The ‘Crazy, Rich’ Truth About Following Your Dream

Toan Lam and friends at a screening of "Crazy Rich Asians'

Dear Jon and Kevin,

I am so utterly shocked and disappointed… that it has taken this long for groundbreaking movie like this to make it to the big screen.

The day has come!

Today, Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018, is a momentous and emotional day for me because “Crazy Rich Asians” opens nationally. I woke up at 4 a.m. and had to write this.

Jon Chu, you, as the film’s director and Kevin Kwan, as the story writer, must be so proud of the film’s pre-open buzz as a “watershed moment.”

Freaking finally there are Asian faces on the big screen conveying universal themes. Has it really been 25 years since the last all-Asian cast in a Hollywood studio movie, “The Joy Luck Club?”

Prior to attending a pre-release screening last week, I worried this rom-com would be campy, fluffy and silly. I prayed to baby Jesus that this would be good. If it sucked, I would never get back my two hours and one minute. To my delight, I was flooded with a wealth of emotions. This film’s story transcends race, culture and “all things” Asian and I want to share what this film means for me.

I LOL’d in a packed theater surrounded by friends, shed a tear and empathized with all the characters AND I saw myself, image, likeness and “craziness” on the big screen as many parts of me played out through the story.

The heart of CRA is about family, love, self-worth and joy. It’s about being seen, heard and felt. Ultimately, it is about following your truth — personally and professionally — even (and especially) when the going gets tough.

I saw myself in Rachel Chu, who faced Nick Young’s mom believing “she was not enough” of a match for her son, the heir to the family fortune.

I saw myself in Peik Lin Goh, whose complex urban character embraced her unabashed inner badass.

I saw myself in Astrid Teo, who dimmed her own light in the name of love.

I even saw myself in Eleanor Young, Nick’s mother, who was scarred by her past and faced disapproval because of the social class into which she was born.

I could go on about how much the fabulous gay, fashion-loving cousin, Oliver T’sien, resonated with me. Okurrr.

I believe that the soul of all of us, as human beings, is that we want to be seen, heard and felt. We want to know that we matter — Asian or not.

With the release of CRA, it’s about damn m*****f****** time that Asians of all types have the opportunity to play complicated roles that lift, shift, gift and reflect the richness of our culture, be it Asian American, Asian Australian, Asian Malaysian… or “CRAYsian” (that’s all of us).

To me, this is about representation, about telling our stories and giving our future a beacon of hope. Why is representation important? As a poor, immigrant Chinese kid from Vietnam, I never thought my story mattered. I didn’t think my penchant for reading everything from children’s books to shampoo bottles in the shower — “rinse, lather, repeat, methylparaben” — could amount to richness in my personal, professional or spiritual life, much less my bank account. It wasn’t until I joined the Asian American Journalists Association and won scholarships that I felt I could chase my dreams of being a TV reporter and TV show host. When Forbes wrote not one, but two articles about my passion projects and immigrant story, I felt validated.

Until this momentous CRA film release, Hollywood has limited our on-screen identities. For females it’s been as the China doll, tiger mom or dragon lady. For men the big screen stereotypes have been emasculating and insulting. (Thanks, Kevin, for writing in all the shirtless, buff, half-naked scenes.) We either don’t exist, have been portrayed by non-Asian actors and/or as stereotyped characters including kung fu fighters, the cringe-worthy exchange student Long Duk Dong or bucktoothed Mickey Rooney character Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

We each have a unique identity and one of the many beauties of CRA is that even with the ground-breaking all-Asian cast, the film’s story highlights the various cultural differences even within the same Asian ethnicity.

I’m a Vietnamese immigrant born to Chinese parents who worked their asses off to gain financial wealth in the construction industry. We emigrated from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon to South Sacramento, Calif. a.k.a. SOUTH SAC! My “crazy” parents gave up everything, including financial stability, to give us a true chance at freedom and the American dream of creating better lives in the U.S.

Their hope for me and my four siblings was for us to experience freedom, education and greater life possibilities. As “boat people,” we stayed at a refugee camp in Indonesia for two years so our paperwork could be processed. My family arrived in the U.S. with four dollars in our pockets. We couldn’t speak a word of English. The 10 of us called a trailer in a “ghetto” trailer park in Sacramento our first home.

Toan Lam as a child with his family

My family in front of the California State Capitol in Sacramento. I’m wearing the “12.”

With our parents’ sacrifices and challenging voyage came a lot of expectations. The weight of filial piety and my wanting to make my family proud is real, y’all. I struggled with whether that meant I should follow my mother’s dream for us to become a “docta, lawya, engineea.”

However, I came to the realization that my American dream isn’t my parents’ American dream. I discovered I had to make ME proud before I could ultimately authentically make them proud.

Following my passion of communicating and inspiring people to be better for themselves and for others is what brings me joy. It’s been a struggle to “keep it real” with myself and my parents. Mom still doesn’t know that one of my stories about a kindergartner in San Francisco led to more than 200,000 meals for the hungry because of her efforts, or that another of my stories about an LGBT psychiatrist has helped thwart teenage suicides and inspire humans of all ages to celebrate their truth.

Mom still asks, “How do you make money? You have job yet?”

Don’t get me wrong, I tried to follow the path my parents wanted for me. I took honors chemistry in high school, only to nearly fail (thank God I have good communication skills and talked my way into passing the class with a C-). I pretended to love the bitter melon soup my Mom made and forced us to eat. I even tried to date girls. #FAIL

Following your dreams is hard, especially because we, whether we admit it or not, really want to make our parents proud. We hide our gifts and talents and that “thing” that excites us to follow more traditional paths or marrying an Asian girl or boy because marrying any other race would mean disgracing our families.

I’m 40-years-old, I’ve suffered from many years of staying in the box, in the closet and being insecure in hopes of making my parents happy. While I know not all stories come with a Hollywood ending, there is a sense of freedom and joy that comes with spreading your wings.

Even with the possible “consequences,” I’m proud of the fact that I followed my compass, my truth and became a TV reporter in a Top 10 market, co-hosted a show on PBS (I really wanted to run scripts to LeVar Burton, the only non-Caucasian TV show host I saw growing up) and taught at the university level (at that time nobody in my family had a college degree).

Somebody recently asked me, “Are your parents proud?” I explained my Dad died of cancer 18 years ago, and when I left my dream job as a TV reporter to take care of him (Dad was diagnosed while I was at my first TV market in Wausau, Wisc.), the first thing he asked when he saw me was, “When will you be a docta?” I was devastated.

Interestingly, as I have followed my truth and through my work to inspire people to discover and live their truth, I proudly have an answer for my Dad. I have become a doctor — a soul doctor.

As for my Mom, she still doesn’t know what the internet is and recently wondered, “Email, how the word get on computa?” She still annoys me with questions about how to use her flip phone, but she is happy I am happy — which is why we risked our lives for the American dream.

Awkwafina screenshot of Instagram post

My hope is that CRA will illuminate multi-generational Asians and non-Asians, gays and non-gays, the rich and the poor and the underrepresented to follow your truth. Or as Awkwafina, who plays Peik Lin Goh, shared in the latest issue of ModCloth, “Advice to my younger self: ‘It’s gonna be OK and you may feel like you’re super weird right now, but later it’ll pay off… whatever dreams or boundaries you set upon yourself — real life can be so much bigger than that.”

Can we get a #WednesdayWisdom shout out up in hea for that?

Chase your dreams. Love on your parents and family who don’t understand and support you. Love on you.

Bravo to you, Jon and Kevin, and your CRA colleagues for validating Hollywood performances. Yes, the film is more than a story — it’s a message for all of us.

Call me mushy, loony or long-winded — I am thankful and grateful for all of the trailblazers who skillfully, persistently brought “our” story, “Crazy Rich Asians” to the big screen.

Only you know your truth and there is your power. If you follow that, it leads to spiritual freedom and joy. Joy is spiritual wealth.

Thank you for giving me and all the younger generations hope for being part of moving the needle. I’ve already started to dig up some old projects that I thought would never again see the light of day. To the younger generation: “You do you, boo. Your future looks bright, as you are the one illuminating it.”

谢谢 (xiexie), 多谢 (duo xie) and thank you,

P.S. I’ve been encouraging everyone — friends, family, gym rat friends, the Lyft driver and barista — to watch this film. I’m taking my boo out on a date to watch this and buying a ticket to support the numbers. I know Asians have spending power — our dollars created the Sriracha and Litchi Jelly dynasties. Now, let’s blow out the box office records!

P.P.S. I hope your Asian parents come around if they got mad at you for not taking the million dollar billz for the unknown and deciding to take this baby to the box office.

P.P.P.S. While I am a “Crazy Not-Rich Asian” and hope for the film’s success, I have no financial connection, unless Jon Chu or Kevin Kwan both decide differently (wink, wink).

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