Crazy Rich Asians and the Asian American Psyche

Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.
13 min readAug 16, 2018
Crazy Rich Asians — in theaters now!

A great movie and mental health booster for the Asian American psyche

Jon Chu’s film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel Crazy Rich Asians hit the big screens officially on August 15th, though I and others have seen it in sold out special screenings for weeks already. I saw it on Monday, with a nearly all Asian American crowd in Redwood City, California. The palpable emotional high was second only to our season of Linsanity back in 2012. We laughed uproariously as the movie poked good-natured fun at everything from selfie-taking to awkward family dinners, catty gossip, and over-the-top vanity and excess of youth in the affluenza class (with nods to the suffering that accompanies privilege). And we were moved by the universal family and love stories at the heart of it all, as Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) takes her child-of-immigrant-single-mom ball down the court, faces the imperial defenses of Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) and her family and friends, and wins the away game by sticking to her true, good self despite all the distorting influences in the crazy rich arena of wealth, status, power, face and cultural barriers. Head and heart triumph over ego. It was as close to a perfect evening at the movies as I could have asked for, surrounded by community, who’ve all waited long for this kind of breakout, and who collectively carry deep memories and historical experiences of exclusion, discrimination and lack of acceptance. If you’re not Asian American, this is a chance to enjoy a rom com, and have a small window into the kinds of interwoven familial and relational complexity that I hear about regularly as a psychiatrist and friend in Asian America, and which are the seeds of both trauma, compassion and happiness for so many of us Asian and not Asian.

The reviews have been mostly positive, generous, and excited, considering this is the first big budget Hollywood non-period film featuring an all Asian cast since Wayne Wang’s adaptation of Amy Tan’s bestselling novel The Joy Luck Clubhit the screens in 1993. (There have been other indie breakouts including Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow and Alice Wu’s Saving Face.) But the Internets are not all happy! There’s been a chorus of complaints that the movie doesn’t do ethnic diversity in Singapore justice (while ethnic Chinese make up 76 percent of Singapore’s population, 15 percent are Malays and 7.4 percent are Indian/South Asian). Others question whether the movie glorifies wealth. (It’s more of a sendup and cautionary tale of wealth and excess, though, I think, and a reminder of hope and the value of hard won love, relationship and depth in a world where they are too often devalued. Also, that money doesn’t solve all problems, or buy you love. In fact, “mo’ money, mo’ problems,” as the saying goes.)

We’re at a strange cultural moment when a fairy tale rom com romp with a heartwarming message is asked to bear the burden of all our social justice issues. Perhaps it’s partly because “Asians” are in the title, and the film is thus seen as a frame of reference for all Asian and Asian American identity. The Joy Luck Club also got quite a lot of criticism back in the day for negative portrayals of Asian males. We had these things called “conversations” back then, though, not Twitter. I do know that arguments over Asian American gender dynamics has been quite volatile, and understandably so, for many decades, dating back in my lifetime at least to controversies between authors Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin.

Kudos to Constance Wu, though, for asking for a dialogue change from the original script when her character originally turns her nose up at dating Asian men — that alone makes me want to see this movie a dozen times! And here’s to Asian love stories in general! More please!

On a meta-level, the criticism of Crazy Rich Asians can be seen as a manifestation of collectivistic identity in conflict with itself. The film, like a family member, is being asked to perform in a family-pleasing way. The film, as an individual, like Rachel Chu, is just asking to be loved for who she is, on her terms. I think the community is largely siding with Rachel-as-movie, with some concerns about where she’s taking her individuality. I’m trusting that Rachel-as-movie cares about all of us after all, and not just about herself. But we’ll see.

My main critique of the cultural moment (not the film) is really a wish. I wish Asian Americans would do more to support Asian American arts, and not simply go big for watershed events like Crazy Rich Asians. I think this would not only be good for our artists, but also good for our cultural identity and mental health. I’ve been exposed to so many fantastic Asian and Asian American movies at Asian American film festivals, so I know there’s no dearth of talent or stories in front of or behind the camera, including the soon-to-be-released Sundance Festival hits White Rabbit by Vivian Bang (released in Los Angeles and streaming on September 21st), Searching starring John Cho (opening in select and then nationwide theaters August 24th) and the documentary Minding the Gap by Bing Liu (now on Hulu and in theaters soon). As a 13-year blogger for CAAMFest, the Asian American film festival in San Francisco, I’ve seen variable attendance at too many great films to count over the last decade. If we want more of our stories, we need to show up for film festivals and support our writers and other artists in greater numbers. There are 18 million+ of us — we will be the largest non-White ethnic group in the country by 2055, surpassing Hispanics, according to the Pew Research Center — that’s enough to make many more of our artists viable professionally and to help create hopefully a new level of acceptance, instead of conflict, through diversity. We shouldn’t just depend on mainstream acclaim to get the medicine of our artists to our communities and the broader culture, and really work on furthering our communal identity and consciousness. OK, that’s enough of my soapbox.

I plan to see this film again soon. I was hooked right from the opening sequence, hearing a woman singing beautifully in Mandarin, in a theater filled with Asian Americans. That feeling of being romantically carried to a world that implicitly embodied and validated Asianness and people with faces similar to my friends and so unlike the worlds typically portrayed by Hollywood, was more than worth the admission price. I didn’t need the movie to “solve” issues of diversity with more Brown faces, because I don’t consider my identity separate from those of other Asians and Asian Americans. Or really separate from White Americans, for that matter. (Or microbial life, for that matter, but you’re talking to a biology major.) The fact that Rachel Chu and Nick Young (Henry Golding) were onscreen, embracing love over family disapproval and career was enough for me. I’m a sucker that way, folks. Rachel is a smart woman, and Cinderella to her Prince Nick. But she ends up not only holding her ground, but transforming the game by holding true to her sense of self and even selflessness. And there are subtle calls to Asian relatedness.There are a dizzying number of people onscreen throughout the film, highlighting the collectivist/relational identity experience of Asians in particular. “Face” is gained, lost and pressured more frequently than in all the spas in Asia combined. And there is pleeennnty of personality diversity. Cue Awkwafina, Nico Santos and Ken Jeong, for starters!

The naysayers have largely been sidelined by an avalanche of support and sold out screenings. These critics are important voices in the discussion, but they also reflect our mental health and subjective well-being challenges as we continue to form community. What are these challenges? What must we surface in order to work at communal health?

Social Media is a very mixed blessing, perhaps especially so for Asian Americans

Social media is our ‘auxiliary amygdala,’ our survival-brain threat sensor, where anger is usually the most viral emotion. I’ve written about this extensively in my book Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks. We often get attached — narcissistically attached — to our opinions online, and then it becomes hard to have conversations. We feel we’re rather be right than related. We become focused on convincing others of our opinions, rather than listening to each other. We can walk away from our 14 hours a week on social media dissatisfied, instead of having conversations that connect. (See my articles Social Media and IRL: Narcissistic Attachment to Opinion, Is Facebook Making Us Narcissistic? and Is Facebook Destroying Society and Your Mental Health?

But many younger people, including Asian Americans, supposedly feel comfortable on social media, where it’s possible to type out and express thoughts and emotions in a more planned way. Real life, though, is awkward but rewarding. My bias is that we have to work with what I call ‘the magic of awkward’ to get to our true relational selves. We can’t rely on asynchronous communication where we can be ‘perfect.’ We also have to be wary of social media priming us to have knee jerk reflexes to situations, rather than engaged responses.

Asian Americans do want diversity — and are frustrated

The vast majority of us do want diversity and inclusion, for example, two-thirds of Asian Americans supported affirmative action in 2016. Many of us also feel we don’t have acceptance and a sense of belonging in the culture-at-large, despite some successes. There is also vast diversity in the Asian American experience — we are creating something new out of ethnically and economically diverse components here in America, what I call a bricolage individual and communal identity. When the big screen vision seems to fall short, some of us feel particularly slighted. This is an era where our “identities are burning” as I wrote recently (On Han, Soul, the Collective Psyche and Micro-aggressions), and so we feel particularly on edge and on the hook for getting diversity right.

Belonging remains elusive for many Asian Americans, yet is vital for mental health

In both South Asians and East Asians, satisfaction with relationships is positively correlated with subjective well-being (Galinha et al, 2016). Thao found that family life stress outweighed acculturative stress in producing depressive symptoms in Vietnamese women who immigrated to South Korea for marriage (Thao, 2016). Low neuroticism is a better predictor of subjective well-being in the West, although satisfaction with relationships produces happiness for most of us. (Recall Grant Study director George Vaillant’s summary of its conclusions: “Happiness is love, full stop.”) Satisfaction with relationships typically includes friends, family and romantic relations. But I think dissatisfaction with cultural belonging also creates particular distress for Asian Americans. Asian Americans score consistently higher on collectivism and lower on individualism compared to other Americans (in Benet-Martínez et al, 2003), and thus relational concerns predominate. As psychologist Eunkook Suh writes, “the self becomes context sensitive in the service of the need to belong.” (Suh, 2007) And an overly context sensitive self (a self that adjusts itself to ‘fit in’ with a social context) is likely responsible for lower levels of happiness, mediated by excessive concern for others’ emotions and thoughts, and a less individualized and idiosyncratic means of evaluating the self. Conflicts might be suppressed or silenced in an effort to maintain face or not disturb relationships or status, and suppressed conflicts do not typically promote subjective well-being. I have seen this occur with mental health issues, addiction, gender orientation, and other relational conflicts in Asian American families, though silencing and relationally-constructed selves clearly occur in the broader culture as well. Nothing shuts down affect in many Asian Americans faster than an identity/relational conflict, IMHO. My personal view is that our liberation as Asian Americans, and liberation of our feelings including joy, depends both on comfort with our voices and a sense of belonging. Social media helps perhaps with the former, but less so with the latter.

I called our sense of collective suffering “Asian American han” in that previous blog post, but another related term from Korea, “jeong,” is quite relevant to the sense of communal identity and belonging. Jeong is “the emotional and psychological bond between Koreans… Akin to the lack of differentiation of the mind from the body, the self and others are also integrally related” (Uhm, 2014). This feeling of interdependence and connection shapes many Asian American lives, and also leads to both the joys and distresses of belonging and not belonging.

Actual experiences of belonging and acceptance are antidotes for us — along with heaps and heaps of self-compassion, relationship and therapy, by the way — making Crazy Rich Asians medicine for our community. But because the kind of belonging and inclusion that many of us desire is such a transcendent goal and vision, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction along the way.Is this vision even attainable? Only time will tell, but it’s going to take a lot of effort and attention. Personally, I’m optimistic on the possibility, because I’ve seen it work, however imperfectly. And when it does work, it feels really, really good.

Asian Americans have also reported lower self-esteem and life satisfaction than Caucasian Americans, consistent with comparisons of collectivistic and individualistic cultures (Benet-Martínez et al, 2003). But Asian Americans and Caucasians share many similarities in the personality traits predicting subjective well-being. Agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and low neuroticism are all correlated with subjective well-being and satisfaction with friendships for both groups, for example.

Asian American belonging concerns propel online anger at representation

There may be a common pathway to the dissatisfied streak that gets expressed online. In my experience, traumatized individuals are especially sensitive to relational/belonging concerns. There can be significant intergenerational trauma in Asian Americans, coupled with experiences of discriminatory trauma. Many families have experienced war, revolution, refugee experiences, as well as immigration, economic and discrimination, on top of the challenges of physical and mental health, and relational trauma within families. Even if personally unaffected by these traumas, members of these groups can be concerned and bear emotional weight and concern for the traumatized. Trauma can shatter the self, and trauma demands relational healing — so belonging concerns are elevated. Traumatic experiences can also forge group identity, similarly elevating belonging concerns.

Asians and Asian Americans tend to be more concerned with relationship maintenance, and tend to lean collectivistic rather than individualistic, also underscoring the relational component of identity (the “social being”). In the individualistic American context, many people complain of disconnection and loneliness. Our previous Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, declared an “epidemic of loneliness.” Dissatisfaction with relationship, belonging and acceptance, combined with identities especially dependent on relationship, can escalate dissatisfaction online. As I’ve written, though, it’s questionable if the online experience can satisfy either the needs for belonging and acceptance, or propel significant personal and societal change. Research has indicated that those with distress often are dissatisfied with their reception online.

Asian American Perfectionism

It’s been noted many of us have a perfectionistic streak. Witness the Tiger Mother phenomenon of high levels of critique of children. While according to research, it’s not the most prominent parenting strategy, it produces significant negative effects such as depression and loneliness. (“Battle Hymn of the Teddy Bear Psychiatrist”.) When you have been imprinted with self-critique and been made to feel dissatisfied with yourself, you might be primed to react with criticism of the external world as well, and simultaneously press for the relational experiences that were lacking for you in youth.

Asian American Pessimism

Asian Americans have been found to be more pessimistic than Whites, while also sharing similar levels of optimism with Whites (Chang, 1996). This pessimism is postulated to have some positive adaptive effects, in motivating pessimists to work harder to achieve their goals. But pessimism colors expectations and reactions, again priming some Asian Americans to place a negative filter on the world, and fueling critique. Pessimism can also lower expectations, keeping one grounded and attuned to the work that needs to be done to deliver success. Suh writes, echoing movie matriarch Eleanor’s views on the American pursuit of happiness, “(b)eing exceptionally happy, therefore, could be perceived as being overly preoccupied with the self while ignoring the central cultural mandates of self-improvement and adjustments to obligations and relationships.” Yup, stereotypically, we might always feel like we have to do our “homework” to “get it right.” (Chang’s paper is 20 years old, though, so may be dated in its observations, though it matches many of my observations.)


There is certainly a great deal of diversity in Asian America, so none of these ideas should be considered representative or stereotypical. I’m glad that social media allows us to hear many voices, and break the silence around so many issues, including mental health and racism. But it’s important that when we make the music of our souls, we’re guided by the knowledge that despite our differences of class, race, ethnicity, culture or gender, we share a common humanity, in our vulnerability and everyday physical, emotional, cultural and spiritual struggles. Also, our needs for relationship, love, knowledge and wisdom. The more we can give these to each other, the better off we will all be.

A movie like Crazy Rich Asiansis a great place to continue forging those understandings and bonds across cultures. But speaking personally, I won’t be fully happy until a Hmong or Laotian American love story gets Hollywood backing!

See you at the movies!

You might also like these articles:

8 Asians review of Crazy Rich Asians

Jiayang Fan in The New Yorker: How to watch Crazy Rich Asians like an Asian American

The Pacific Heart: Susan Cain’s Quiet: Is Asian American Silence “Golden”?


© 2018 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

Galinha IC, Garcia-Martin MA, Oishi S, Wirtz D, Esteves F. (2016) Cross-cultural comparison of personality traits, attachment security, and satisfaction with relationships as predictors of subjective well-being in India, Sweden, and the United States. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 47(8) 1033–1052

Thao NTP. (2016) Different effects of acculturative stress and family life stress on depressive symptoms among married Vietnamese immigrant women in South Korea. Asian Social Work and Policy Review 10:225–236

Benet-Martínez V, Karakitapoglu-Aygün Z. (2003) The interplay of cultural syndromes and personality in predicting life satisfaction: comparing Asian Americans and European Americans. J Cross-Cultural Psychology 34(1):38–60

Suh EM. (2007) Downsides of an overlycontext-sensitive self: implications from the culture and subjective well-being research. J Personality 75:6, 1321–1343

Uhm, SU (2014) Mental illness from an Asian American perspective. In Neuropsychology of Asians and Asian Americans, eds. Davis JM D’Amato RC. Springer, 2014.

Chang EC. (1996) Evidence for the cultural specificity of pessimism in Asians vs Caucasians: a test of a general negativity hypothesis. Person. Individ. Diff 21(5):819–822



Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

Psychiatrist, author of Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Facebook and the Other Social Networks,,