On a recent flight to London, I was tapping through the movie list and there it was under the newly added section: “Crazy Rich Asians.” Though I had seen it many times in theatres, I hit play and settled back in my seat to re-watch it for the millionth time, like I’d done for “When Harry Met Sally,” “Love Actually,” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” Of that list, “Crazy Rich Asians” admittedly isn’t my favorite. I kept going back for the mahjong scene, but I couldn’t connect with the rest of the film as much as I desperately wished to—I am not rich, Ivy League educated, Chinese American, Singaporean, or close to my family. However, “Crazy Rich Asians” was the start of the narrative plenitude movement amongst Asian and Asian American stories, and I was here for it.
The narrative plentitude movement, a term coined by author Viet Thanh Nguyen, essentially looks to the day when one movie will not define us, when Asian Americans will be represented in all sorts of stories and films: Oscar worthy ones, B-list ones, mediocre ones, trashy ones. Every which one. Basically, the more stories that are out there about Asians and the diaspora, the less we will be judged on the failures and successes of each specific one. The real, true goal of this movement is that in the future, when an Asian American movie/TV show/book comes out, it will not be as heavily burdened with the task of “proving our worth.” In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be having conversations about whether Asian American actors can be leading stars, whether Asian American movies can make money at the box office, or whether Asian American men can play the love interest in rom-coms. And hopefully, this would bleed into how we are perceived in real life. Yes, we can get that promotion at work. No, I’m not a math genius. And yes, damnit, I’m allowed to date whomever I choose without feeling societal pressure to “stick to my kind.”
But we’re not there yet. Not even close.
Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” starring the amazing Awkwafina has come pretty damn close to nailing Asian diasporic family dynamics. But I’m still waiting for that one story where I can feel the desire of finally being seen. I’ve been impatient for almost three decades, waiting to read or see something that I feel represents me: a Vietnamese American woman, whose family estrangement is due to the negative ripple effect of the diaspora. “Crazy Rich Asians” was not it for me. But like Mindy Kaling, I too have a very public, intense love affair with rom-coms. Because in the eyes of a young Vietnamese American girl growing up in southern California, these stories were unattainable for me. I had assumed that I’d never be able to have my meet-cute moment. Those were reserved for the Keira Knightleys, Meg Ryans and Kate Hudsons of the world.
Then “To All the Boys I Loved Before” came out. And as an almost 30-year-old woman, I am not ashamed to say that it was so stinking CUTE! Adopt me, Jenny Han! I’m a sucker for young adult lit (but please, not Rainbow Rowell’s “Eleanor & Park,” which propagates harmful Asian stereotypes, festishization and casual racism). But the thing about this adorable Netflix movie was that it was, once again, not a story I could relate to. I’m not at the point in my life where I’d be able to write letters to my exes without them being full of vitriol.
Then the amazing “Always Be My Maybe” arrived, and I could not stop watching or reading think pieces on it. I lived for it. And the best part of the narrative plenitude movement and why it’s important? Now I can say that Marcus Kim is better than Nick Young. Fight me.
I was hungry for more romantic stories, stories that could bring me a bit closer to being seen, that told me that I, too, could possibly have a meet-cute. So I went to the pile high of untouched books on my bookshelf and picked up “The Kiss Quotient” by Helen Hoang. I had bought this book ages ago, knowing that Hoang was a half-Vietnamese author and the main love interest was a half-Vietnamese man, Michael. The basic premise of this book is that it’s a gender reverse “Pretty Woman.” Stella, a well-off, brilliant, successful woman who has issues with sex and relationships due to her autism, decides to hire an escort, Michael, to help her work through her problems.
And fam, I gotta say, I devoured this book.
I can’t remember the last time I could pick up Easter egg clues about one’s identity in a book and relate to it so well. The one scene that made me cry had nothing to do with the romance, funnily enough, but was the moment where Stella, whose autism almost feels like a third leading character, takes issue with the fact that Michael’s Vietnamese mother would store food in old, plastic take-out containers and would heat them in the microwave, despite how harmful the long term use of BPA plastic can be. Stella brings it up to the mother, attempting to lecture her on this. The mother’s immediate reaction was guilt for causing Stella to worry. It just hit too close to home. It’s very Vietnamese for a mother to carry the burden and immediately take on the blame. In fact, it’s a scene lifted straight out of my life. I’ve been Stella, and Michael’s mother has been my mother. To say I was gutted by this scene is an understatement.
When we talk about literary achievements, I don’t want to reference another dead, white man with their armchair philosophizing. I want to reference moments that make me feel seen and understood—even if it comes out of a romance book. Hoang managed to write a scene taken directly from my life. I grew up with a mother like Michael’s, who would save every plastic container that ever crossed her path, and yes, she’d use them in the microwave, much to my chagrin. She still does this to this day, and yes, she’s still alive. And yes, I’m still annoyed.
As I grew up, moved two states away, accumulated two degrees, and began to grow further away from my family, I became that woman, lecturing my mother about the overuse of BPA plastic containers and attempting to toss them all out whenever I dutifully came home for the holidays. In that tiny scene, Hoang achieved what no other author or movie director could do for me in the almost three decades I’ve been on this dot: I felt seen. In a lonely world, with inception layers of glass and bamboo ceilings, I finally felt as if someone out there got it. I just hope that I don’t have to wait another 30 years to be seen again.
Imagine what could be done if we lived in a world of narrative plenitude for Asian Americans. The next time I got on a flight, I’d be able to tap through the Asian versions of “When Harry Met Sally” (thanks, “Always By My Maybe”), “Love Actually,” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” Except this time, I wouldn’t have to call them the “Asian” versions.
It would just be reality. My reality.
Last modified: September 23, 2019