Asian-American

In Between Worlds: a Cultural and Theological Commentary on the Film Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy_Rich_Asians_poster

Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic comedy about Rachel Chu, an economics professor at New York University. She is in love with Nick Young, a handsome young man from Singapore, who is heir to a massive family fortune. His mother, a traditionalist, doesn’t approve of their relationship. It is a beautifully made film that celebrates Chinese culture but also addresses complex issues of cultural pride and assimilation; as Asian Americans we at times self-identify as bananas (white on the inside and yellow on the outside). The movie contains some sexual innuendo, alcohol use, and strong language, and yet it does raise important cultural issues that churches would do well to engage. What follows are my notes on the key issues the movie addresses.

Cultural Appropriation.

The movie presents a tension rather than celebrating a single culture. Unlike other films that celebrate the achievement of a particular people group, this movie does a commendable job in presenting a tension that many overseas born Chinese experience. Will Nick choose Rachel or honor his family? It is very common for Asian Americans living between two worlds to develop a dual consciousness. The questions that we grow up regularly asking are “Am I American enough? Am I Asian enough?”

awkwafina_crazy_rich_asians_constance_wu

In Between Worlds : An example cultural appropriation through a character in the film is Goh Peik Lin, Rachel’s best friend, who has dyed blond hair like a white American, and uses the vernacular of a black American; in that she inhabits the polarized consciousness of American culture.

The tension of being between worlds is highlighted in different ways. Music plays
an important part in the film, and the songs that are sung are predominantly western
songs with Mandarin Chinese translation — Asians singing the songs of white and black
folk. Whether it is a jazz standard or Coldplay, it is charming to see Asian face or hear a
song sung in Mandarin, but it is either simply imitation or cultural appropriation at best.
Who are Asian Americans and what cultural contribution, if any, do they bring to
the world? If each cultural expression is a manifestation of God’s creativity in beauty,
dress, aesthetics, and language what have Asian Americans developed as unique
contribution to the kingdom of God? I think that remains to be seen. The recent wave of
Asian immigrant mid 20th century brought many to the U.S. for education. It was a
migration with dignity as it saw the contributions of Asians as very positive but also
called them to assimilate into the systems of higher education and the work force
without much need to protest. In contrast with African Americans, a culture was born
out of long suffering and sorrow. So, I am eager to see what will arise from the liminal
space Asian Americans have occupied for decades. The church would do well to
engage the stories Asian Americans, that they might find their own voice — one that is
neither black nor white but appropriately yellow.

Trouble with Wealth.
An early scene in the movie depicts a Bible study led by the matriarch. It is
reverent and scripturally based yet as the story unfolds one is left to wonder why these
women were reading the Pauline epistles? The matriarch reads, “Since, then, you have
been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the
right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (Colossians
3). …and later chastises the group of women, “Continue with Corinthians!” One could
only conclude based on the matriarch’s contempt throughout the film that she is being
set up as a hypocrite who has set her mind on tradition and earthly things at the
expense of love.
While in campus ministry I connected to a group of Singaporean students that
asked me to help them start a Bible study. It was a great community that asked hard
questions and even brought from their field of study insights from quantum mechanics
and economic theory. Yet when I asked a friend from church who was raised in
Singapore about helping with the Bible study, he was skeptical that these students were
actually Christians. As an Indian man (South Asian) growing up as a minority in
Singapore, he was treated with contempt by many who confessed to be Christians and
did not believe that authentic Christianity could be found with the wealth and privilege of upwardly mobile Chinese Singaporeans. Indeed it is hard for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of heaven! This is not a struggle unique to Asians, but it certainly made an
impression with how deliberate the Bible study scene displayed a sense of piety, when
family tradition was clearly the driving impulse and motivation for the matriarch.

Longing for Home.
Taking up themes of nearness and distance, the movie is ultimately about where
we belong. At the end of the movie the matriarch walks off the screen sullen and
reluctant, and we are left wondering what will happen to the family? Where will the
happy couple belong? This leaves the question open for the viewer. What kind of
community do you long to be part of ?

Crazy Rich

Love at Last? Nick proposes to Rachel on an airplane. We celebrate the grandeur of love, and the movie ends with a grand celebration on a boat but where will they go?

 

Where do you belong? How will you navigate the tensions of cross cultural families?
In the midst of transience, food in the film is used to bring a sense of belonging.
The story unfolds most beautifully through the wisdom of the table. It’s at a table folding
dumplings that family secrets are revealed and the grandmother’s blessing is shared. It
becomes the place where laughter erupts. The filmmakers suggest, that as time passes
and distance increases, it’s the traditions of the table that make a home — rehearsing
memories together in a space where stories can be shared and identities brought into
completion once again.
Where are my brothers and sisters? Rooted in a single place for all time?
Perhaps. The movie makes a great deal out of the tables and the foods, with all their
color and texture, that shape our existence as embodied creatures; ones who long to
make a home with one another out of transience and change. The smell of broth and
the sound slurping noodles works our memories — bringing us back somewhere in
order to bring us toward something. For Christians what we anticipate at every great
meal is an honored seat at the wedding feast of the Lamb, in which the glory of the
nations will be brought to that table in the fulness of time, and at last we will say, “we are
home.”

Michael Chen is  National Director of Training & Cross-Cultural Ministry for the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO).

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