Contributed by special guest writer, Anne Hawkins
I grew up on John Hughes films – Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, Sixteen Candles – I watched them before I was old enough to fall in love, to feel rejected, and to dream about who I would ultimately end up with. I also watched them before I was old enough to consciously think about the fact that no one in that world ever fell in love with an Asian character. In fact, the only Asian character that seemed to exist in that world was Long Duk Dong, an exchange student who spoke in broken English and developed a crush on Molly Ringwald’s character, Samantha. But Samantha would never ever consider him as a possible romantic interest; that, after all, was the joke. And though I never found the joke funny, I continued to watch romantic comedies, enjoying the stories but never finding anything in them particularly realistic or accessible.
In addition to my love of movies, I am an avid reader and a big fan of so many books by and about Asians and Asian-Americans. Among my favorites are the novels about multi-generations of families moving between and within countries. This past year, I relished Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant, and Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy. These books are varied in subject matter and writing style, yet they are all the stories on some level of people facing financial or familial hardships and forced to make tragic decisions. While I come back to these types of books time and time again, it had not really dawned on me until recently that I may actually view and identify with the “Asian story” as only about overcoming hardships – and learning to endure to create a better life for someone else. While the stories always hold some hope, they aren’t uplifting. In other words, these books aren’t exactly romantic comedies. But, they are the only stories I found myself identifying with – and what did that say about how I viewed myself?
So, imagine my surprise, when I picked up Kevin Kwan’s highly acclaimed novel Crazy Rich Asians (and subsequently China Rich Girlfriend, and Rich People Problems) and entered the world of the wealthy Asian elite who travel by private jet for weekends on private islands and private yachts and think nothing of $30,000 handbags and $20 million wedding celebrations. It is a world where highly attractive Asian people fall in love with each other, where they experience all the ups and downs of dating, engagements, and parents who don’t understand. While there are certainly some very “Asian” elements portrayed through the familial relationships, these weren’t the tragic Asian novels I was used to reading. And when Crazy Rich Asians was brought to the big screen, with its bursts of vibrant color, catchy pop soundtrack, beautiful wardrobes, and an entirely Asian cast, it certainly wasn’t the romantic comedy of my youth.
I had a smile on my face through the whole movie, even when the dialogue made me cringe a bit, or I found the plot twists predictable or far-fetched. It just felt exciting to see a familiar story told in a way that actually felt familiar to me. I am not, nor will I ever be, a crazy rich Asian, but finally here was a story that was fun, without making fun – that made everyone (including non-Asians) want to be a part of that world, or at least enjoy watching it from the outside. Finally a romantic comedy with characters leading lives we could see ourselves in – lives that we need to see ourselves in.
Bio: Anne Hawkins is a criminal defense attorney in San Francisco, California. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. Until Kevin Kwan comes out with his next novel, she is on the lookout for other happily-ever-after novels featuring Asian and Asian-American characters. Recommendations welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org.