Ever since I heard Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel Crazy Rich Asians was being turned into a movie, I couldn’t wait to get my first glimpse—not only at the over-the-top splendour that was described in the book, but at the groundbreaking level of representation that was promised. The film has the first all-Asian cast in 25 years—that’s *basically* my entire conscious lifetime. Scarlett Johansson wasn’t cast as the lead, the setting wasn’t relocated to somewhere in America and the characters don’t have over-the-top accents. Crazy Rich Asians is a huge step forward for diversity and inclusion, and it feels even bigger because it’s getting tons of big-budget hype. So much so that lead actors Constance Wu and Henry Golding were invited on The Ellen DeGeneres show to debut the trailer. But just when I was ready to think, Wow, things have really changed, DeGeneres asked the FAQ that makes my eyes roll and my heart sink.
“So you’re from where, originally?” DeGeneres asked, pointing at Golding. This is the question that I’ve been routinely asked by everyone from my Uber driver to strangers on the street and dudes that think it’s a cute pick-up line. And being asked about my #originstory is far from a unique experience. Last year, CNN put a social media call out for people’s experience of being asked “Where are you from?” It received nearly 2,000 responses.
Golding, who plays Nick Young in the film, explained that he is Iban (meaning he is a descendant from the Iban tribe) and he is half-British and half-Malaysian, adding that his mother is from the state of Sarawak in East Malaysia. The answer is not only incredibly detailed, but rolls off his tongue like a well-rehearsed response that he has had to deliver numerous times before.
It’s the same way that I used to tell people, “I’m Canadian, but my parents are originally from India.” This question isn’t just a query about what Ottawa neighbourhood I grew up in, or the fact that I was born in Bellville, Ont. It’s an assertion that I don’t “look” like a Canadian, meaning that because I have tinted skin, I couldn’t possibly belong to the nation where I was born and raised. I must have some other homeland. The reality is that I am part of the 22 percent of Canadians who identify as visible minorities—and whose nationhood and cultural identity is questioned through these types of microaggressions.
After Golding provided a brief summary of his family tree to DeGeneres, she turned to Wu.
“And Constance, where are you from?,” DeGeneres said.
Wu smiled and responded, “Richmond, Virginia.”
Actual footage of me after hearing Wu’s response:
But the audience responded differently—they audibly laughed, clearly thinking that Wu was joking. And that is the exact problem. Even when Wu is on a talk show, promoting a major summer blockbuster that has already made history and headlines for its efforts to bring diverse narratives and actors to Hollywood, she is still seen as “other.”
Shout-out to fellow Asian Americans who feel indignant on Constance Wu’s behalf every time an interviewer expresses surprise that she’s from Richmond, Virginia
— loudlysilent (@loudlysilent) April 25, 2018
ellen: and constance, where are you from?
constance: richmond, virginia.
why did that remind me of mean girls lmfao “i’m from michigan”
— shayne. (@wotchershayne) April 24, 2018
Seriously! Thought I was the only who noticed. Smh that @TheEllenShow ‘s fans laughed at @ConstanceWu ‘s replied that she was from Richmond, VA. Regardless, I was SO glad & proud that @ConstanceWu didn’t FEEL OBLIGATED to map out her “where are you from” lineage.
— M. Sebastian (@MKX00) April 29, 2018
Yes, DeGeneres does sometimes ask her guests where they’re from, but in this instance, it really didn’t feel like she was *just* asking about where in America Wu grew up. While the talk show host didn’t ask the traditional follow up of, “Where are you really from?”, her questions about Wu and Golding’s background seemed like an effort to characterize them as actors of Asian heritage, framing the promotion of Crazy Rich Asians. The actors’ true identity, however, is exactly the point of the film they are promoting: that people of colour come from all different types of backgrounds well beyond the stereotypes Hollywood has built.
“You hear the words representation and diversity,” Wu said at CinemaCon in Los Vegas, according to Vulture. “People want to see that. But what’s special about this film is it differentiates Asians from the Asian-American experience. A lot of times they think putting in a face of colour and filling a quota. Our culture is more than skin deep.”
So rather than ask where they’re from, maybe DeGeneres should consider why that seemed like a question worth asking—and what answer she was expecting to get.
This article was originally published on May 3, 2018.