Hollywood has long been lacking Asian faces in film. But recently there has been a surge in films revolving around Asian-American characters. “Crazy Rich Asians” and more recently “The Farewell” put the struggle between Chinese and American values on the big screen. As a second generation Chinese-American myself, I couldn’t be more thrilled.
So why is eastern and western culture so contrasting, not in Asian films, but rather in Asian-American films? In short, it’s because many Asian-Americans embody both of these two very opposite cultures.
This theme of inner conflict is probably one of the most truthful parts of Chinese-American movies. Well, excluding all the very realistic kung-fu fighting.
Chinese-Americans find themselves needing to prove their American-ness to Americans (and are even urged to do so by Asian American politician Andrew Yang) or prove their Chinese-ness to Mainland Chinese people to be accepted by either group. Yet we are the ones who understand both American values of individualism and ambition and Chinese ideals of filial responsibility and stability. We are expected to prioritize both conflicting ideals to fit in with classic Americana while simultaneously respecting our roots.
Therefore, to create a film about a Chinese-American character is to inherently explore that conflict.
Even older lesser-known films featuring Chinese-American leads display a similar identity conflict.
Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior - Trailer
The only childhood film I remember with a Chinese-American lead was “Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior.” The movie revolved around Brenda Song’s character, Wendy. She had to choose between becoming a homecoming queen and defeating an evil spirit.
I admit, it’s a problematic fave. The movie contains some unnecessary white-washing, as well as some weird and incorrect interpretations of Buddhism. (Why did the writers think a Buddhist monk wouldn’t know what chocolate is?) It is all topped off with a healthy dose of exoticizing Chinese culture.
But it was pretty on point with the overarching theme. Wendy faces inner turmoil about accepting her role in defeating this ancient evil spirit and her responsibility in protecting her community. This role required her to sacrifice something important to her. This kind of conflict rings true in many Chinese American households.
If you look closely, this sentiment keeps popping up, even in fun light-hearted romantic comedies like “Crazy Rich Asians.”
CRAZY RICH ASIANS - Official Trailer
The entire film’s conflict was centered around Nick Young’s mother. She tries to end his relationship with Rachel so her family can maintain its stability and reputation. Once again there is a struggle between values.
Although Nick's mother is portrayed as a villain, there is more depth to her character. She wants the best for her son, but her perception of what is best does not align with Western values. What she believes is best, not just for Nick, but for the family as a whole, is for Nick to be surrounded by his family and marry someone from "high society." Whereas Western audiences may think the obvious choice is choosing true love, moving away from your family, and giving up your family business.
While that is an extreme representation of the different cultural values coming to a head, the sentiment remains.
The Farewell | Official Trailer HD | A24
In my personal favorite, “The Farewell,” Awkwafina’s character, Billie, finds out that her grandmother is terminally ill. Her family has decided not to tell the grandmother in hopes of preventing emotional burden.
Billie is then confronted with her own need for closure. She feels guilty for keeping this secret, which is in conflict with her family's wish that her grandmother doesn’t die in fear. There are many scenes that specifically confront the differences between Eastern and Western culture. They are usually shown through various family members explaining to Billie why it is necessary to keep the secret.
One quote spoken by Billie’s uncle explains it all:
“In America, you think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, your life is part of a whole. Family. Society.”
In Chinese culture there is a lot of emphasis on a person’s role in contributing to the greater whole. The “whole” can refer to your family, workplace, or society. When you make a choice, it doesn’t just affect you. It is everyone’s contributions that allow the whole to be strong, stable and united.
In Western culture, and America specifically, people take pride in their own individual achievements and ambitions. People who are unique, who branch out and take their own path, are praised. Achieving one’s own happiness is the ultimate goal.
Having been raised with both values, this tension is ever-present in the Chinese-American identity. On top of that, there is no right or wrong answer. No one approach is inherently better than the other. Wendy embraces her responsibilities. Nick and Rachel choose to value their love. Billie kept the secret.
The Chinese-American experience is unique. Showing it in film gives viewers a better understanding of both cultures. I can’t wait to see what comes out next!