Commentary
By Chris Karnadi 9-07-2018

The rift between rich and poor runs deeply through the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. A recent Pew study reveals that Asians, as a whole, “rank as the highest earning racial and ethnic group in the U.S.” But the top 10 percent of AAPI persons earn 10.7 times the amount of those in the bottom 10 percent.

Significant educational disparities also exist between subgroups of Asians in the U.S. Less than 10 percent of those from countries like Korea and India have less than a high school diploma while the percentage jumps to 38 percent for many Southeast Asian groups. There is a large rift between rich and poor in the AAPI community for both economic earning and educational attainment.

This great divide plays out in the summer hits Crazy Rich Asians and Sorry to Bother You. The two films are very different, but the differences are in fact important for Asian American representation in film precisely because the community is so diverse and often divided.

The importance of Crazy Rich Asians is obvious—this is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve paid to see faces like mine in a mainstream U.S. theater. The romcom led by Constance Wu has broken a mild industry record, become the most lucrative romantic comedy in six years, and earned promises of a sequel. The real wealth of the film, however, lies in the exploration of family values within Asian cultures.

Wu’s character, Rachel Chu, an economics professor at NYU, goes to Singapore to meet her boyfriend Nick Young’s family. Upon arrival she is brutally blindsided by the familial expectations of the absurdly wealthy Youngs, the real estate tycoons of Asia. Rachel is scorned by both matriarchs of the Young family because of her background as an Asian American raised by a single mother but she holds her heritage proudly. This type of plot driven by conflicting ideas of familial honor and loyalty is a type of Asian representation which is just as important as the composition of the cast itself.

Sorry to Bother You is also important for the AAPI family because of Squeeze, the character played by Steven Yeun. The Boots Riley debut is a dark comedy skewering capitalism through an absurdist lens. Cassius “Cash” Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield, is a telemarketer earning marginal commission promoted into a “power caller” selling slave labor and earning millions. Yeun’s character is integral to the plot of the movie and organizes the telemarketers into a union, demanding wages and benefits.

Although Cash leaves his post as “power caller,” Squeeze sets the foundation for labor’s liberation in the film. Crucial for representation of Asians in film, Yeun’s character is devoid of an Asian gimmick. He doesn’t speak with some overbaked accent tied to a one-dimensional idea of Asianness; he speaks as a leader and forces unjust labor practices into the light. This type of moral integrity and economic responsibility is crucial for Asian representation in film.

When juxtaposed, these movies represent the duality of AAPI experience in economy and education. Some of us are indeed Cambridge-educated real estate moguls or NYU professors of game theory, but many of us are telemarketers without a college education. There are some of us that are indeed crazy rich, but there are also many of us struggling to earn just wages, pay our bills, and feed our families.

My mother tells me a story about my grandmother who grew up in rural south China. When my grandmother was nine, her parents left her and two of her younger siblings with their grandmother with the hope of earning a living wage in Indonesia. Forced by the cost of school and the time needed to take care of her younger siblings, my grandmother finished her formal education after the second grade. Separated by thousands of miles, her parents would send money for necessities and the occasional gift.

Once, my grandmother received a small packet of pencils. Feeling the weight of such a gift, she split a pencil lengthwise to make it last longer, gave a half to her younger brother, and hid the rest for safekeeping. A few days later, robbers came in the night and stole everything from the family, including food, furniture, and those precious pencils. The next day they had to beg for supplies to last them until their parents would send more money.

Now, fast forward almost a century. I’m in my final semester of a graduate program, swimming in privilege. I am about to graduate with a master’s degree that costs upwards of $150,000. These are the extremes in the Asian American experience. In some ways, my family’s story is Sorry to Bother You meets Crazy Rich Asians.

We used to be the poor Asians struggling to earn any money to feed our families, but at some point, we became the rich Asians. We own half a dozen houses and meet in Berlin for New Year’s. Yes, my grandparents and parents worked hard to get here, but that should never blind us to those who came to the U.S. from the same part of the world and suffer without living wages.

I’m glad to see myself on screen. I really am. Seeing representation of my story and family in Crazy Rich Asians is a pleasure, but it also reminds me of my haunting privilege. Some of us are indeed wealthy, but that’s not all of us. That’s precisely why we also need the representation in Sorry to Bother You to remind us that a large portion of our community remains in poverty and demands justice.

Chris Karnadi is a culture and religion writer currently studying at Duke Divinity School. His bylines include Presbyterian Outlook, Yale’s Glossolalia, and DJBooth. Follow him on Twitter

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"Asian Representation Needs Both 'Crazy Rich Asians' and 'Sorry to Bother You'"
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