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Crazy Rich Asians and The Importance of Representation

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Aug. 10 2018, Published 7:57 p.m. ET

Last night I went to bed late reading Stephanie Woo’s reaction to watching Crazy Rich Asians on Vox. It was an emotional experience for her to finally see herself represented outside of the confines of stereotypes. Reading about her experience made me emotional as well. This is a common experience among Americans who are underrepresented in the media because we are constantly bombarded with images that we easily get used to.

We go about our lives seeing movies and television through the eyes of people whose ideal beauty types are Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. And we start believing it too. We put these people on pedestals, unknowingly undermining ourselves in the process. Our own cultures become 2nd rate if they’re even represented at all. We even start to accept the trope that we aren’t American. Even though we DEFINITELY ARE. The emotional reaction to representation is a culmination of a sigh of relief, release of tension and a certain pride. When Stephanie Woo watched Crazy Rich Asians she mentioned not growing up rich but seeing other forms of representation:

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“One character texts another person, “Wah, so many Rachel Chus lah!” Another character texts back, “Alamak!” (Essentially, the Malay version of “Oy, vey!”) That was it — I heard people talking like they had in my house growing up, and … waterworks.”

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“One character texts another person, “Wah, so many Rachel Chus lah!” Another character texts back, “Alamak!” (Essentially, the Malay version of “Oy, vey!”) That was it — I heard people talking like they had in my house growing up, and … waterworks.”

The movie takes place in Singapore and Malaysia. For the author, Stephanie Woo, who is of Malaysian descent, this representation seemed to be much more personal. She continued:

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“When I heard an aunt’s Malaysian accent, an uncle’s more bougie, British-educated Malaysian accent, a friend’s Malay accent — I cried. When I saw a Bible study group like my aunt’s, I cried. And the food! Rows of kuih talam, pastel hawker plates piled with satay. Mascara everywhere.”

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“When I heard an aunt’s Malaysian accent, an uncle’s more bougie, British-educated Malaysian accent, a friend’s Malay accent — I cried. When I saw a Bible study group like my aunt’s, I cried. And the food! Rows of kuih talam, pastel hawker plates piled with satay. Mascara everywhere.”

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This type of representation brings a kind of comfort where you are free to be who you are. While some people may see the reaction as too emotional, it absolutely makes sense to feel this way. For a lot of people, it’s as if they don’t even exist. In this case, can we think of a single movie set around people of Malaysian descent? Seeing someone representing you onscreen is like seeing a sort of extension of yourself. You are finally the one that understands the main plots, thoughts and ideas in ways that others don’t. You feel renewed. It’s like a cinematic baptism.

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Credit: nextshark.com

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While I’m not Asian myself, I remember the first time I felt myself represented outside of the Selena movie. While no one in my middle school class understood the significance or “point” of the book, The House on Mango Street, I was so in love with it. I was embarrassed to even admit that I liked it. I remember the main character crying while eating a rice sandwich in her school cafeteria and while I never had to eat a rice sandwich myself I knew that it was a meal your parents gave you when they didn’t have enough money. I felt a connection with the character that my other classmates didn’t. I went on to read that book about 7 more times. I imagine that Stephanie Woo’s connection to some of the characters on Crazy Rich Asians was very similar.

When I see people react this way regarding anything in the media, it’s immediately important. We have the chance to learn about other cultures which would make society more accepting. It’s a turning point in their lives and it will be a turning point in everyone else’s lives as well.

Woo writes about hypothetical alternate situations that may have been different had she watched Crazy Rich Asians at 13 years old:

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“Maybe if I’d seen the absurd yet totally relatable best friend character Peik Lin, played by the irreverent Awkwafina, I would have joined my high school improv group instead of being the fangirl who brought them sandwiches. Maybe if I’d seen Asian musicians like Kina Grannis, who sings in the movie, I would have known Asians were capable of having powerful voices. Maybe I would have taken singing lessons instead of piano, which I hated. […] Maybe when people in high school told me I was “basically white” because I was loud and inappropriate, because I listened to punk and guffawed with my mouth wide open instead of hiding it behind my hand like the good, quiet Asian girls on TV did — maybe I would have disagreed with them.”

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“Maybe if I’d seen the absurd yet totally relatable best friend character Peik Lin, played by the irreverent Awkwafina, I would have joined my high school improv group instead of being the fangirl who brought them sandwiches. Maybe if I’d seen Asian musicians like Kina Grannis, who sings in the movie, I would have known Asians were capable of having powerful voices. Maybe I would have taken singing lessons instead of piano, which I hated. […] Maybe when people in high school told me I was “basically white” because I was loud and inappropriate, because I listened to punk and guffawed with my mouth wide open instead of hiding it behind my hand like the good, quiet Asian girls on TV did — maybe I would have disagreed with them.”

Here’s another stride to giving each other the strength necessary to find our voices.

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