“As my father always says, the only way to get these ang mor kow sai to respect you is to smack them in the face with your tua lun zhiao money until they get on their knees.” — Charlie Wu, Crazy Rich Asians (Kevin Kwan, 2013)
I. King For A Day
There are two kinds of gay party hosts: those who welcome add-ons graciously, and those who air-kiss their friends and then only the tag-alongs they want to fuck. At a birthday party a friend dragged me to, I received little more than a half-introduction to the back of the guest of honour’s head.
I stationed myself by the vodka and the cantaloupe and honeydew chunks. After ninety minutes, having demolished anything edible, I sunk into the couch waiting for my friend. We were to split cab fare. Then a man struck up a conversation.
I hadn’t noticed him before, but he was different from the other guests. First of all, he was gorgeous. A Brazilian swimmer. He was closer in age to me than to the puffy-faced white 40-somethings, and he wore a cashmere sweater that breathlessly clung to him.
After being mostly ignored all night, he was a salve. He found my being a writer interesting. He spoke English well but wanted to improve, and suggested we meet up for a lesson. He grabbed my phone to enter his number.
And then: “You know,” he said, “I don’t normally find Asians attractive, but I really like you.” You could pinpoint the moment my face froze into mild horror, Ralph Wiggum after Valentine’s Day.
Was this a compliment? It was obviously intended as a compliment. He looked at me like it was a compliment. “I really like you.” That would have been enough, right? No need to qualify the statement, just as there’s never a need to say someone looks good for their age. “You look great... for sixty.” Lovely. I’m thrilled you’re not a pile of bones yet, champ!
In one sense, this made me a pioneer. I could break—or bang?—new ground. But, is being king of shit mountain actually an honour?
II. A McDonald’s In Savannah
As a child, the last week of August was reserved for a visit to Disney World.
My vacation memories consist of nabbing signatures from cartoon characters, watching horror movies on VHS with my mom, and a particular trip to McDonald’s while en route. Our family had a minivan and the 2,062-kilometre drive would take a day and a half with an overnight stay, usually at a sketchy motel outside Charlotte. The adults would line the floor with towels before letting us enter the room.
One of the best parts of the drive was anticipating the stop for McDonald’s along the way. We ate a lot of Western food at home, but any opportunity to eat those thin, salty French fries felt like a particular reward.
We stopped at one outside Savannah; a nice thing about giant chains is the familiarity of the restaurants. Everything looked like the franchise we had in Markham, and we marched in, all in a row. I guess in the early ‘90s, a parade of Chinese—even Canadianized ones—was a rarity in the south: upon seeing us, the patrons froze in place, stiff as the animatronics in the Hall of Presidents.
Back home, I had learned of the dodo bird and its sad extinction. My classmates and I would chatter about what we would do if we could see one in person. Under those big golden arches, in the temple of Ronald McDonald, I got a sense of how that might feel—for the dodo bird, that is.
Whenever I revisit this memory, a funny thing happens: all I can see are the reactions of the black families. Even at that young age, I knew why our family was a spectacle, but I felt betrayed by the gawking. After all, weren’t they minorities too?
Already, I saw the world as whites and non-whites, and naturally that meant black and yellow people were on the same team. And you just don’t do that to teammates, right?
III. Margaret Cho and Crazy Rich Asians
In 1994, All-American Girl aired on the television network ABC.
Girl was the first prime-time show in North America to focus on an Asian family featuring an Asian cast. As a pre-teen, I didn’t fully recognize its significance, but I still knew it was a big deal. Other than on the Chinese channels, people who looked like me didn’t appear on television.
Not to overstate the impact of media, of course, but our relationship to race is experiential: the more diversity we encounter, the better we’re equipped to dispel the Otherness that divides. An estimated three million Chinese live in America, a mere million more than Canada despite having 11 times the population. For many, their primary (if any) exposure to Asians would be through the media.
On the gay hookup app Grindr, there are users who signify disinterest in men of South and East Asian descent by writing “no curry” and “no rice.” The invisibility of Asians means they don’t show up as romantic leads or become porn rock-stars. They’re reduced to food.
Cho herself is not immune to this standard of beauty. Years after the show—which tanked under the pressure of trying to represent everything to everyone—she was a guest on a radio show where the male host asked her what she would do if she “woke up tomorrow and you were beautiful?” Stunned, she asked him to clarify.
“What if you woke up tomorrow and you were blonde, and you had blue eyes, and you were 5’11”, and you weighed 100 pounds, and you were beautiful? What would you do?” he asked.
In her aptly named standup tour Beautiful, she related the story. “I felt sorry for him, because if that’s the only kind of person you think is beautiful, you must not see very much beauty at all in the world.” I wonder if more Lucy Lius, BD Wongs, and Daniel Dae Kims could make a difference.
I thought the same thing after finishing Kevin Kwan’s new novel, Crazy Rich Asians. The book is an easy beach read about a celebrity wedding set in the extravagant world of super-rich Chinese high society—the women sniff at men worth only a few hundred million—and the politics and power struggles within the dynastic clans. What I find more fascinating, however, is its promotion.
Amazingly, the book with its Asian cast isn’t being slotted in the ethnic aisle alongside the coconut milk and corn tortillas. The book is being positioned as a blockbuster. There are pop-up shops and a Vogue excerpt. In the promotional material, it is compared to Downton Abbey and The Devil Wears Prada. Sure, maybe it’ll still find itself king of shit mountain and get gawked at in a Savannah McDonald’s, but it heralds the change to come.
Asian models are storming the catwalks—of the top 15 women listed on industry site Models.com, three have Eastern heritages. Korean pop appears destined to crossover. Yes, sure, Psy was gimmicky, but he’s just part of the first wave, along with 2NE1 and SNSD. And, the Momofuku empire is storming the culinary scene, whipping food lovers into a frenzy over its inventiveness: Paula Deen it ain’t. It feels like a cavalry I had never expected—nor necessarily thought I needed—is suddenly on its way.
In the DVD commentary for All-American Girl, Cho confesses she doesn’t think another show about an Asian American family will happen again. Now, more than ever, I can absolutely believe that she is wrong.