Universally relatable insight with unique cultural cues is the essence of “Cultural Attunement.”
This is not only the winning formula to great creative work, but also the secret sauce behind a box office hit. One of the biggest reasons behind the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” is its crafty articulation of Asian culture. Like I mentioned previously, the movie did a phenomenal job in making the story relatable to every culture, yet filling it with rich nuances only those who have been engrained in the Asian culture can understand.
As the last Dose of our special coverage of “Crazy Rich Asians,” I’ll explain some of these nuances only an Asian American can resonate with. I hope many of you have already watched the movie by now, because there is going to be a lot of spoiler alert.
- One is expected to sacrifice individual happiness for the sake of the family, especially as an Asian woman. The core tension of the story is between Rachel Chu and her boyfriend’s mom, Eleanor Young. Rachel, a 2nd-generation Chinese American professor, was seen as a “banana,” an American, and an ultimate outsider. As a conservative and protective Asian mom, Eleanor believed Rachel would “never be enough for her son and her family.” Eleanor talked about giving up her career in law after marrying into her husband’s family. She also gave up spending time with her children just so her in-law’s disapproval wouldn’t impact her children. This is a perfect reflection of the collectivism Asian culture. Pursuit of individual happiness is considered selfish, narrow-minded, and often disgraceful. One is expected to prioritize family’s best interest before his or her own agenda, especially as a woman. That’s why Eleanor didn’t like Rachel from the start. Rachel’s independence and self-made success is 100% American, and the absolute opposite of Eleanor’s values and believes.
- Children are expected to obey, no matter how old they are. We’ve talked about the strict power hierarchy in Asian families. According to Pew Research, 61% of Asian Americans agree parents’ approval has a significant impact on their choice of spouse. This mentality is especially prominent among the ultra-rich. Children’s spousal choice is a reflection of their “face.” It has huge impact on the family’s prestige and even business reputation. That’s why Rachel’s family background was considered scandalous and unacceptable to Nick’s wealthy Asian family. That’s also why it was extremely jaw-dropping in Asian standard when Nick straight-up ignored his grandma’s explicit order and went after Rachel after she was humiliated by his family.
- Emotional (and difficult) conversation is best to have over Mahjong. The most complex and pivotal part of the movie is the Mahjong scene. Mahjong is a huge part of Asian culture. It is the equivalent of poker culture in the West but minus the boys’ club connotation. Mahjong is a bonding game among family and friends. Similar to poker, it is extremely strategic and psychological. As we’ve discussed before in the “face” concept, direct conversations are often avoided in Asian culture. This is especially true if the conversation is emotional in nature. Instead of having a straightforward conversation with Eleanor like a typical American, Rachel demonstrated her intention through the art of Mahjong. Instead of getting a big win for herself, she gave the most critical piece to Eleanor so Eleanor could win. It is a strong statement that she indeed understood the concept of sacrifice in Asian culture. More importantly, it also demonstrated how she was “Asian enough” to express all this in the most culturally appropriate way.
- This is a story about East vs. West, but it is also about East + West. In last week’s Dose of Asianess, we talked about Singapore as the crossroad of Eastern and Western culture. You will notice the perfect blend of Asian and western design elements throughout the movie. Nick’s family house had a European style courtyard, landscape, but a traditional Asian style entrance and interior design. This decorative mix of cultures can also be seen in Astrid’s apartment, which has a combination of mid-century and Scandinavian style complemented by Asian accessories. The $40million wedding scene is another masterpiece of cross-cultural references crafted through the smallest details. Even though it is a western style church wedding, the design echos back to the traditional Asian “rice paddy” culture: custom velvet benches amid a meadow of three-foot-tall grasses, large eight-foot bamboo fans, and hand-painted lanterns made from scratch to accompany the show-stopping center aisle where the bride seemingly walks barefoot on water.
- The music is a reflection of Asian Americans’ bicultural identity. The movie had a combination of classic Chinese love songs and popular English songs reworked with Chinese lyrics and sung by Asian performers. This was a conscious decision made by director Jon Chu:“I wanted to take hit American songs and make them Chinese, to give audiences a sense of how we feel as Asian Americans,” Chu said in a recent interview with Quartz. “That crazy blend of identities and cultures that makes up who we are. It felt to me like a critical part of what we were trying to do.” The most noticeable song was Coldplay’s “Yellow”, which was adapted with Chinese lyrics and performed by Katherine Ho who grew up in Orange County, California. Although yellow is often used as a racist slur against Asians, Jon Chu wanted to bring something new and beautiful to the word. He even described the song as an anthem for Asian Americans to feel a new sense of pride they’ve never felt before. You can read more about this in his touching letter to Coldplay when he asked for their permission.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is a masterpiece in so many different ways. Its huge success has already enabled the making of its sequel, “China Rich Girlfriend,” on the big screen. I can’t wait for the next wave of Asian Americans craze in Hollywood and American pop culture.