An Analysis of Cultural Identity in Crazy Rich Asians

Paper by Sophia Gawrit.

The film Crazy Rich Asians (2018) directed by Jon M. Chu deals with struggles of cultural identity within an Asian society. The film gives the audience an extravagant view into the lifestyle of a rich Singaporean family where there is a significant cultural divide between the central character Nick, an Asian born in Singapore, and his girlfriend Rachel, an Asian- American born out of wedlock. “The film deftly captures the struggles of feeling accepted in Asia and the United States that resonates with millions of Asian- Americans, particularly those who are second generation and higher…when there is a shortage of movies centered on underrepresented groups such as Asian- Americans, any such film that comes out is subjected to heightened and unrealistic expectations, something that movies featuring all White casts don’t have to face” (Le & Kang 527). Deciding whether one is more Asian or American depending on where and how they were raised is where it becomes difficult to understand ones’ own identity due to societal opinions. The film broadens the audiences understanding of what it is to be an “other” in a society where being an “other” is seen as being worthless. This paper will analyze cultural power/ differences through the traditional game of Mahjong. The paper will focus specifically on Rachel, and Nick’s mother Eleanor’s relationship. Through Rachel and Eleanor’s relationship in the film, it is evident that the representation of being an Asian- American is unaccepted due to traditional Asian expectations.

Throughout the film, it is evident that Nick’s mother, Eleanor does not enjoy the fact that Nick is dating an Asian- American. There is a sense of ethnocentrism, believing one’s own ethnic group is superior over another, between Eleanor, and her opinion on Rachel (Benshoff & Griffin 49). She believes that her cultural traditions are the way to go about life in contrast to the American way of life which is not as structured or organized in Eleanor’s opinion. Discovering that Rachel was born out of wedlock, Eleanor believes that Rachel can’t possibly sustain a long- lasting relationship with Nick due to the stereotype that Americans are unable to build and maintain a strong family. Understanding this and being told that she will never be enough by Eleanor, Rachel meets up with Eleanor for a round of Mahjong, a traditional Chinese game that is very difficult to learn. Rachel wants to meet up with Eleanor hoping for closure and to discuss her overall feelings toward the whole situation.

Eleanor shows up in a sophisticated striped blazer with her hair professionally put together in a bun. When Eleanor walks in, Rachel, wearing a floral dress with her hair put together, is sitting with two deaf women at the table with Mahjong set up. There is a symbol of dominance from the beginning of the scene when Eleanor is standing above Rachel and the deaf women at the table. Eleanor is handed the die and sits down immediately on the East end to start the game. The seat in which Eleanor sits is very important. It is set-up so that Rachel is sitting in the seat directly across from Eleanor on the West. The person who deals the deck, always sits on the East end. It goes counterclockwise from East. With Rachel being from the West, America, and Eleanor being from the East, it symbolizes that Eleanor is the one of higher power because she is the one in control of the game.

Without even looking down at her pieces, Eleanor remains in strict eye contact with Rachel while making her Mahjong moves. As the game proceeds, Rachel tells Eleanor that her mother taught her how to play Mahjong and that her mother told her that it teaches important life skills. This is significant because most Americans do not know how to play Mahjong, or even have an understanding of what the game is. By informing Eleanor that she understands the game and rules of Mahjong, and by keeping up with her throughout the game, she is proving that she not only understands the game, but that it is something that holds a close tradition to her.

While Rachel is trying to get her point across that being born in America doesn’t eliminate her Asian identity, Eleanor begins to reference her opinion on American culture. She refers to Rachel as not being “our own kind of people.” She then insults Rachel by saying, “all Americans think about is their own happiness. We understand how to build things that last” (Crazy Rich Asians). Eleanor is making a reference to the way in which Rachel was raised. She was raised with a single mother who had very little money. In contrast, Eleanor’s family was built on wealth and her family’s main priority is keeping a family that lasts.
Another film that depicts comparison between classes would be Parasite. Similarly, the way that Rachel is depicted to Eleanor in terms of class as being unworthy, unwanted, and nothing because of her Americanness is similar to the way in which the two families in Parasite are compared. One family is built off of wealth while the other is of the lowest class. In the article, Parasite and the Curse of Closeness, one can see how two totally different class families are more similar than it seems. In Parasite, there is a scene where the rich family is eating the same exact cheap noodles that the poor family eats. The only difference is that the rich family added steak to theirs (Seo). Although they are both of completely different classes, they still hold similar traits. In Crazy Rich Asians, although Eleanor believes that Rachel is not nearly considered the same class due to the way in which she was raised in an American culture, the two of them are still doing the same activities, such as playing a game of Mahjong. Just because Eleanor is Asian and Rachel is Asian- American, doesn’t necessarily mean they do everything different while Eleanor believes so.

Moreover, being a minority is difficult when two cultures are unaccepting of one’s mixed identity due to having cultural differences. “Cultural differences are deployed to differentiate Asia(n) from American(n), the East from the West, and are used to characterize racially defined groups. Cultural differences are by all means essentialized and race is furthermore reduced to essentialized cultural differences… Differences are not acceptable by the dominant when defined biologically. They are hardly acceptable either when defined culturally, because they are used to differentiate” (Chou 227). When Eleanor explains to Rachel that she is not her cultures kind of people, she is using ethnocentrism to put her culture above Rachel’s. Not only this, but Eleanor is also othering Rachel. Othering refers to “the way a dominant culture ascribes an undesirable trait onto one specific group of people” (Benshoff & Griffin 54). Eleanor is othering Rachel in the sense that although Rachel is Asian, having the trait of being an American makes her less structured to the traditional way of life. It becomes difficult for people like Rachel to be accepted by both her Asian culture and he American culture due to having characteristics of both cultures.

In America, dating back to the late 1800’s Asian- Americans were unaccepted by the Western culture. The term Orientalism was coined referring to “the way that Eurocentric and other white Western cultures imagine the idea of Asia; it does not refer to how Asian cultures actually were or are” (Benshoff & Griffin 124). Eastern cultures were depicted by the Western cultures as being “feminine or childlike in order to justify colonization and domination” (Benshoff & Griffin 124). The way in which different cultures depress other cultures in order to idolize their own culture, effects the way in which minority groups understand where they belong. The way in which Rachel is belittled into believing that she is not enough or will never be enough due to her American identity, can diminish any cultural understanding of where she belongs.
As the game continues, Rachel explains her reasoning as to why she did not accept the engagement from Nick. She says, “there’s no winning, you made sure of that” and then put’s her piece between what would have the winning set. She explains to Eleanor that “if he chose her, he would lose his family and if he chose his family, he might spend the rest of his life resenting Eleanor” (Crazy Rich Asians). Rachel realizes how much family means to Nick’s mother and if she decided to accept Nick’s engagement, Nick would lose his mom. Although Rachel is seen as someone who is looked down upon by the Asian culture due to her American identity, it is a symbolic moment because she does not want to place burden on the culture that Nick was raised into.

Rachel lets Eleanor win the game of Mahjong and Rachel mentions that she hopes that Nick finds another lucky girl that is enough for Eleanor. Rachel credits herself for the girl that Nick will eventually find and marry because she is just, “a poor, raised by single-mother, low- class, immigrant, nobody” (Crazy Rich Asians). Rachel then flips her winning deck over to symbolize that she is in fact something. She then stands up and proceeds to walk over to her mother who is sitting in the distance. The two of them walk away together, and Rachel’s mother looks back at Eleanor with a fierce look to symbolize that she is in control and will not stand Eleanor.

In conclusion, the film allows for the audience to see issues with acceptance of cultural identity in a given society. The film uses forms of ethnocentrism to dominate one’s culture over another. This scene in particular, uses the game of Mahjong, to give the audience a feeling of competition within one’s culture as well as giving one’s opinion of tradition. The scene manipulates the Western culture by dominating the Eastern culture from the beginning. By having Rachel sit on the west end and having Eleanor sit on the east end, it allows for the audience to not only see a cultural divide but allows for the audience to see that Eleanor is in control due to being the dealer. Moreover, the scene places stereotypes on the Western culture which eventually is in Eleanor’s favor. Rachel allows for Eleanor to win symbolizing that she accepts the defeat of not being enough and walks away with the one person who helped shape her identity, her mother. Without cultural differences, there would be no sense of culture. Rachel realizes this and accepts where she came from.

Works Cited
Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender,
and Sexuality at the Movies. Wiley Blackwell, 2009.
Chou, Chih-Chieh. “Critique on the Notion of Model Minority: An Alternative Racism to Asian American?” Asian Ethnicity, vol. 9, no. 3, Oct. 2008, pp. 219–229. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/14631360802349239.
Le, C. N, and Miliann Kang. “Crazy Rich Asians.” Sociological Forum, vol. 34, no. 2, 2019, pp. 524–528., doi:10.1111/socf.12511.
Seo, Bo. “’Parasite’ and the Curse of Closeness.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 11 Feb. 2020, curse-closeness/600385/.

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