On the importance of representation in stories about humans.
Warning: I cried while writing this. Oh, and spoilers ahead.
In a little town in Eastern Netherlands, I sat in a cinema next to my cousin on a particularly stuffy afternoon. The country’s hottest heat wave yet was coming to its end but I felt as though I had just began living. I don’t believe I’m being dramatic. As a person who lives and breathes pop culture and mainstream media, Crazy Rich Asians meant a lot to me. Reading the book a few months before the film’s release was enough to get me giggling on my parents’ couch. As an Indonesian who grew up visiting Malay family friends in Singapore, went to a Chinese-oriented school throughout junior and half of senior high, and has a family who now lives in Hong Kong, I understood the book. I felt like the book understood me. The large family feuds, the secret societies of rich and beautiful people, the unbelievable food.
Needless to say, I was bouncing in my seat with an excited grin, waiting impatiently for the opening credits to end so I could finally sink my teeth in what was going to be the film I’d been waiting for my whole life. I have a lot of things to say about beautiful directing, characters, and representation. Unfortunately, in this day and age, no one truly has the energy to read through all of my thoughts. So, I shall share my favourite parts from the film that touched me the most in the hopes that it will show how Crazy Rich Asians is more than just a film about Asians.
Towards the beginning of the film, Rachel’s mother says to her in Mandarin that although Rachel looks Chinese, in her head and in her heart, she is American. It made me sink in my chair as I recall the countless talks my parents have given me about being a fourth culture kid—about taking the best parts of the cultures I come from and amalgamate them to create the best version of myself. I was never just Indonesian nor Dutch nor American. I am all of it and yet none of it at all. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear (much to Eleanor’s dismay) that Rachel is neither American nor Chinese. She’s simply Rachel. Her passions and ambitions are what define her, not the blend of cultures that raised her to be the ‘ABC’ (American Born Chinese) she is. Furthermore, Eleanor blatantly tells Rachel that she will never be enough for her son. I felt it. When you’re multiracial, you never feel like you’re enough. When I was with my family, I was too Westernized. When I’m with my European classmates, I feel too Indonesian or American. It’s a constant battle of feeling like you’re jumping from one identity to the next. Yet, Rachel never lets Eleanor’s comment gets to her. She doesn’t question her race or the way her mother raised her as an Immigrant in the US. Rachel unapologetically calls herself both, without worrying whether she’s enough of each side. Her identity is unfaltering and she is self-assured. Had I an exemplary character such as Rachel to look up to whilst growing up, the inner strUggle would have been much easier for me.
The next thing that tUgged at my multiracial heart strings was Araminta’s appearance at the airport. When I was younger, I used to envy those who looked more Eurocentric than me, which, naturally, considering the beauty standards in society (Western or not). I remember looking at the girls who wore leggings and sweatpants and Ugg boots and tank tops with their blonde messy buns. Indonesia was always too hot for sweatpants and Ugg boots (they were all I wanted when I visited Australia at the age of thirteen). My parents were always too Indonesian for me to be able to just wear a tank top in public. My hair is too thick to be piled on the top of my head without causing headaches in the long term. It was clear that even if I did conform to the way they dressed, I would never see myself as I saw the white girls who swarmed the airport. Because no matter how much I tried, the clothes and the hairstyles were meant for them. Made by them, modelled by them, and worn by them. Seeing Araminta, who has the same Eurasian wide nose, tan skin, and jet black hair as I do—wearing glasses at that, made my heart swell. It was such a small scene and barely dwelled on in the film, but I didn’t just see a pyjama-clad Araminta greeting Nick and Rachel with her balloons on that screen. For the first time, I saw myself on a silver screen.
One thing that struck me, and one thing that I always pay attention to when it comes to movies, is the soundtrack. When Rachel arrives in Singapore, there is a vibrant montage of her taking in her new surroundings as classic Chinese tracks from the mid-twentieth century plays in the background. It’s reminiscent of the romanticism frequently featured in American film about Europe; the almost nostalgic blend of history, wonder, and romance. It’s what I felt when watching everything from Lizzie McGuire: The Movie to Call Me By Your Name. It made me realise that I had never viewed my own surroundings with the same awe while I was growing up. Crazy Rich Asians shows us that we should be in awe of cities, countries, and continent That our homes have just as much history. That we should be proud of it and the love it has to offer. The best part? the film does it beautifully without orientalising Singapore (or Asia) for one second.
The scene that really brought me to tears, however, was Araminta’s wedding. I had never been one to cry during a wedding scene. I always felt detached from the white churches, walks down aisles, and the iconic “I now pronounce you husband and wife, you may kiss the bride”. As a Moslem-raised Javanese, I grew up watching my aunts, uncles, and cousins kneeling next to their partners in a mosque. The wedding pictures embedded in my earliest memory was of my mother in a kebaya, with traditional Javanese makeup across her forehead, covered in heavy golden jewellery and fresh flowers. As a young child surrounded by images of the Western White Wedding, I refused to imagine myself having the traditional wedding the women who came before me had. Now that I’m older, I realise how horribly brainwashed I had been. And that’s not to say that Indonesian culture doesn’t have its own horrible brainwashing mechanics—particularly regarding women and marriages. However, seeing Araminta with her bare golden feet, walking down an aisle that looks like something straight out of my fondest memories of staying at my grandma’s home in Bali, with Kina Grannis’s acoustic rendition of one of my grandfather’s favourite love songs, simply took my breath away. When the guitar stops playing to welcome total silence as Araminta’s foot hits the water, I bit back a choked sob. I was more than surprised at my own emotional reaction. Wedding scenes never got to me, but I realised that it’s because they never truly connected with me.
There are many other heart-wrenching scenes that stuck with me. Nick speaking in Bahasa Indonesia to order saté from a street vendor. The view of the Marina Bay Sands hotel I used to walk around, admiring from afar. Seeing Mateo from Superstore play Oliver, a gay Asian who is not cast away or disowned by his very traditional family. The lines in Mandarin I can pick up from years of classes I received in school. Nick and his family fondly reminiscing as they made dumplings together. Astrid, who instead of begging her unhappy husband to stay with her as she did in the book, firmly states that it is not her “responsibility to make (him) feel like a man”. Fiona, who sassily rejects Eddie’s horrible attitude instead of receding to a timid demeanour as she did in the books. Rachel’s mother, who is a successful immigrant and single-mother after fleeing from her abusive husband. Her unwavering bond with Rachel.
As a conclusion, I’ll discuss the million dollar question: is the film better than the book? Well, it’s different. The book, I think, is as accurate as a representation of the Chinese diaspora can be. There are crude details left out of the film, most likely for rating reasons, that perfectly encapsulate both the drama and the vocabulary I’ve heard and encountered while growing up. The film, however, is what Love, Simon (which I highly recommend) is for gay people. It’s the ideal outcome. Rachel and Nick healthily communicates before the whole ordeal blows up, Rachel doesn’t attack her mother after she finds out about her father, the female characters are all strong and refuse to have their lives dictated by their husbands.
Either way, both stories consist of dramatic tales from a family so rich, logic says it should be an unreachable dream the middle class can fantasise about and buy into. Yet, I have never felt more connected to a story in my entire life. That’s because Crazy Rich Asians isn’t (just) an Asian Great Gatsby with unrealistic frivolity. It’s about family, identity, and love. That’s why I believe that despite it being an Asian story, Crazy Rich Asians will connect with everyone. Asian or not. Representation is very hard to explain to people who have been represented their whole lives (to the people who got to wear their blonde hair in top knots and stuff their pale feet into Ugg boots). When you have seen your identity defined time and time again through multidimensional, multifaceted characters, your identity would be just as unwavering as Rachel’s. Like every other story out there that features white leads, Crazy Rich Asians is a story about humans. But when you grow up watching human stories with humans that don’t look like you, you question your worth. Are you thin enough, tall enough, light-skinned enough, slender-nosed enough, big-eyed enough? Are you white enough to find the love and happiness the characters you grew up watching did? As an adult, I know now that I don’t have to be any of those things to find love and happiness, even though many of my insecurities still stem from that. But as a child, how I wish I had something like Crazy Rich Asians to show me that I was enough.
For an explanation of what menjelang means, check out my first Menjelang Favorites post from last month. For the break down of everything I've been into the past month-ish, look no further. I don't know what it is but I feel like I go through music phases. In the winter time, I'm really in to indie and alt music. In the summer time, especially nearing my birthday (August 12th, hit your Leo girl up!!!), I get really in to hip-hop and R&B hype music. It's like my inner Insta Baddie shines through as it gets closer to my birthday. Not really, I think it's just my inner extra Leo shining through.
Enough about my zodiac sign. Here are some really cool things you should check out because I like them. Hope you find something new. Or at least just something to distract yourself with so you can forget the fact that we're all slaves to capitalism and social constructs for a while. Cool.
Marcel The Shell with Shoes On - Created by Jenny Slate and her (ex?) husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp, Marcel The Shell with Shoes On is a web series + kid's story book (I think). Marcel is a tiny shell and he goes around the house he lives, showing an unseen interviewer his life. It's adorable, it's incredibly witty, and oddly calming. It's so Pure.
The Incredible Jessica James (2017) - Got Netflix? Stream it. Don't got Netflix? Putlocker it. Jessica James is an incredible role model and I am constantly telling myself to emulate her. She's honest and she's beautiful and she's struggling in the way everyone struggles and she's an awesome writer so get with it.
Your Name (2016) - To be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of Japanese movies/TV shows. I've tried, but I Just Don't Get It. Plus, cis women are so hyper sexualized in Japanese culture that the characters in animation always sound super breathy and it's just weird and it makes me uncomfortable. But, if you can get passed that and you're looking for something beautifully illustrated and a crazy plot that makes you go ?!?!?!?!?! then Your Name is perfect. It's about love and space and time and it's kind of nuts but I like it, and the cheesiness of the love story.
Her (2013)- This movie was great and weird and intriguing and beautiful. Love is such a wild human concept in itself so to pair that up with technology is like double thinking for me and I love thinking about societal concepts and the protagonists challenges just that. Coolio. I cried, if that makes it any more convincing.
Health documentaries on food (What The Health + That Sugar Film.) - These documentaries were so eye-opening. The food industry has been a hot topic on my mind for the last month because it's crazy. Yet another thing that the government has manipulated in the name of capitalism and we as members of the market are so blind that we sit there like zombies while we are literally trashing our bodies. To make matters worst, consumerism has been ingrained so deeply into our culture that it's unnatural to go vegan or to cut out refined sugar. Even the products that are marketed to be healthy/low fat/sugar-free are damaging!! Not to mention the ecological impact the food industry has. We really need to get educated on this and real fast too so we can stop romanticizing the foods that are essentially hurting us.
Youtube Videos -
Viners truly do suck but Enya is hilarious and her little rant is so entertaining, especially since everything she spews out is the literal truth.
Just watch it. You'll get it.
PRETTYMUCH - (Gossip Girl voice) New Boyband Alert! Word on the street Simon Cowell's got a new group of talented boys to fill the void One Direction left. Okay, back to Sel voice now. Not to be dramatic but I'm in love. Kidding. Not really. They've got major talent and they dance. With hip hop and R&B influences, It Boy hypeskater styles, and the fact that they're 3/5 POC will probably take them to the top. Also the fact that I can't seem to choose a fav to stan is really concerning. Anyways, their new single called Would You Mind is a consensual bop!
Billie Eilish - This girl. Hoooooooo my god, where do I even start?? I love teenage girls who make music with simple lyrics, deep themes, and dark undertones. Eilish talks about self-love (or lack thereof) in idontwanttobeyouanymore, romantic love (and lack thereof) in Party Favor, murdering her friends and her lover (which is probably a metaphor for violently cutting them out of her life) in Bellyache. She recently released her EP, Dont Smile at Me, and it's a freaking masterpiece. Listen to it. I love her.
MY PLAYLIST VIDEO!!! IS LIT!!! WATCH & LISTEN TO IT!!! -
Meet Me in The Cosmos by Jack Cheng - It's middle-grade Lit and I've only gotten a few pages in but it's already made me actually giggle out loud more than the other stuff I read. Told in transcripts of voice recordings eleven year old Alex makes, Cheng explores life on Earth through his protagonist who is very passionate about outer space and rockets.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas - Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Thomas explores the current racial climate in America. Starr, the protagonist, witnesses the shooting of her childhood best friend (done by a cop). Thomas also explores the two worlds Starr has to manoeuvre between as she goes to a fancy prep school but lives in a poor neighbourhood.
Spiderman: Homecoming fanfiction - Don't shame fanfiction. It's just as much art as mainstream literature. My favorite's Leyla's (spidereyhes on Tumblr) Skyline. There's so much on Tumblr and Archives of Our Own. My favorite AU is Stark!Reader x Peter Parker for obvious reasons.
Solid colors - I'm always in black. Always. I wore what I used to think was the ugliest greenest shirt I own. I ended up liking it. A mission of mine is to now be more in to colors. (Also I think I'm just succumbing to the current It Alt Artsy Skater Girl trend).
Fishnet socks - The fishnet tights trend is cute and all but let's be real here, sitting on a chair and having your butt press up against netting the whole day isn't cute. The socks are an easier alternative. They're not uncomfortable but still present themselves just to add a little edgy pizzazz. Yes, I just said the word pizzazz. Well, typed.
Cauliflower rice - My parents have been doing the Keto diet so they've been trying to find rice substitutes. My mom ended up making this cauliflower rice and it turned out sooooo good. It's a vegan substitute, too! Here's the recipe she used since I love you and I want to include you in this cool meal.
Vegan Cookie Dough - Cookie dough is amazing. Vegan cookie dough is even more amazing. If you live in the Jakarta/Tangerang area, @kookie.do is on Instagram and they've got the best vegan cookie dough that you definitely need to try out.
The second I saw that Luce Besson's Fantasy/Sci Fi, Valerian and The City of A Thousand Planets, was playing in theatres, I immediately convinced my entire family to watch it with me out of pure excitement. Prior to watching the movie, I had only seen the trailer and hadn't read any reviews. I vaguely remember the plot of the movie from the trailer—something about a human named Valerian who lives in outer space and needs to save the galaxy, or something. I thought it was just my horrible memory. After watching the movie, I realize that the plot was just weak in general
Menjelang is an Indonesian word with a few English translations, including 'approaching', 'towards', and 'near'. It gives a sense of almost, with an underlying promise that it will be. I always scribble my favorites down on random scraps of papers and notebooks midway through the end and the beginning of two different months. Most of the time my favorites are things that are still very new to my life (songs with lyrics I still need to memorize, books I still need to finish), but that's because discovering excites me. It is my favorite thing. This combined with the fact that I think I am utterly uninteresting, these lists are usually disregarded quickly. But I'm learning how to have enough confidence to share.
© Selena Soemakno. All rights served unless stated otherwise.