An Asian American in the Diaspora in an age of Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians

This past weekend was the release of the much awaited movie, Crazy Rich Asians. It has been applauded by many as being the first movie since Joy Luck Club to have a cast composed entirely of individuals of Asian descent. This has not been without some controversy—some have accused its main male actor Henry Golding as not being Asian enough because his father is English, and the cast does not offer proper representation of multicultural Singapore. But the overall sense of the movie, it seems, has been one that can only be described as “redemptive” (see, for example, this tweetstorm). As my Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with friends and strangers declaring how healing the movie has been for them, I can’t watch the film since I live in the UK where the film comes out later—September 14.

In many respects, we are witnessing the advent of a new era. Jeremy Lin, Fresh Off the Boat, Kim’s Convenience, and now Crazy Rich Asians have offered greater representations for Asian (North) Americans. This is quite different from my childhood when, due to mainstream media, I wished I were white and told my mom I didn’t want to learn Chinese because Americans speak English. But it is not only a new era for mass media. We are also at the cusp of a new era for Asian American Christianity. Asian Americans scholars such as Soong-Chan Rah and Amos Yong have written books calling for more distinctive Asian American theology, and seminaries throughout the United States are forming new programs and centers for Asian American Christianity.

Yet I find myself in an odd position given that I am an Asian American in the diaspora. I cannot partake in the same way in the excitement and the debates and the healing. I can only watch and wonder from the distance.

I also need to consider my place, living here, today, in the United Kingdom. In  any parts of this country, I have been described as “oriental”—a term which, in the US, would be received with such disgust and insult. “Oriental,” as we always said in my childhood, “are rugs.” In the US, “oriental” has been done away with due Yuji Ichioka’s coining of the term “Asian American,” but there are still British academic chairs in “Oriental Studies” and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

I am glad that, as far as I am aware, my children have not yet faced blatant racism or insults because of the way they look or the food they eat. I know it is temporary. When a stranger asks me if I, with my Californian accent, am from China, something inside me bubbles in anger. But when I ask my son if he notices anything different about him and his best friend, a Scottish lad, he is perplexed by the question and simply remarks, “Uh… he has yellow hair?” Will there be a time when such innocence and purity wears off?

This moment for Asian Americans in situ is very different than for Asian Americans in the diaspora, or for some of my friends who are British Chinese.1 To put it simply, I feel I am missing out and not able to witness and experience this coming of age of Asian American identity. Is there a place for the American-born Chinese living in the diaspora in the United Kingdom? What about my children? Or perhaps, in a different way, should I see my identify less as being an Asian American in diaspora, as I should see myself as a first generation British Chinese?

  1. It is worth noting that, in many parts of the UK, “Asian” refers to those of South Asian decent. So Brits of ethnic Chinese descent are simply “Oriental,” “Chinese,” or “British Chinese.”