New York Comic Con 2018 and Thoughts on the Asian-American Experience

New York Comic Con is the only non-explicitly Japan-focused convention I typically attend. In that respect, it gives me an opportunity to explore in greater detail the aspects of comics and media fandom that I normally prioritize less. This year, while I did my fair share of anime and manga-related activities—namely see Son Goku’s esteemed voice actress Nozawa Masako—my main takeaway from NYCC 2018 was that the shifting cultural landscape beneath the United States at this moment is of the utmost importance in comics and entertainment.

I went to many events during the convention, but the main stand-out was Super Asian America. A Q&A and discussion about Asian-Americans in comics, animation, and related media, the panel featured a bevy of guests: comics writer Marjorie Liu (Monstress), actor Ryan Potter (Hiro in Big Hero 6), comics writer Greg Pak (creator of Amadeus Cho), Kickstarter publishing’s Camilla Zhang, comics creator Nidhi Chanani, and host Mike Le. Much of the discussion was about the surprisingly good year that Asian-Americans have experienced in the entertainment industry between the successes of Crazy Rich Asians, To All The Boys I’ve Ever Loved, and Searching. The main takeaway was that this is a good step, but that convincing the Hollywood machine that falling back on its old racist and conservative mindset for “safety” reasons is going to take a lot more. Moreover, the United States as it currently stands is a troubling place for non-white ethnic groups, and this fight extends to more than just movies and TV shows.

I’ve long struggled with an unfortunate truth: many Asians, especially from older generations, are extremely racist. Readers might be wondering what this has to do with New York Comic Con, but my view of my fellow Asian-Americans is not always charitable. It always saddens me to see a kind of “we Asians need to get ahead” mindset that seems to come at the expense of others, the kind of attitude that encourages ingratiating ourselves to white people and avoiding association with other ethnic groups. So for years, I’ve seen those struggles for better representation in Hollywood and such, and felt myself being a bit skeptical. “How many of these people are really thinking about equality and opportunities for all?” Now I realize I’ve been conflating more than a few things that should be considered separate yet loosely related.

It is true that many Asians living in the US have been racist, and have tried to emulate “white success” to some degree. It’s also true that the Asian communities often focus on themselves to almost a deleterious degree, ignoring the reality of the politics surrounding us. However, the fight for better representation of Asians and Asian-Americans on screens and pages big and small is itself a fight against the racism that lingers within our communities among fellow Asians. There are generations of stereotypes that Asians have to fight against, like being weak and ineffectual compared to rugged European folk (unless we’re doing martial arts), and the sooner we remove the seeming need to graft the problematic elements of white privilege onto our own identities, the sooner we can make all Asian-Americans feel like they don’t have to conform to others’ ideas of who we can be.

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Crazy Rich Asians: A Transcending Asian Experience

I am not and likely will never be even remotely as wealthy as the characters depicted in Crazy Rich Asians. So, when I first approached the original book by Kevin Kwan, I expected on some level to be repulsed by the story. I assumed it would some kind of materialistic fantasy ready to show the common folk how glamorous being in the most upper of crusts could be, and while that still holds true to a limited extent, the Crazy Rich Asians novel (first in a trilogy) feels very real to me and my experience growing up Asian, even if my family bought more Ferrero Rocher than actual jewelry. Now, having seen the film adaptation, I’m generally pleased with the outcome, as it captures much of what makes Crazy Rich Asians feel authentic, albeit in a simplified/condensed manner owing to differences in medium.

The premise of Crazy Rich Asians is largely the same in both book and film format. Rachel Chu is a young Chinese-American professor living in New York City with her boyfriend, Nick Young. Nick is going to be the best man at his friend’s wedding, and he asks Rachel to come with him to Singapore to meet his friends and family. Rachel understands that meeting Nick’s parents is a big step, but what she doesn’t realize is that Nick’s world is so glitzy that it almost seems like a fairy tale. However, with high wealth comes high standards, and Rachel gets to see how people of all stripes handle money and prestige while also dealing with not being good enough for Nick’s mom.

When I first read the novel, one thing that struck me was that even though the amount of money being tossed around was so beyond anything I’d ever experienced in my life, it still felt very close to home in terms of my own Asian family, Asian childhood, and interactions with Asian culture. Whether it’s dealing with my parents comparing me endlessly to my cousins, the pressure to do the responsible thing to support and uphold the family, or feeling like the old values and my values could never fully reconcile, what Crazy Rich Asians says to me is, “Even though the scale is different, these characters are people like you who have gone through the same ups and downs in life.”

It reminds me of another work about a Chinese-American protagonist, The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew. In that comic book, the main character’s mother embraces the notion of her son becoming a superhero with the zest that many an Asian parent has about classically reliable professions like doctor and engineer. In a similar vein, Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t just show Asians being high rollers, it shows how Asian values interact with wealth, and how different types of people within that sphere are affected by the consequences.

In that regard, I find the book’s ability to delve into the minds and hearts of its colorful cast to do a better job of depicting those contrasts and perspectives. Readers really get to see how each and every character handles wealth differently, and it really reinforces the idea that there’s really no “one way of being Asian” in the end. The film version carries that sentiment as well, but focuses its depiction of the pressures of being crazy rich Asians (and the social pressures that come part and parcel with that status) mostly on Nick Young. It gets the point across, just not as deeply.

There’s one scene in the book that’s absent from the film whose presence I sorely missed, which is when the reader learns about Nick’s grandfather. I don’t want to spoil too much, especially in case a sequel addresses this omission, but one of the important takeaways is that the goodness of Nick’s grandfather transcended wealth—a quality that Nick himself possesses.

Crazy Rich Asians is a milestone. As mentioned all over, it’s the first mostly-Asian cast for a Hollywood film since 1993’s Joy Luck Club. While I believe the book to be the more rewarding experience (because of how it allows readers to dive into the depths of its world, its characters, and their complex relationships with both money and Asian culture), the film strikes the right tone overall. As an Asian, and as someone who loves visual media, I am proud that this movie is a symbol of the Asian experience.