The default in our own stories | Editorial

Senior editor Samantha Pak reflects on what representation in media means to her.

Pak headshot

Pak headshot

There once was a little girl who loved stories.

She loved reading them — whether they were about adventures in far off lands or suburban kids and their everyday lives. This love eventually led to the girl’s love of writing stories, which in time, led to her working as a journalist when she grew up.

This is the CliffsNotes version of (one part) of my life but if I had just read this as anyone else’s career path, the first image of this individual that would come to my mind would be that of a young white girl. There are no descriptions about the girl’s physical appearance or any indication about what her racial or ethnic background could be. This girl could have had any sort of background. She could have had my background. Since it is me, she does have my background.

And yet, without the right descriptors and qualifiers, I am not even the default in my own mind for my own story.

This is the power of representation — or in my experience, the lack thereof.

It is for this reason (among others) that I was so excited when I learned that Kevin Kwan’s novel, “Crazy Rich Asians” was going to be made into a film. The story is about a woman who meets her boyfriend’s family for the first time, only to learn they are richer than King Midas. And as with any good romantic comedy, hilarity, conflict and heartbreak ensue before the couple ends up back together.

As a lifelong bookworm and someone who came of age in the 2000s, the excitement of seeing a story go from the page to the big screen is not new. But I have usually reserved my opening night (and midnight) screenings to a certain boy wizard. When it comes to most other films, I have no problem waiting till they are available to rent. And while I do enjoy rom-coms, I could take them or leave them.

But “Crazy Rich Asians” is different. When the movie’s release date of Aug. 15 was announced, I had no doubt that I would be there opening night. And when I learned there would be a special screening one week before the official release, I was there.

Because as the title implies, it’s a story with Asian characters.

For someone who has spent a lifetime with hardly any substantial representation of herself in mainstream media, this is huge.

And it’s not just me.

All summer, my social media feeds have been filled with people posting about their excitement for the movie’s release (one friend whose honeymoon coincides with this week’s release date even told me how she was conflicted about trying to squeeze in time to watch the film while she and her new husband are in Bali). And it hasn’t just been my Asian American “civilian” friends. Many of the celebrities, journalists and authors of Asian descent I follow on Twitter have also shared what it means to them that this film even exists.

These are full-grown adults of all ages — from their early 20s to middle aged and beyond — who are excited to see themselves in a movie in which no one is doing martial arts or fleeing a war-torn country. A friend who I went to see the movie with whispered to me that she thought she might cry at the sight of so many faces like ours on the big screen.

This is not some epic fantasy or science fiction adventure. It’s not the next “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings.”

So what does this say about our society that we have generations of people getting hyped over a rom-com like it could be?

This is not a period piece. This is a big studio, contemporary film featuring an all-Asian cast. The last time this happened was 1993 with “The Joy Luck Club.” I was 7.

In addition, unlike many stories featuring Asian characters in the past, no one is struggling to overcome extreme hardships or trying to assimilate to the Western world so their new life would be easier. In fact, it’s the opposite. These characters are living their best lives in unimaginable extravagance (we’re talking not even blinking at purchasing $1.2 million earrings). In addition, the heroine of the story, Chinese American economics professor Rachel Chu played by Constance Wu, is deemed a bad match for her boyfriend Nick Young — not because she doesn’t come from money but because she’s American.

“Sweet Home Alabama,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and “13 Going on 30” were good fun but people weren’t buying out entire theaters (as they did with “Black Panther”) to ensure anyone who wants to see it can and to ensure its success. How those films performed in the box office did not determine whether more films featuring white characters would be made.

But that is the reality of “Crazy Rich Asians.” The film’s success can determine whether more projects featuring Asian performers and Asian and Asian American stories are made.

And they need to be made. Because we Asians are not all the same. The Asian American experience is very different from that of Asians in Asia. The characters in this film are mostly ethnic Chinese, living in Singapore. And much of the few films and TV shows out there already — including Netflix’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” based on Jenny Han’s young adult novel of the same name (released Aug. 17) and “Searching,” starring John Cho (out Aug. 24) — tend to reflect East Asians.

My family hails from Cambodia in Southeast Asia — a part of the continent that has even less representation and when it does, it is typically focused on the Vietnam War with other countries in the region barely getting a mention.

As “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu has said, “It’s not a movie. It’s a movement.”

That movement is to create more content representing groups who have historically been underrepresented — whether that’s Asians and other people of color, the LGBTQ community or people living with disabilities.

And as my career has gone on, this has also become one of my missions as a journalist. I know what it means to not see yourself reflected in the stories we all consume or to see only one version (i.e. a stereotype) portrayed.

As journalists, it is our job to tell the stories of the communities we cover. And that means telling the stories of as many people in those communities as we can. But we can’t tell those stories if we don’t know about them.

So if you feel there is a story out there that needs to be told, let us know.

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