“Come quick! There’s an Asian on TV – hurry, before they’re gone!” my mom used to holler across the house on the rare, exciting occasion.
I grew up in Maryland and went to a small school where I was the only Chinese American student in my grade for most of the 12 years I was there. When you grow up not seeing many people who look like you, you look elsewhere for signs of acceptance. I was looking for signs that who I was becoming was someone worth aspiring to be, and my mom could sense it. So she brought me and my sisters to see The Joy Luck Club, bought Asian magazines when she could find them, and sounded the alarm whenever she saw someone Asian on TV.
My mom is no longer here, but I still feel like that kid inside, looking for signs that there’s a place for me. As a film lover, the first place I look is the big screen. Though Asian representation in films has been scarce and often disappointing in one way or another, I see progress every year. Here’s a list of the top 5 films that have been empowering to me, a Chinese American kid from Maryland seeking reflection.
#5. Mulan (1998)
I spent my entire childhood pretending to be blonde Cinderella or red-headed Ariel, so when I heard there was going to be an Asian Disney princess, I couldn’t wait to see her. Mulan is arguably the most badass Disney character ever. What gave me pause as a young teen though, was that she was the first Asian princess in the Disney world, and she dressed as a boy for most of the movie! This reaffirmed my suspicion that I could be cool, but not desirable. Not actually the worst lesson for a young girl, but when it’s reinforced that all of the white princesses are beautiful while you are basically a boy, it’s a sobering message.
There isn’t even a kiss at the end of the movie, which still infuriates me. I pointed this out to my fiancé (who is white) as we were rewatching the film recently, and he asked, “Is that problematic?” I exploded, “Of course it’s problematic! It’s Disney allowing all of their other characters to express love and make out at the end, but not allowing Asians to show any sign of physical affection, because that might make audiences uncomfortable. And it adds to the de-sexualizing of Asian men – Belle came closer to modeling bestiality to kids than Mulan came to showing that it’s okay to kiss an Asian guy. That’s problematic!”
Despite these problems, Mulan gave an Asian woman a seat at the Disney table, and there is something satisfying in knowing that she could win a fight against any of the ladies or gents who came before her.
#4. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
There had been Chinese martial arts films before, but something about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon captured the imagination of the American mainstream. I remember trying to talk to classmates about The Joy Luck Club years earlier, but no one else had seen it. This time, all my friends were seeing Crouching Tiger and raving about it. For reasons that I couldn’t articulate to them, their enthusiasm gave me a little squeeze of acceptance in my heart that I hadn’t felt before.
The film gave me pride in my roots, but wasn’t a direct reflection of my cultural experience because it was in a language I didn’t speak, in a world I didn’t know. To other Americans though, I might as well have been in it. Literally. The entire year after the movie was released, I don’t think I went one month without a stranger saying to me at the grocery store, at the pool, or at Blockbuster, “Hey! You were in Crouching Tiger, weren’t you? YES. You were that girl! You were definitely in it!”
Part of me was flattered that anyone would think this lethargic body could kung fu like that, but mostly I was irritated that people were unable to see me as an individual. They had seen one Chinese female on the big screen, so I must be her. There was no way I could just be an Asian American person going about her day. At least it was a step up from “Ni hao ching chong!”
#3. Charlie’s Angels (2000)
According to Rotten Tomatoes, only 45% of audiences liked this movie. Whoops. I guess I’m a proud member of the 45%.
I was in early high school when Charlie’s Angels came out, still curiously learning what it meant to be attractive or accepted. Lucy Liu appeared like a true angel, tossing her hair and showing me that you don’t have to be sidelined just because you’re not white. She kicked just as much ass, had just as many lines (delivered without a fake Asian accent), and looked just as hot as her Caucasian co-stars.
I might cringe at the cheesiness of the movie now, but at the time, Lucy gave me a bigger self-esteem boost than I knew how to give myself. Oh, let’s be honest, I’d probably still love the movie today, if for no other reason than her killer smile. #thankyouLucyLiu
#2. Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
This past year was an exciting year to be Asian in America, not least because of Crazy Rich Asians. This movie was a big deal. I went on opening night, and again a week later with an Asian American friend who is usually blasé about movies. He skipped out of the theater afterwards exclaiming, “I feel so empowered! I feel like I could be president!”
I encouraged my whole family to go. Now when I talk to my dad on the phone, our conversations often include what Awkwafina’s working on next (he’s her cutest fan). Of course, no film is perfect. I’m still grappling with questions of cultural appropriation around Awkwafina’s performance, and because the plot of the (superbly fun) book focuses on the super rich Chinese in Singapore, socioeconomic and skin tone diversity are sorely missing.
No movie can be everything to everyone, but this movie did mark a big moment for Asians in America, and I was happy to be here for it. Hard to top, right? Well, just keep reading…
My number one pick is a movie from 2018 that felt like finally a true reflection of the Asian American experience – unlike Crazy Rich Asians . As I was watching it, I had the urge to holler to my mom to come watch with me, not just because there was someone Asian on TV, but because it may just be the most honest film I’ve ever seen. I think she would’ve loved it, and you might too.
#1. Minding the Gap (2018)
The truest, most uplifting, most moving representation of the Asian American experience I’ve seen isn’t in a movie that’s billed as “Asian American” at all. It’s in a grassroots documentary called Minding the Gap, directed by Bing Liu and now nominated for an Oscar. This is what I hope the future of representation is: creative work that doesn’t have to set out with a goal of representation, but does so naturally because its maker is part of the diversity that’s inherent to our world.
I discovered Minding the Gap through a tweet from Barry Jenkins recommending this small documentary about skateboarders in Rockford, Illinois. Trusting his judgment, I decided to check it out. It had me immediately. The opening scenes of the boys undulating down the pavement, looking freer than I’ve ever felt in my life, swept me into their riveting stories that unfolded and interwove with perfect timing. I didn’t expect to find much in common with the skateboarding world, but the universal theme of the hardening that comes with growing up resonated deeply. I grew to love and care about each character, feeling invested in their choices and success, bereft of new friends when the documentary ended.
It wasn’t until I was thinking back on it that I realized how diverse the stories were–that the Asian American reflection I’d always been seeking was there in Liu, the director-storyteller who starts behind the camera and then answers the call to include his own story. The story of him and his friends is entirely familiar to my Asian American experience: feeling misfit in some way, loving friends who are black, loving friends who are white, doing things your parents may not understand, and struggling in turn to understand some of their actions. The hour and a half I spent with Liu and his friends made me feel not only more connected to my own community, but also to the American experience as a whole.
While Ming-Na Wen (Mulan), Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Lucy Liu (Charlie’s Angels), and Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) empowered me to be more badass and confident, Minding the Gap director Bing Liu inspired me to keep making sense of life through storytelling. Ultimately, if we want to see more representation for all communities, it is our responsibility to dig deep and help tell those stories ourselves.