Crazy Maybe-Not-So-Rich Asians

Op Ed By Haney Hong

Kudos to Adele Lim for knowing when to ignore her Asian upbringing and stand up for herself -- and fellow Asians. The screenwriter for the blockbuster hit "Crazy Rich Asians" deserves a lot of credit for recently leaving the sequel after finding out her white male co-writer was being paid nearly ten times more than she was. 

As an Asian man myself, I can tell you that Lim had to have a stiff backbone when the time came to explain her decision to her elders!  They get easily disappointed.  

Some pundits and commentators will likely talk about her resignation to emphasize the stark pay disparities between women and men. Others will talk about “white privilege.” And these folks will talk about how we ought to think about merit in this country. These are all important topics, but let's not forget the racial angle to this story. What Lim did was not very "Asian." And good for her!

Lim is of Chinese ethnic heritage, and I am Korean. While there are definitely differences between our two cultures, we probably have certain “Eastern” values in common. And she’s living the Hollywood life with social norms and expectations that are probably very American in principle. I face the same cultural incongruities in my professional life.

We both have to balance being humble with our individual ambitions. We struggle with whether we ought to prioritize the collective need over our individual own. We grew up being told to be quietly diligent with the expectation that its only for hard work worth getting any recognition.

The conflict between what our elders told us and what we see in our American contemporaries getting ahead makes it really hard to talk with these same elders about work.

I have to imagine that Lim talked with Jon M. Chu, the director of the film, before announcing her decision. An Asian man himself, Chu must have had a lot of thoughts going through his head as the positional elder of the two. First, he was probably disappointed – with the enthusiastic receipt of the original film by everyday movie-goers, he must have thought he was losing a valuable teammate in his mission to finally bring Asians into the cultural psyche of America. Second, he was probably feeling betrayed. No doubt he’s trying to play by Hollywood’s rules, and he probably took some heat himself bringing Lim into the project at all.

If I had been in her shoes, I’m not sure what I would have done. Would I have been deferential to Chu, the director, out of respect for our shared purpose? Would publicly noting the pay disparity and resigning my position betray the values of hard work and quiet diligence?

I have no doubt that Lim is going to be the subject of whispered criticism by leaders in the Asian community. They’re going to say: "Yes, we’re American, but we don't behave like ‘this.’"

She is sure to hear what I heard a lot from my elders growing up: you’ll understand one day. Now that I think about it, I'm almost sure that was a line in the movie!

Again, I give Lim a lot of credit because she is bringing to light certain value conflicts that the Asian American community has to face. Gone are the days of being seen as the “model minority.” In today’s world of identity politics, we must grapple with whether we want to identify more with the Old (Asian) World or the New World.

Working through this struggle in the public limelight will be a good thing. Until now, a lot of folks of Asian heritage didn’t publicly voice grievances. That isn’t our way. But talking about these value conflicts is helpful. It airs out -- in the best of American traditions – what parts of our Asian heritage put some of us at a disadvantage. And this helps us all, Asian or otherwise, discuss race in America in a more nuanced way.

Lim is a courageous and principled woman who reminds us that, on occasion, it helps to not be too Asian.