When was the first time you felt represented on screen? When the #FirstTimeISawMe trend exploded on Twitter last year, I felt torn because I wasn’t really sure how to engage the campaign. As Hollywood is dominated by stories about white males, the movement sought to explore the various ways that minorities have felt represented through film. Personally, I couldn’t name any Asian or Asian-American characters that I resonated with, and I have a few theories about why.
For one, my journey to find my own identity is constantly evolving. Asian Americans haven’t been well-represented in Hollywood, and the Asian films that I had watched growing up were all martial arts movies severely lacking in real character depth. My biggest disconnect when it comes to seeing myself on screen, though, is because race has often been an afterthought when it comes to my identity. I’ve looked at myself through the values I was raised with and the personality I forged and in the eyes of the community that surrounded me. Early on, I hadn’t appreciated how all of these things coupled with my Indonesian culture and heritage had forged and shaped who I am.
Truthfully, the first time I saw myself on screen was through Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. As a kid, all I wanted to be was a hero. I wanted to beat the bad guy, save the universe, and look cool doing it. Many kids dream of this, and to me, Skywalker exemplified the ultimate hero. He was wise, he was cool, and he saved the day. As a kid, when seeing myself on screen, I didn’t put any thought into what my heritage was or where I came from. Instead, I thought that Skywalker was the ultimate hero, and I wanted to be just like him.
When I entered college a few years back, I found myself treading a real course toward self-discovery and in the process found another character whom I felt represented me on screen. Again, it wasn’t an Asian or Asian-American character; rather, it was through the personality and quirkiness of J.D. from the medical sitcom Scrubs. Zach Braff’s J.D. was different from the common representation of men on screen. He was sensitive, neurotic, and always behaving true to himself. I occasionally suspected the writers of Scrubs were spying on me and using my life to depict the adventures and calamity that J.D. endures. He was me, and I felt that my personality was truly represented.
Prior to now, I’d seen my dreams and personality represented in characters on the screen, but I never truly experienced the same by way of my race. Along comes Crazy Rich Asians, the first Hollywood film in 25 years to feature an all Asian cast and a milestone for Asian representation. I had little interest in the film at first, as both the trailer and the director’s filmography left me unmoved, but the cast was a real selling point to me, and I was curious how they would go about representing Asian culture.
After weeks of hearing that Crazy Rich Asians is saving the romantic comedy and dominating the box office, I finally let go of my indifference to see the film. I wanted to know what racial representation means and how Crazy Rich Asians is representing Asians so well. So, I decided to take my parents, who immigrated to the United States from Indonesia in the 1980s, to see the film and collect their thoughts on representation.
My father kindly agreed to an interview about the representation of Asians in Hollywood and briefly described that he last felt represented in Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow, a 2002 crime film about Asian-American students who turn to a life of petty crime. Simply put, my father related to the students in Better Luck Tomorrow because of their drive and effort to overachieve. As an excellent student in college, his exams were passed along to others to cheat from. For him, it was really special to see himself on the big screen.
“As an Asian, I saw myself as those characters,” my father said. “I had their same problems. These characters embodied who I am.”
But he also related to a lot in Crazy Rich Asians. To him, the film accurately depicted the matriarchal nature of many Asian families, showcasing the generational pressures to always honor your family and elders. He relates Michelle Yeoh’s character to his own mother, recalling how Eleanor (Yeoh) chastises Rachel (Constance Wu) for focusing on her own passions rather than the needs of a family as a whole.
“[In many Asian cultures] it’s not the individual first. It’s community first,” my father told me. “In our case, the community is family. The family’s interest always supersedes the individual’s interest.”
This is just one of the myriad examples that my father related to the movie, including plenty of moments featuring food, culture, and family that rang so true to his own experiences. For him, Asian representation matters because Asian culture is incredibly beautiful and ought to be shared through our lense and experiences.
I’m glad to say I saw myself in Crazy Rich Asians. I don’t think I related to any specific character, but there were so many moments throughout the film that felt real and tangible. There were so many times when I thought, “Wow, she is just like my grandmother.” Or, “Hey I’ve been to an Asian night market like that.”
It’s really a special thing to see so many relatable aspects of my life in the largest medium in the world. Representation is important because there are so many beautiful cultures and stories that haven’t been broadly showcased. This film taught me that I should be looking for more films relatable to my heritage because I have so many cultural experiences that are central to my identity.
It’s no small thing to see yourself and your experiences on screen. That’s not to say that our lives are validated through Hollywood, but it’s exciting that other people get to see how unique our culture, family, and experiences are.