about love or martial arts that I never found in my textbooks.

In college, separated from my family for the first time, my mother tongue became a way to seek, or perhaps form, my identity. During freshman year, I proudly tested out of entry-level Chinese in order to take the courses designed for semi-fluent speakers that emphasized reading and writing. I did well enough until the upper-level undergraduate course, when the materials were only written in simplified characters  (jianti). I had read traditional characters  (fanti) my entire life, and suddenly the words that had once been familiar seemed like strangers. I quit my Chinese studies after that course and focused on my chosen majors, one of which was, ironically, English.

I never got to use my Mandarin much as an adult, despite sometimes claiming proficiency on resumes and job applications. (And squirming awkwardly when asked whether I could translate marketing materials into Mandarin, or would I consider teaching Mandarin classes in addition to my 150 biology students?) My spoken fluency has gotten progressively rustier and my writing skills, which never made it past a third grade level anyway, atrophied even more. But after becoming a parent, my cradle language has reemerged in unexpected ways.

After having a half-Chinese child and moving to an even smaller and more remote Midwestern college town, I now find myself speaking more Mandarin than I have since freshman year of college. The large research university brings in a plethora of Chinese faculty, postdocs and students, some of whom send their children to the same daycare my son attends. My interactions with those parents typically follow a set arc as well:

We look at each other, possibly making eye contact, possibly not.

The international families are speaking fluent Mandarin, while my child jabbers away in English. I am dressed in the typical white suburban mom uniform of leggings and a T-shirt. Very clearly Americanized.

We glance at each other again, and somehow … they can tell that I speak Mandarin!

They make their way over to me and start speaking excitedly and very, very rapidly, in Mandarin.

I respond haltingly, “I also … have this son … of two years. My husband is a … big after-graduation science man. And an American.” (This is my way of covertly begging them to speak more slowly and simply.)

No one ever seems to slow down or bat an eye. So either my Mandarin is not as bad as I feel it is, or they don’t want to embarrass me by talking to me like I’m seven. Either way, I’m left catching only half of what they say, frantically assembling context clues in my head, and either replying like a slightly slow child  or smiling politely until the conversation is over.

I confess that I sometimes resent this pattern as much as I resent being a sea lion for white people. I know I should feel grateful for the chance to practice my mother tongue. I know no one means for me to feel stupid or excluded. But I try to speak slowly and clearly when someone acts like they’re having difficulty understanding what I’m saying. I go out of my way to speak their language. Would it kill them to try and speak mine, or at least slow down?

But then I remember that these parents either spend most of the day working with people who don’t speak their most comfortable language, or they’re at home not speaking to anyone over the age of three. That I can definitely understand and sympathize with, whatever the language! So fumbling over my sentences may be the least that I can do. (And one of these days, I may beg one of these Chinese parents to take pity and actually tutor me in Mandarin.)

Truth be told, I miss hearing and speaking my cradle language. I regret losing so much of it because I was hiding from that part of my identity, and I fear being unable to teach it to my child.  I’ve experienced the great gulf between me and my own family members caused by linguistic, geographic and cultural distance. I recently lost my last remaining grandparent, a woman who was born a few short years after the Republic of China was founded, who survived World War II, the Chinese Civil War and the flight of the Kuomintang to Taiwan, from whom I like to think I get some of my entrepreneurial spirit (and almost certainly my temper). Because I lacked the  fluency to communicate with her beyond, “I’m hungry” and “No, I don’t have a boyfriend yet,” most of this history and heritage is lost to me, except for a few precious stories.

Many other Asian-Americans also find themselves newly galvanized to relearn their first language when they have children of their own or face the loss of older family members. And thus as the generations turn over, language becomes not just something we’ve lost but something we find again and make new meaning from. There’s a wide range of how we’re teaching our kids their heritage language, sometimes dependent on how much we ourselves know, sometimes not.

Many of us have parents who can provide our children with Chinese, Japanese or Korean language exposure or, in some cases, waipo’s Taiyu bootcamp. Some are able to send their children to Mandarin immersion school, while a surprising number have placed their children in Spanish immersion programs while speaking a variety of languages at home. I don’t have any of these options, but I’ve taught my two-year-old to count to ten and sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in Mandarin, which is good enough for now.

I’ve sometimes questioned whether my child will ever be “American enough” to survive in an era of xenophobia and immigration battles, but perhaps I need to make sure he is Asian enough to hold onto his heritage in a country where he is a minority. As I haltingly reclaim my and his Chinese-American identity, the Mandarin language becomes more than a performance or an academic subject to study. It becomes a profound means of connection and belonging, even when I stumble over discussions of potty-training with the Chinese parents in my son’s daycare. My friend Melinda Tan told me of a recent trip to Taiwan where she was able to translate Taiwanese for her children: “In a way it was a relief to know I could fall back into not only speaking Taiwanese, but ‘being’ Taiwanese, in a way that I cannot in [New Hampshire]. When I speak the language… I fall into another way of being, not just in words but [in the] connection that I feel with other people. My kids felt a sense of belonging when we visited.”

I suppose that connection  is what I’m trying to maintain when I encourage my son, “Say something in Chinese!”


Jennifer Duann Fultz is a Taiwanese-American freelance content writer and digital marketing consultant whose parents probably still don’t quite understand what she does but are proud of her anyway. She lives in the Midwest with her husband and son. In her spare time she enjoys reading, cooking, trying to plan her life in advance and pretending to organize her home. Her website is aminusmama.com.

Why Making Tawad Is the Only Reason I Want to Learn My Mother Tongue

Bargaining, I am convinced, is a superpower. Growing up in southern California, I would be entranced by my mother’s seemingly magic abilities to work down a seller to half price, even if we were just garaging on a Saturday morning. My baby hapa heart was thrilled. Even though by the time I was born she’d lived as long in the States as she had in the Philippines, her proficiency in the dark arts of tawad had been as pristinely maintained as Jane Fonda’s cheekbones.

It wasn’t until this year when I dropped everything to pilgrimage to the homeland that I really understood that bargaining is essential to the heart and soul of Pilipinx life: the palengke and tiangge (open markets). At the tiangge, the pearl stalls gleam with South Sea luster, glass cabinets, and blinding florescent light bulbs. I squeal in delight at the attainable luxuries that I may call native to my motherland. This, I am convinced, is where Filipina women forge their magic—trading aggressive banter for enormous baroque pearls that would give Sophie Buhai a run for her money. This, I decide, is my happy place: the place where priceless beauty and steely wills are celebrated amongst savvy businesswomen.

And yet try as I might, I have resigned myself to the fact that I might never gain the same satisfaction as my relatives from making tawad with the pearl vendors—from ruthlessly slashing at prices and volleying shock and awe at your suki in pursuit of that coveted best price. The buy-in to this exchange is fluency in Tagalog (bonus points if you speak Cebuano). I am woefully guilty of speaking neither.

I have learned much simply by observing what my Tita considers a perfectly valid spectator sport. The trick (well actually there are several) is to take ownership of the thing before you even ask for first price. You must envision yourself in them so passionately that your suki cannot imagine them going to anyone else. Once sufficiently attached to it, you go for half price, and you hold the like the diva you are until she exclaims, “Hay nako, I cannot even pay the divers with the prices you ask for!” And then you know she likes you. In return, she scribbles hasty figures on paper and keeps her voice low, so you know she’s betraying the informally agreed-upon price of her fellow vendors. You leave spending twice as much as what you planned on but still convinced that your champagne South Sea opera strands are worth far more than the price at which you bought them.

The final price might be the ultimate prize, but the familiarity with which that dance is performed is what makes the transaction ang sarap—so yummy. Since I don’t speak, I ask my Auntie to negotiate on my behalf. I chip in where I can, embarrassed of my role as the smiling, oblivious hapa. I can feel them talking about me. I flush, furious that I cannot clap back and advocate for myself. My Tita translates: “It’s your nose that gives you away.” (And here I thought it was my accent.)

The experience is nothing short of humbling. At home, I might be known for my loud-ass voice and feisty impression of the Olivia Pope Stomp-Walk™, but here the women I want so badly to joust with reduce me to a stutter. I am not worthy of their banter so long as my verbal signaling still screams WEALTHY WHITE(ISH) WESTERNER. I walk away, pearls in hand but heart in knots.

It’s enough to single-handedly motivate me to learn the language—a motivation that has never been so present and so urgent—and my chest begins to burn with a furious need to connect with these women. It’s weird—why would something so simple and off-key as haggling light a fire under my ass to learn Tagalog, and not something more intimate like say, connecting with my own mother? I realize quickly it’s because my way into my mom’s brownness is through clothes—her pearls, her bespoke vintage made by the Titas back home, her penchant for designer outlet sales. I realize my connection to my heritage is largely material, defined by the balikbayan boxes I bring home full of textiles, home goods, and jewelry.

And so I decide to intentionally make the spaces I inhabit and the clothes that I wear my brown space. If I don’t feel it inside me, I am damn well going to find it outside of me, (read: hoarding opera strands like nobody’s business). It’s funny, in the moment I don’t think I quite understand that learning a language is a life-long commitment, but I do realize it’s a way in to my family history that I didn’t have before. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for.

Figuring out how to live my best hyphenated life has always been the struggle. I am still uncomfortable with how little I have to show for being the hyphenated Pilipina, and most days I feel as authentic as a night market Prada. It occurs to me as I pass by counterfeit Kylie lip kits and Ralph Lauren knock offs that the tiangge is my happy place because it is the closest I will ever get to an authentic Pilipinx experience. Vendors crow “Ma’amsir,” at you as you pass by, middle-aged women tout their Louis Vuittons of both dubious and authentic origin, and whole families replenish their wardrobes with bargain-priced deadstock. It’s not the mango-slinging streets of the local palengke, but the spirit of it gets damn close.

And as I sit in the traffic, brooding in my pearls as we crawl through Manila’s twisted streets, I realize my experience at the tiangge is strikingly demonstrative of hapa duality. It’s like wanting to make tawad but having the words stuck in your throat. You understand how to speak but without the courage of having done so. It’s the space between having played the expression in your head a hundred times and being able to execute it flawlessly. The squeak you make instead—the moment you crack from the pressure like you’re suki’s somehow morphed into a blinding apparition of Beyoncé—that is living your hyphen.

 

Written by: Lindsey Twigg

About the Author: Lindsey Twigg is a behavioral technician, theatre professional, and lyrical poet based in Santa Barbara, CA.  She writes vigorously about hapa identity, the female body, and the importance of wearing pearls.  She’s a friend of the pod, a hoarder of (coffee table) books, and a connoisseur of very large pants.  You can find her ramblings about fashion on her blog, The Filipino Grigio.