Thirteen years ago, I traveled to China for the first time as part of my work for an international NGO. I was 26 years old, six months into a job that had moved me from Texas to Washington DC, and eager to impress my boss and the international delegates with whom I traveled. But I had one small problem: I needed a coat. China in December can be brutally cold, and because I was newly transplanted from the mild winters of Texas, I didn’t own one. So I did what any earnest, underpaid young professional in an overpriced city might do. I drove out to the suburbs to sift through the overstuffed racks of Burlington Coat Factory, that misleadingly-named box store selling discount goods from housewares to shoes to, yes, coats. There, I found the warm, professional-looking, not-too-expensive coat I’d hoped for: heavy wool in a beautiful deep olive with wooden buttons. For $40. Sold.
But almost immediately after exiting the plane in Beijing, I felt the shabbiness of my new coat amidst a world of designer clothes, exotic cars, and multi-course meals beyond anything I’d experienced. That China trip was my first time to Asia (but thankfully not my last), my first time using chopsticks (much to the amusement of my Chinese hosts), and my first encounter with anything even remotely approximating the kind of wealth on display in Kevin Kwan’s , the wildly popular 2013 novel.
As a disclaimer, I almost never read books like Crazy Rich Asians, light romantic comedies described as “beach reads” and “romps.” But I picked it up a few weeks ago off the coffee table of a friend whose taste in books usually matches my own: literary, serious reads on topics of social importance. My friend immediately seemed flustered, almost embarrassed by the book. Begrudgingly, she admitted she’d splurged on it because the waitlist at the library was months long; even more begrudgingly, she told me how much she’d enjoyed it, as well as the other two books in Kwan’s trilogy. I was intrigued, borrowed it, and read it within the week, only to learn that nearly everyone else in America had read it too and was eagerly awaiting the movie adaptation due out August 15.
The book chronicles the relationship of Rachel Chu and Nick Young, a Chinese-American couple living in New York City, both professors, both unusually likable and attractive, both very much in love. One summer, they travel together to Nick’s native Singapore to attend the wedding of his best friend. There, Rachel learns that Nick is one of Singapore’s most eligible bachelors; that his family is among the richest in the country (“richer than God,” as one character claims); that the wedding they are attending is the VIP event of the year; and that her own modest background makes her a target of suspicion, disdain, and outright hostility by Singapore’s elite. Hilarity, plot twists, stereotypes, and extravagant spending ensue.
With the exception of the almost boringly down-to-earth Rachel and Nick, Kwan’s characters and their lifestyles are delightfully outsized. There’s the gold-digging, body-glittered porn star Kitty Pong; the coddled trust-fund frat boy Bernard; the portly social climber Eddie with his perfectly coiffed—and perfectly miserable—designer family; the mahjong-playing, Bible-study-attending, Shenzhen-shopping-spreeing set of meddlesome Singaporean mothers (including Nick’s); and many more. Servants are plentiful. Fountains are gilded. Pets are named after Trump and Vanderbilt. Christianity is a status marker. All of these details cram together, bumping up against frequent Malay, Hokkien, and Cantonese slang, lending the book a frenetic pacing and glitzy intensity not unlike the corner of Asia that the characters inhabit. Truly, Crazy Rich Asians is a romp of a beach read if ever there was one, and beneath its excesses is a familiar trope: wealthy boy falls for common girl against his family’s wishes.
But despite its light subject matter, the book and its movie adaptation have invigorated a conversation on Asian representation in American popular media. That Kwan, an Asian-American himself, is responsible for the representation of his Asian characters to his American readers is remarkable in itself. While his book is in no way free of stereotypes—if anything, it introduces readers to a complex world of intra-Asian, cross-class stereotypes—they are Kwan’s stereotypes to employ as he chooses, rather than the one-dimensional figments of a non-Asian imagination such as Mr. Miyagi and Long Duk Dong.
Perhaps most interestingly, Kwan upends expectations for the Asian-American dynamic altogether. His book is neither the immigrant story nor the period piece that American readers have come to expect from Asian-centric American novels (think The Joy-Luck Club or The Good Earth). Instead, Kwan has made his American readers the immigrants: outsiders and minorities in a world that does not need them, certainly does not revolve around them, and if anything, views them as somewhat backwards. In this opulent foreign setting, the reader can’t help but fall into the role of gawking tourist (another Asian stereotype), reliant on Kwan as translator and guide.
In this way, Crazy Rich Asians forced me to again inhabit my clueless 26-year-old self, fumbling with chopsticks in a bargain-basement coat, a source of comic relief to my Asian hosts in a world utterly unknown to me. Kwan’s dense descriptions rendered me similarly off-kilter, unsure at times whether to laugh or cringe. Which scenes were satire, which were hyperbole, and which were straightforward reportage? These are the questions of a tourist, of a learner, of one who is dependent on an unfamiliar other to explain the world.
But most of the time, when I travel to other cities and countries, I try my best not to be a tourist. I resist the discomfort of my inherent outsider-ness. Rather than acknowledge my ignorance, I hide it. Rather than asking questions, I try furiously to observe and imitate. I avoid feeling awkward, out of place, socially inept, stupid. If I’m honest, I am a middle-class white American woman who has grown accustomed (or even worse…entitled?) to a sense of competence and belonging on whatever turf I find myself.
This is not the way of Jesus. I cannot love my neighbor by feigning competence. I cannot announce the kingdom while clinging to my comfortable turf. I must learn to set aside my hubris, to resist the urge to direct the narrative. I must learn to simply listen, observe, wait, ask, and depend—a posture that sounds remarkably like prayer. (Perhaps prayer is a sort of tourism in the kingdom of God?)
Make no mistake, Crazy Rich Asians is a beach read, all fluff and glitz and label-dropping and island-hopping. It makes no claims to deeper readings about minority representation or neighbor love. Nonetheless, Kwan’s novel is just over-the-top enough to shake me out of my comfortable entitlement, however briefly. And for that, I’m grateful to the book and eagerly awaiting the movie, fluff and glitz and all.