There Was No “Always Be My Maybe” When I Was a Kid
Seeing English-speaking Asians with common problems on film would have felt revolutionary
I recently rewatched Always Be My Maybe and crushed on it even harder than on first viewing. Netflix movies spend what feels like minutes in the cultural conversation when compared to cinema releases, so it wasn’t acknowledged strongly enough what a genre classic this is when it first came out. So let’s say it now, loud and proud: Always Be My Maybe is sweet, funny, extremely watchable, and the lead couple’s chemistry is off the scale, a prerequisite for all great romantic comedies.
I would have loved if a movie like this existed when I was a kid—a flick that depicts Asians as musicians and entrepreneurs, not stereotypes. A movie where English-speaking Asians hang out in restaurants and have common problems and kiss each other. That would have been revolutionary to see.
Fair enough, Always Be My Maybe (directed by Nahnatchka Khan) immediately gets on my good side by opening with Soul of Mischief’s “93 ‘til Infinity.” From there, Ali Wong and Randall Park play childhood friends who grow up in San Francisco, awkwardly lose their virginity to each other as a couple of dorky teens, and subsequently spend 16 years on separate paths before finally reconnecting. She becomes a celebrity chef; he stays a dude in a nerdcore rap group. Park, a Korean-American, and Wong, who has Chinese and Vietnamese heritage, also co-wrote and produced the movie. The highly personalized nature of the piece is very easy to sense.
Strangely enough, like the lead characters I too turned 18 in 2003. A mixed-race Irish-Vietnamese kid growing up in Dublin in the 1980s and ‘90s, most of what I was exposed to in my day-to-day life was white, Irish, and Catholic.
Media opens portals. It is escapism, yes, but you can find actuality and idealism through a screen too. As a kid I really got into kung-fu movies. My collection of martial arts flicks on VHS tapes went on the most prized shelf in my bedroom. Some of the videos I’d picked up weren’t labelled, others were tagged languages I didn’t understand and took a lot of online Columbo work to track down some old favourites years later. Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li were the canonical three.
These movies helped me form my Asian identity. I gravitated towards them because the stars looked like members of my community. They depicted worlds, both fantastical and contemporary, that were unlike anything I’d grown up around, yet felt connected to them in a way none of my friends ever could be. In my mind, this was our thing, this wasn’t white people’s thing. Kung fu movies made me proud to be Asian.
I also knew that Bruce Lee had a white German grandparent so I could reasonably wonder if I’d look a bit like him someday. I don’t wonder that anymore. Maybe if I stopped drinking beer?
Thing is, kung-fu movies are obviously not a form of cinema that offer a fully rounded depiction of what it means to be Asian and certainly not what it means to be an Asian living in the West today. As enjoyable as it is to buy into the hyperreality of these stories, they can’t on their own replace the advantages of seeing more diverse representation in mainstream culture.
When I spoke to rapper Kill.Montana, then known as Tefari Pesto, for a 2016 piece on Irish rap for Pitchfork, he remembered the vicious racism he and his family suffered growing up in Jobstown, to the point where they’d sleep with the lights on to deter attacks on the house. When Montana copped 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ in 2003, the iconography of a powerful, swaggering Black man instilled in him a sense of pride and feelings of empowerment.
Through film, television, games, comics, and toys, kids are taught from the crib that they live in a white-centric world. Watch a few Hollywood movies and the Asians you’ll see stereotypes and sidekicks. Or maybe you won’t see them at all—that’s Hollywood white-washing for you. In this backdrop, Always Be My Maybe is astonishing in its distinction. By centering Asians in common narratives, it defies unbalanced depictions that push the idea that Asian lives are peripheral to white people’s. This is the importance of the entertainment and culture we absorb in forming our sense of self.
There’s no tokenism in Always Be My Maybe. The movie expertly walks the line of ethnicity not being central to the story, while offering a amusing Asian-American cultural touching points. Wong has spoken about how important it was to her that all her character’s love interests were Asian-American, and so Daniel Dae Kim shows up as her fiancee. Even Keanu Reeves—playing a version of himself that gained much internet traction—would not have been cast if not for has Chinese-Hawaiian ancestry. “Since I first watched Speed, I was very aware that Keanu was Asian-American because my family and community wouldn’t shut up about it,” Wong said. Somebody call the Asian delegation so they can get this man locked down.
When offended by the idea of diversity of their screen, racists love to ask, “Where are the white people in foreign pop culture?” In the ethnically diverse US, this is rooted in the racist idea that “white people won the culture war” and, therefore, are entitled to set society’s tone. Twisting the brain into believing this even makes it easy for them to dismiss the industry’s disgraceful depiction of Native Americans. In any event, it’s simply a lie to say that white people aren’t embedded in foreign pop culture. In Hong Kong cinema, allow me to point to Cyntia Rockrock, Chuck Norris, Philippe Joly among those to have made brilliant contributions.
There was a moment on this year’s Late Late Toy Show that made these points better than I ever could. When young Gabrielle was tasked with reviewing dolls, she gave a succinct synopsis of why one of the Black figures appealed to her: “The thing I like most about her is she has hair that looks like me.” A young child is already racially aware enough to notice that the majority of her toys don’t represent her, and instantly gravitates to the ones that do. What was the message to children of color who for generations didn’t have that option?
Research says things are improving and cursory glances at my Netflix feed says so too. Let’s keep it going. The next generation need films like Always Be My Maybe. Because representation has never been about box ticking or political correctness or any other trite expression you might hear. It’s about replacing those underdeveloped characters with icons for those who need them.
Loved this, Dean!