Growing Up A Crazy Broke Asian

A major theme I sincerely appreciated about Crazy Rich Asians that made the film so personal for me is how the film gave space to explore the conflict between passion and duty as it pertains to the Asian American experience. For Michelle Yeoh’s character, Eleanor, abandoning one’s duty and chasing one’s passion was something extremely characteristic of Americans. The idea then of doing the opposite, placing one’s duty over passion, was quintessential to the definition of being Asian. It was a classic zero-sum game situation, one that game theorist Rachel Chu (Constance Wu’s character) knew too intimately in her life.

These are tensions I struggle with everyday too, especially as someone who has had to grapple with not feeling like I belong in either Asian or American circles. Like the characters in Crazy Rich Asians, I have dealt with identity issues around passion-versus-duty and Asian authenticity, but unlike them, I had to deal with all that while growing up as a poor kid. I was raised on welfare. In other words, this is a piece about growing up as a crazy broke Asian, how that has intersected with the conflict of my passion and duty, and how this film gave me some hope for future Asian Americans who have to grapple with the same dilemma.

I was born in Oakland and raised in East Oakland, at a time when our city, and its people, were labeled as one of the most undesirable ghettos and people of America. This was where I proudly called my home though, where you could at once experience the symphony of hip hop coupled with the smells of weed, the jingles from the Helados popsicle cart, and soggy chow mien. (Aside: shout out to all the folks from the Dirty 30s, and shout out to my block on the 4100s. I see you, miss you, and love you.)

Despite the allure of its soundscape, my family was always clear with me: this life of relying on Section 8 and Medi-Cal (California’s Medicare program for low-income families) was a future I should not bank on. Being on public assistance and poor was a moral shame my family taught me to hide. My duty was to get out of poverty, my oldest sister said, to do whatever it took to propel my life out of our economic samsara.

Nothing about getting out of this poverty trap in Oakland was simple though, especially the one option I had to get out: education. I was unlucky enough to go to Oakland’s public school system when our district had an unprecedented streak of mismanagement that resulted in: a bankruptcy and a state takeover, unqualified and glossy-eyed Teach for America teachers flying in from around the country to shore up vacancies in our faculty, and our schools begging families of students to each bring in a ream of paper so we could simply print our homework. How were we expected to succeed if we did not have the tools to perform? This was my America: dysfunctional, hopeless, and unfair.

I had an escape from this environment though, and that was filmmaking. I was enamored with all aspects of film: criticism, production, and above all its medium that was captivating enough to tell the stories I saw in my life, coupled with the power to move audiences to action. I took every chance I had to expose myself to film. In middle school my teacher and schoolmates started a film production non-profit, I won a scholarship to take a film studies course at UC Berkeley, and I would bus myself to an after school program dedicated to filmmaking in Downtown Oakland. In high school, I even begged my film teacher to let me enroll in the 12th grade digital film class a year early. I was determined to make filmmaking my academic discipline and career.

One day my oldest sister and mom sat me down and asked me what I was going to study in college. Film studies, I proudly proclaimed, I am going to make movies in Hollywood for a living! With a deep sigh, my oldest sister mentioned that her and my mom just discussed this topic amongst themselves and thought I was wasting my time. I would never make it in Hollywood. How many directors or films do you see that are made by Asians, my sister questioned, you will not succeed because it will be too difficult. Think about your well-being in the future, your “tương lai”, or else you will not have one.

Those words destroyed me. I struggled so much the first couple years at UC Berkeley as I pushed myself away from film. I tried to rebel: my first couple classes were in film studies, I joined my school’s TV production club, and I even took a 3D graphics class in my CS department to try and bridge a future with film that might be a bit more palatable to my family. I thought I could make this work: a world where both my family and I were proud of what I was pursuing.

That rebelliousness crumbled though under the weight of my responsibilities. You might think going to college and being away from home might make accomplishing my passions easier, but the security of college only made my duty more apparent. For the first time in my life, I did not live in East Oakland. I lived in a dorm room with working windows, where the only gunshots were those from the football team’s cannon, and where cars did not get locked up with anti-steering locks. Being lifted out of poverty only made me more acutely aware of my family’s situation at home, and to my duty to do whatever I could to lift them with me. That meant finding a very practical career path, but that also meant giving up film.

My last film was aptly named Glimpse, a feeling of escapism that follows me every day I am not behind a camera.

I sincerely hope the success of Crazy Rich Asians not only inspires more aspiring Asian American artists, but gives confidence to the families and friends around those artists that never thought their stories were worth telling. I sometimes reflect on the consequences of growing up broke, the decisions that kids have to make to secure a future for their families, and the dreams and art they give up in doing so. I have met these kids and I know them because they are me in tech, film, or politics. Perhaps they may be you. It is with all my hope that we fight for the day that none of us have to deprive the world of the diversity of narrative that my community desperately needs.