Years ago if you'd asked young, single Jen about her dream guy, the list would have been something like:
“White guy” wasn't on that list, but it was implied because I was a Midwestern suburban white girl who didn't have a lot of exposure to other cultures. When I imagined my future babies, they were blond-haired and blue-eyed.
I logged onto America Online one fateful night in the early 1990s and started a random chat session with a guy in New York City named Ebeneezer.
We met in a chat room devoted to 80s movies. We sat up late into the night discussing which John Hughes film was “like, totally the voice of our generation” and which Star Wars movie was the worst.
Soon our conversations veered away from movies and into our personal lives. Before you knew it, we were commiserating about dead-end jobs and sharing our hopes and dreams.
I found myself looking forward to our chats and many nights I'd choose to stay in so I could hang out online with Ebeneezer.
We'd been chatting for a few weeks when Ebeneezer asked me: “You're white, right?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Cool. I'm Chinese,” he replied.
I didn't respond right away, because I was embarrassed. Embarrassed by my assumptions. What is that delightful rhyme you are taught as a youngster about assuming? Yeah, I felt like that. I had assumed Ebeneezer was white too. It never occurred to me he wasn't, because I assumed that everyone was white unless they told me otherwise. Our first exchange was first names, ages, and locations. Neither of us had asked about ethnicity and we'd never seen a photo of one another. (Keep in mind, these were the 1990s, children, when Facebook was but a gleam in school-aged Mark Zuckerberg's eye and people didn't have smartphones with cameras. If you wanted a picture of yourself to show online, it was a whole thing. So instead, you chatted with strangers without knowing what they looked like. I know. Gasp!)
“Hello? Still there?” Ebeneezer asked.
I recalled conversations with friends where we discussed the hotness of boys in our class and whenever we'd get to an Asian boy someone would inevitably say, “Yeah, I'm not really into Asian guys. Like, Asian girls are pretty and I get why guys like them, but Asian boys just aren't my thing.” And we'd all nod like automatons. Ebeneezer's personality was huge and I found him interesting, entertaining, and intelligent, but I wasn't into Asian guys. Right? The blond Viking I'd imagined on the other end of the line was replaced with an image of Long Duk Dong, because that was the only vision I had. There had never been an Asian romantic lead I could conjure up. You're ridiculous, I told myself. You realize you're a chubby chick, right? I doubt “fluffy” is on Ebeneezer's must-have list and yet, here we are. If you two met at a party, you'd both think you're not into one another because of some dumb criteria you made up. Mr. Darcy can totally be Chinese, dummy!
“I'm here,” I replied.
Twenty-plus years later Ebeneezer and I have two kids together and I am very conscious of how they see themselves portrayed in pop culture. Over the years I've had several meetings about turning my People I Want to Punch in the Throat series of books into a television show. We'll get through the initial meetings where they tell me my voice is strong, unique, and different and how there's nothing else like it and then they'll drop the bomb: “The husband can't be Asian.”
“But these stories are nonfiction based on my real life,” I'll say. “My husband is Chinese American.”
At this point I'm given a few lame excuses, and once I heard, “Frankly, there are too many Asians on television. I can't sell it.”
I was furious and heartbroken. I raged, cried, and cursed.
My husband, on the other hand, sat quietly and watched me meltdown. When I was done and finally came up for breath, I wailed, “Why aren't you mad?”
He shrugged. “Because this is the way it is.”
When I stumbled upon Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians, the hilarious title immediately caught my eye. I read it in one sitting. After that, I recommended that book to anyone who asked (and even to people who didn't, because I'm annoying like that). I couldn't help myself. I'd finally found a book starring a sexy, intelligent, kind, charming Asian man at the center of a love story.
“You're just like Nick,” I told Ebeneezer. “Except he's rich.”
We are not a family who rushes out to the theater on opening day of any movie. We don't like to put on pants and leave our house and we don't like crowds, but I was ready to make an exception for Crazy Rich Asians. Unfortunately, the release date coincided with the first day of school. We had so much going on, I didn't see how we could make it work. I almost postponed when the phrase, “Representation matters” popped into my head.
I'd heard that phrase over and over again from the diverse group of writers I follow online. But what did it really mean? I see myself in almost every family sitcom or fabric softener ad. But what about my family? I went online and I found four tickets for an afternoon showing on opening day.
I texted the kids to come out of school right away and we were the first car in the pickup line.
When my two bewildered kids climbed in the car, my son asked, “Why the all caps texts?”
“We're going to see Crazy Rich Asians,” I said. “Buckle up, we have 18 minutes until show time.”
“But it's a school night,” my daughter protested.
“And I have baseball practice,” my son argued.
“We have a two and half hour break,” I said.
My son shook his head. “What is going on, Mom? Why are you acting like this?”
Ebeneezer nodded. “Yeah, why are you making such a big deal? I'm Asian and I'm not as excited as you.”
That's because my husband gave up long ago. If he wants to see an Asian leading man, he will watch action movies from Hong Kong or Korean dramas. But I refused to give in and accept that as the future for my children. “I'm making a big deal because it is a big deal. I want you three to see what it feels like to see yourselves on the big screen and not as the Kung Fu specialist in a bank heist movie.”
Ebeneezer rolled his eyes but didn't argue. (He knows better by now.)
A few hours later, as we sat in a dark theater watching a handsome Asian man sweep a beautiful Asian woman off her feet, I glanced at my family. There were tears in my husband's eyes. My stoic, unflappable Chinese husband was crying. My son, who has the attention span of a gnat, was riveted by the story. And my daughter, the adventurous one, whispered, “I want to go to Singapore!”
Was the movie great? Did it live up to the book? Honestly, I have no idea. I wasn't even watching the movie with that in mind. I was there to support my family. I was there to show them that they matter and their stories matter.
Crazy Rich Asians didn't have the same impact on my kids as it did Ebeneezer, because they're being raised in a multicultural world where books and movies feature protagonists who look like them. Of course, it's a very small portion of what's being produced and there aren't enough of them, so that's why it's so important to shine a light and celebrate them when they're made. That's why I jumped through hoops and squeezed every last minute out of our schedule that day. We all needed that. Even me. I realize there wasn't a plump white lady in Nick's arms, but I needed to see other white women in our crowded movie theater swooning over an Asian leading man. I needed them to see what I see what I already know: Asian guys are hot too.
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