My obsession with old romantic comedies blossomed four months into quarantine. The heat of summer had always brought adventure and flirtation and novelty, but now felt like a suffocating reminder of the year’s stagnancy. Rom-coms, in all of their cliché impossibility, presented themselves as escape routes. I only had to dig through my family’s dusty DVD cabinet to follow them.
One week, I put on a different Julia Roberts movie every night. The lineup started and ended with Notting Hill—the first movie to ever make me cry back when I was a high school sophomore, when the anguish of hopelessly tangled romance was only relatable in theory. This time, Notting Hill, then Pretty Woman, then My Best Friend’s Wedding offered a more genuine catharsis. They peddled emotions that were halfway in my possession, that I could relive and release through watching this luminously beautiful woman falling in and out of love. They gave me something to aspire to. I wanted Roberts’ kind of heartbreak, the kind of infatuation that her characters attract. Gestures grand enough to justify being depicted in grainy ‘90s film and set against a soundtrack of lovesick ballads.
I wanted to be her—all of the hers that existed. I wanted to drown myself in her potion of quirky but charming, brash but vulnerable, relatable but desirable.
There’s this scene in Mystic Pizza—Julia’s breakout role, landed at just around the age I am now—where she frolics around the harbor of her sleepy Connecticut lobster town. It’s late at night; cans of beer in hand, she and her two best friends laugh about sex, commiserate over boys and wish upon a shooting star. She jokes that her looks and those beers are all she has going for her. She thinks of herself as messy and promiscuous. We’re meant to believe that she’s a lost cause. But from her long baby-pink turtleneck and French braid, we’re also meant to cling to a redeeming sense of wholesomeness; from the way she runs giggling down the dock, we’re meant to believe that her angst is not that deep. She’s in high school. She’s having fun and finding herself.
I turned to my mom, who was watching this with me, and told her that I could not picture myself in a scene like that. On a purely visual level, it didn’t compute—not me at that harbor, not me washed out in that grainy film. The film in my mind looked forced and distorted.
“Obviously,” she said. “All those actresses are white.”
Her words weren’t a surprise. They unearthed and confirmed the truths that, somewhere deep within my psyche, I’d known all along. Mystic Pizza didn’t have any Asian people, nor did Notting Hill, nor did Runaway Bride. In Pretty Woman, there are two Asian car valets, parodied and undignified. Asian characters don’t exist in old rom-coms, just as they don’t exist in most other genres of American cinema. That’s old news. Vocalizing it, as my mom did, only served to complicate my dreamy, simplistic enjoyment of it all.
To me, Mystic Pizza offered a perfect snapshot of adolescence—romantic and carefree and youthful, the kind I always wished I’d experienced. But aspiring towards its image felt like indulging in a racial fantasy. To glorify the harbor scene was synonymous with glorifying the white, upper-middle-class girlhood that I thought it reflected.
It didn’t matter that the vast gulf I perceived between my teenage self and the teenagers of Mystic Pizza was largely made-up. After all, I went to summer camp; I have my fair share of stories that could be read as romantic and carefree and youthful. The notion of running around some quaint harbor at night was not actually so far removed from the realm of possibility. I only felt like it should be.
The best rom-coms should make you believe that anything can happen—even as they rely on exaggerated circumstances that most of us could never hope to replicate, personality archetypes that we would never cleanly embody. The best rom-com leads, then, infuse their objective unattainability with a normalcy that lets you project yourself onto their charmed lives. Anything can happen to them, so maybe it can happen to you, too.
This fiction is what propelled me down the list of Julia Roberts rom-coms, chasing her fundamentally girl-next-door ethos across each distinctly not girl-next-door story that she inhabited. There’s Julia as the owner of a small-town hardware store, her sense of self muddled by the several men she’s left at the altar; Julia as a sex worker, equal parts worldly and naïve; Julia as a jaded movie star, the face of American cinema to the British bloke who has the misfortune of falling for her. The latter is as self-congratulatory as it is accurate: Because of these roles, she’s the undisputed Queen of Rom-Coms and, by extension, America’s cultural canon. Because of her, the characters that she plays embody American Womanhood, capitalized—differently packaged but ultimately, somehow, the same.
“She’s really Miss America, isn’t she? She’s got all the qualities that people want an American woman to have,” Rupert Everett, one of Roberts’ co-stars, once said about her. In all of her bright-smiled, voluptuous auburn-haired glory, she’s the prototype of American femininity. Experiences take on a sheen of Americana by virtue of her pretending to experience them.
And so the qualities of Mystic Pizza that I loved were American, too, classically and fundamentally and irredeemably so. They belonged to Roberts—to everything she represents, to everything that’s supposedly antithetical to me. Trying to make them mine was an act of cruel optimism.
At around the same time as my rom-com obsession, I read a profile of Constance Wu in the New Yorker and kept returning to it throughout the summer. Jiayang Fan’s writing is gorgeous, but more than anything, I relished in an Asian woman accruing enough cultural capital to justify flying an Asian reporter to Hawaii to observe and write about her.
Wu hadn’t experienced the miraculous, chosen-by-God career trajectory of Roberts; instead, she’d gone to college for acting and waitressed in Los Angeles until booking Fresh Off the Boat in her early 30s. Now, she’s arguably the most recognizable Asian American in Hollywood. Crazy Rich Asians skyrocketed her to the A-list.
Fan describes Wu’s “staunch embrace” of American-ness, which manifests in her reflexive response of “Richmond” when asked where she’s from, and the way that she grew antsy towards Fan’s questions about Asian American representation because being Asian “wasn’t the defining facet of her identity.” But one sentence in particular stuck out to me so much that I copied and pasted it into my notes app for safekeeping. Fan asks the reader:
“If striving to assimilate is an unforgivable form of selling out, is there any way to be authentically American without being perceived as an impostor?”
Answering Fan’s question first prompted a few more questions: What does it mean to assimilate? What does it mean to be authentically American? And better yet, what do those two things mean for me—an Asian American girl born in Sacramento, raised by parents who immigrated from Vietnam but don’t remember anywhere but here?
None of the hallmarks of “the Asian American experience” belonged to me. I didn’t grow up in a bilingual household; I only liked boba a normal amount; my classmates never made fun of me for bringing a smelly lunch since my mom cooking Vietnamese food was an occasion, not the norm. These might sound like shallow signifiers of being Asian because they are. While perhaps politically useful, Asian American identity is amorphous and confusing and difficult to derive collective meaning from. I’ve heard criticisms of second-generation Asian kids who cling to these signifiers, trying to compensate for the absence of specific connections to a specific culture. The popular Facebook group “Subtle Asian traits,” intended to celebrate “subtle traits within Asian culture,” has been accused of perpetuating a monolith of middle-class, college-educated East Asian identity. Piano lessons and boba and Hello Kitty do not a culture make.
At my high school, a distinct “Asian friend group” formed; I was friends with some of its members but reluctant to integrate myself into it. I rejected the legitimacy of some essential Asian-ness that could bond a friend group by Asian-ness alone. I rejected the relevance of “assimilation” to my own life—what parts of me needed to be assimilated in the first place? Instead, throughout high school and most of college, my ideal conception of self was generically exceptional: Generically smart, generically cool, generically talented. A friend and I once confessed to each other that we felt a guilty, borderline evil kind of validation when we hooked up with a guy who didn’t hook up with Asian girls otherwise—it meant that we’d transcended our race to become generically hot.
The possibility of an Asian-ness that means the literal fact of being Asian—and nothing more —pervades conversations over Asian American representation. In a New York Times article titled “A Vision of Asian American Cinema That Questions the Very Premise,” Brandon Yu writes, “The notion of Asian American cinema, in short has always been a bit of a flimsy concept. What makes these movies Asian American?” Implicitly, he asks, Is the mere presence of Asians enough?
My Julia Roberts obsession had cultivated a very specific dream: That my Asian body could be plopped into narratives anyone could experience. Representation is a classic chicken-or-egg question. The kinds of Asian-ness that you see on screen illuminate what kinds of Asian-ness are possible for you, which only solidifies the truth of what you see on screen. I resented the guilt that I’d instinctively felt over identifying with Roberts’ films—even if they did embody white ways of loving and flirting and being, it’s only because whiteness had the cultural power to claim them first. But that claim doesn’t have to be absolute. Thinking that it is gives whiteness too much credit.
I wondered if my romantic comedy, an Asian girl’s romantic comedy, wouldn’t have to look very different from Roberts’ at all. And if that’s true, then maybe my life could look like the movies, too. I could recognize myself in America’s cultural canon without “selling out.”
Despite Constance Wu’s affinity for America, her most prominent roles still capitalize on—are even defined by—her Asian-ness. Fresh off the Boat, Crazy Rich Asians. The stories they tell don’t simply happen to be about an Asian woman. They’re premised on the all-consuming nature of that identity. Far from an attempt to assimilate, they emphasize that there’s something uniquely, inescapably Asian about the Asian American experience. Wu’s Asian-ness is critical to the narrative.
Even amidst the push for increased representation following Crazy Rich Asians, most films and TV shows starring Asian Americans still cohere around “Asian American themes.” Intergenerational cultural differences might be central to the plot, like in The Farewell and Never Have I Ever; so might the process of assimilation, like in Fresh Off the Boat; so might Asian martial arts, like in Kung Fu and Marvel’s Shang-Chi. Asian American media often means an all-Asian cast, with intra-Asian romances, friendships and superhero rings at their fore.
Rather than appropriating classical Americana for its own purposes, Asian American media has been charged with creating something entirely new. An NBC News piece on Harvard’s recent production of Legally Blonde—staged by the Asian Student Arts Project—describes the musical as injecting a “snap of Asian flair.” The Asian flair didn’t just come from an all-Asian cast performing the canonical rom-com. Instead, sets were moved to Chinatown; Elle Woods was obsessed with Hello Kitty. Perhaps it’s self-centered, but I can’t help but imagine an all-Asian Legally Blonde that leaves the rest of the material unchanged.
The most mainstream attempt at this kind of representation might be To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. When the film came out during my summer before college, I rejoiced in the revelatory feeling of watching Asian American teen Lara Jean navigate the trials and tribulations of high school romance—a narrative so full in itself that it didn’t have room to dwell on her Asian-ness, too. But not everyone celebrated with me. For UC Berkeley’s student paper, an Asian woman writer criticized the rom-com’s “utopian, careless world.” Directly rejecting the reasons I loved it, Angela Yin recognizes the placement of an Asian heroine in classically American suburbia as an attempt to “subvert the dominating whiteness of ‘80s and ‘90s rom-coms.” This attempt didn’t work for her:
“The only aspects of Lara Jean’s Asian-ness that are allowed into the movie are already mainstream, familiar aspects of Korean culture,” Yin writes. “In almost all ways except for in appearance, Lara Jean is whitewashed.”
Yin references Lara Jean’s lack of the “oppressiveness and reflexive self-consciousness” that she herself felt growing up in a predominantly white suburb, the lack of discussion of what it means to have a white father and Asian mother. These are the aspects of Lara Jean’s Asian-ness that Yin presumably wanted to see—and a whole string of others can be extrapolated from this line of thought. Where’s Lara Jean grappling with desirability politics? Questioning whether her white love interest only likes her for her Asian-ness? Feeling inferior to her love interest’s white ex-girlfriend, who meets all the beauty standards that she doesn’t?
I understand Yin’s concerns. With the exception of the biracial one, these internal dialogues play in my own head on loop. But the thing is, I didn’t need them to become an explicit part of Lara Jean’s story in order to lend authenticity and depth to her Asian-ness. I think I inferred that they were there—not necessarily central to her interiority, but inflecting her actions and experiences nonetheless. Kind of like mine.
In the Times piece, Yu asks “Asian American filmmaker” Sandi Tan whether she feels pigeonholed by that very label. “I’m mostly not interested in thinking and working within the ‘Asian-American sphere’ or addressing its issues,” she responds. “The other film and TV projects I am working on do not have any Asian American themes in it, except maybe incidentally, which is how I think best to ‘mainstream’ Asian American interests and concerns.”
“Except maybe incidentally.” These words, in their open-minded lack of prescription, is how I’d describe the ideal role of Asian-ness in my romantic comedy—an Asian girl’s romantic comedy. Asian American themes aren’t central to my Asian American self. Most plotlines of my life could be summarized sans race. Still, sometimes, race pulses quietly beneath them—the foundational iceberg of lived experience, of a lifetime as a woman of color, that rounds out their contours.
During our screening of Mystic Pizza, my mom’s blunt observation made me think of my Asian-ness as an unpickable lock on the door to the promised land. “All the actresses are white.” Traveling to Julia Roberts’ enchanted world of lightness and brazenness and unburdened girlhood—even in my imagination, even in fiction—required shedding a skin that I could never shed. I’d be an imposter.
But maybe, Asian-ness can be one of the unwritten inputs modulating the written stuff that ends up on screen—and the stuff that ends up in real life. The output could still look universal. It could still be transcendent, unbound by a need to specify beyond the fundamentally human experiences of crush and first love and heartbreak.
I couldn’t imagine it then, but I can imagine it now: Me, running around that Connecticut harbor at night and wishing upon a shooting star. The details might be a little different. But I’m there, having fun and finding myself, pink turtleneck and French braid and all.
Boston-based writer Elyse Pham is the social media intern for Paste, with bylines in TODAY Show Digital, The Harvard Crimson, and more. You can find her on Twitter @elysepham.