As the release date of “Crazy Rich Asians” draws ever nearer, articles pop up every now and again praising Kevin Kwan’s firm stance against Whitewashing his cast — especially the main female lead, Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu).
While the novel’s name would make it seem like an all-Asian cast is a no-brainer, that wasn’t always the case; as the story goes, a producer approached Kwan with the idea to make Chu’s character a White woman, to which Kwan adamantly refused, insisting that Chu remained Chinese-American.
“They almost screamed when talking about changing the main character to a White woman.” Kwan said in an interview with Nextshark, recounting the reactions he received from a book club full of White women. “One of them said, ‘No, why does Hollywood think we always want to see the same five people up on the big screen!?’
On the surface, Kwan’s comment is absolutely and simply true; studies show that movies bursting with diversity make beaucoup bucks, while movies that Whitewash their characters seem to crash and burn. Dig a little deeper, however, and it becomes abundantly clear just how important it is that Chu’s character remains Asian — if Rachel Chu suddenly became Rachel Churchill, “Crazy Rich Asians” would have been a completely different story, as the dynamics of a White girl introduced into a rich Asian household differ dramatically than that of an Asian-American girl’s.
As someone who speaks from personal experience, you can trust me on this one.
When I was in college, I dated a type similar to Nick Young — not the richest man in Singapore, mind you, but a Taiwanese-American man whose family was seriously wealthy. Wei* had more money than he knew what to do with, so he spent most of his time buying fine art, drinking expensive wines, and ordering enough food to fill an entire table (but never actually finishing any of it). His parents were similar — his father collected houses (yes, houses), and his jet-setting mother always seemed to be on exquisite vacations. The two of them effortlessly put Wei through the best schools and he was able to secure a fantastic job at a dream company in a fun industry. He never went without, and his only real problem was figuring out how to spend his free time (and money).
I was initially drawn to him because we shared common interests, despite him being ten years my senior; we liked the same music, video games, and his sense of humor always had me rolling on the floor in tears. As the months went by, I’d believed that we were a perfect match — when we got to the point that we were finishing each other’s sentences, I had convinced my 19-year-old self that we were practically the same person. But I could never have imagined how wrong I was — how drastically different our respective universes were — until I flew to Taiwan to meet his family.
Wei’s brother had gotten married a year prior to his mainlander wife and decided to hold a reception in his hometown, Taipei. Wei and I were living in California at the time, so Wei’s father decided to fly the both of us out to Taiwan for the reception. Not only would I be meeting Wei’s parents for the first time, but I’d be meeting his entire extended family, close friends, and even his father’s business partners and important acquaintances. I was nervous about making a first impression and had hoped that my shortcomings, such as my inability to speak Mandarin and my young age, wouldn’t reflect poorly on Wei and his family. Little did I know that there was one thing about me that made up for any flaws I may have had — my Whiteness.
Although I’d been living with Wei for almost a year up until that point, it never really occurred to me that he was wealthier than your average 29-year-old until we arrived at the airport. As we sat in the first class lounge waiting to board, I realized that there was a completely different world within the airport I’d frequented all my life. Had this ambient, dimly lit room with leather couches and open bar always been here? I looked to Wei, hoping my puzzled expression would prompt an explanation from him, but he seemed unfazed as he ordered a second glass of wine.
My apprehension didn’t subside on the plane, despite the added comfort and extra leg room first class seating offered. An entire speed-run of Super Mario World helped a bit, but I was still worried about how his parents would receive me once we reached our destination. It wasn’t until we landed in Taiwan that I felt a bit better — not just because we could soon take a nap, but because I quickly realized all my fears had been for naught.
Wei’s parents spotted us first, waving furiously as we made our way to baggage claim. His mother rushed over and brought me into a big hug. “Hello! Oh, hao piao liang (very pretty)!” she exclaimed, retreating to tussle my fine, golden hair. She turned to Wei and embraced him tightly. Wei’s father hugged me as well, greeting me just as warmly as Wei’s mother.
And just like that, my worries and apprehension completely dissipated; my Mandarin was limited, but I knew enough to know that they had been pleased with what they’d seen so far — and from what I could gather, that was, quite literally, just my race and my face.
Those two features, in that order, would come to define me and dictate how others treated me throughout the entirety of my stay in Taiwan. While Wei was unimpressed with these qualities (“that ‘new White girl smell’ wore off a few White girls ago”, he’d sarcastically remarked), everyone else around us seemed taken with me despite my inability to offer anything of actual value. I couldn’t carry a conversation, but I was the center of attention. I didn’t make any money, but I was blonde. I would never have been able to survive in this country on my own, but I was White.
Although I liked the extra attention at first, it became unsettling after a while — attention was fine, but the reasoning behind it was cringe-worthy. It was embarrassing to have people play with my hair or ask to take pictures of me. Wei’s parents seemed to enjoy the experience; his father chuckled at being mistaken for a tour guide or a celebrity manager and would excitedly chatter with Wei each time someone wanted a photo with me. Wei’s mother had given me a nickname that loosely translated to “Barbie” and constantly bought me expensive gifts. Their extended family cooed and complimented Wei for being able to “snag a White girl” (so to speak). Wei was amused, a feeling of schadenfreude at my expense engulfing him each and every time someone showered us with undeserved praise.
My embarrassment soon turned to guilt, however, when I saw how my experience was vastly different than Fang’s*, Wei’s new sister-in-law. While I was constantly given heaping portions of delicious foods, Fang was served after me, sometimes even asked to serve me before being able to take food for herself. When resting in front of the TV as a group, the family chose channels they thought I’d like. If Fang complained, she was brusquely told that she had the option to leave the room. If they thought I was tired, I was offered coffee, or a pillow, or a blanket — whatever I wanted. Wei’s parents seemed to want to move heaven and Earth for me, but didn’t seem as eager to do the same for Fang.
Of course, I wasn’t really aware of a lot of this — I didn’t speak Mandarin, so I only learned this much later after Wei told me bits and pieces of an entire day’s conversation he barely remembered. And I don’t think his parents intentionally meant to treat me better than their official daughter-in-law. But I do believe that I was pampered more than Fang simply because of our respective races — being White, nothing was really expected of me. But Fang was Chinese, and she had to insert herself into the social structure that she’d known her whole life.
It was Fang who had to worry about pleasing Wei’s parents.
It was Fang who had to be smart, beautiful, intelligent, and have a good job.
It was Fang who had to take on the role expected of a Chinese daughter-in-law.
Heather had no expectations set.
Heather got to do as she pleased, when she pleased.
Heather got a free pass for being a blonde, White girl.
And as far as they were concerned, I could do no wrong.
They weren’t mad at me when I turned up my nose at shark fin soup, complaining that it tasted like dusty books.
They weren’t upset when I spoke in broken Mandarin, trying to convey that “wo de pigu hao da”, rudely declining his mother’s offer to buy me Asian-sized clothing.
They weren’t offended (overtly, at least) when I failed to grasp the concept of keqi, eagerly accepting a Burberry wallet and other designer goods while shamefully giving nothing in return.
I didn’t understand a lot of what was being said around me, but I was aware of a few occasions where I had messed up; despite this, they still attended to my every need, over-complimenting me whenever they could.
It got to a point where I wanted to hide from his family. I’d come to really love them, especially his mother, but the guilt of being attended to over Fang never went away. This was supposed to be her wedding reception trip — the focus should have been on her. All praise, adoration, and kindness belonged to her on this trip, yet it was being offered in spades. Each time I heard “hao piao liang!” I cringed. Each time someone asked for my photo, I felt like crawling into a hole. Each time people circled around me, leaving Fang to the side, I felt like the most horrible human being on the planet. The worst part for me? I couldn’t escape it. I couldn’t remove my Whiteness, like a mask or a coat, to make the near-worshiping stop, allowing Fang her time to shine. I had to live with the guilt, eating at my insides, until our feet once again touched the ground in California.
Although Wei’s family possessed more money than I could probably even imagine, they were pleased with me for something that wasn’t even noteworthy. I had been accepted into their home as easily as I had brushed my teeth or combed my hair that morning. There was no unimpressed tiger mother judging me, deeming me inferior because I was enrolled in a no-name university or that I came from extremely humble means. It didn’t matter that I wore cheap perfume or carried an off-brand purse. She, along with the rest of the family, quickly accepted me, a 19-year-old broke-ass college student, because I was a blonde White girl. It’s hard to imagine they did the same for Fang.
I can’t speak for all White women who date Chinese men, and I certainly wouldn’t deign to speak for Chinese families, but I believe that, if Rachel Chu’s character was Whitewashed, a more accurate portrayal of her experience with Nick Young’s mother would be closer to my experience than to Fang’s. Rachel Churchill would likely have been praised repeatedly for her hair or her skin; Rachel Chu, on the other hand, might have been met with the icy stare of an insanely wealthy woman who only wants her son to have the best in life. Rachel Churchill would have been the center of attention without having to do much to garner it; Rachel Chu would have had to leap incredible hurdles just to be able to consider herself accepted. Rachel Churchill would be praised for the most insignificant things; Rachel Chu might be told she’s not good enough, even though her accomplishments were certainly notable.
Perhaps Kwan was aware of the differences between a White Rachel and a Chinese Rachel; perhaps he’d seen firsthand how well White people in China are treated, even amongst the nouveau riche. Whatever the case may be, Kwan’s firm stance against Whitewashing Chu’s character is not only admirable, but absolutely necessary should he desire to maintain the integrity of his best-selling novel — “Crazy Rich Asians” simply wouldn’t be the same with a White girl.
*names have been changed to protect privacy
Feature Image via Instagram / KevinKwanBooks