In nearly every Asian American rom-com that’s garnered mainstream attention, the primary obstacle to happily ever after seems to revolve around intergenerational conflict.
In Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” (1993), gay Taiwanese immigrant Wai-Tung marries a Chinese woman to get his parents –– and their traditional family values –– off his back. In “Bend It Like Beckham” (2002), Jess’s strict Indian parents are depicted as the barrier to both her burgeoning soccer career and her romance with her white coach. For “Saving Face” (2004), the romance plot shares equal significance with the relationship between a parent and daughter. While the Chinese American lesbian protagonist, Wil, hides a romantic relationship from her mother, Wil’s pregnant mother attempts to do the same with her parents. In “The Big Sick” (2017), the main obstacle to the central couple is the strife between their Pakistani and white American cultures and parents. Even most of the trouble for the couple in “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) comes from intergenerational differences and the tension between Asian and Asian American identities.
In all of these rom-coms, the central romance is somehow deviant or disruptive, while the Asian family or culture is postured as initially holding the couple back from their happy ending.
On one hand, I wonder if Asian Americans can’t just have a lighthearted, escapist rom-com where the whimsy of the central romance isn’t foreground to diasporic and intergenerational conflict. Although joy can be found by navigating and working through this conflict, it is not the only narrative that does so.
“Asian American stories have every right to be as full of joy and lightness as they are full of conflict and misunderstanding, and this doesn’t make them any less Asian American or any less real. That’s the loveliness of the rom com: to always prioritize joy, to conspire undeterred towards a happy-ish ending.”
So much of Asian American media is saturated with diasporic longing: a palpable pining for a place or person far away and a family just trying to understand each other. You would think that rom-coms, an ultimately light and happy genre, would be the perfect place to eschew this heaviness. After all, in most mainstream (read: white) rom-coms, family is a non-factor.
At the very least, I hope and pray for an Asian American rom-com where the family isn’t placed as an obstacle: where the memory of the past isn’t posited as a hindrance to the future, where the couple can occupy the same space as the family without it being somehow a larger symbol of past vs. future, older generation vs. younger generation, tradition vs. open-mindedness, etc.
At the same time, the intergenerational friction in Asian American rom-coms feels justified and somewhat realistic and relatable. Many of these films handle family drama elegantly and authentically, treating the older generation with empathy and nuance instead of pigeonholing them into flat archetypes of Asian parenthood (I am very hesitant to buy into stories that position Asian and immigrant parents as strict traditionalists that their child rebels against).
It does make sense that Asian American rom-coms would also explore family relationships: Rom-coms are all about two people trying to understand each other, and the immigrant parent-child relationship is a continuous act of trying to understand each other, of negotiating between differences. In this respect, rom-coms are a fitting medium to explore the efforts made between a parent and child to communicate — literally, between languages, but also between what can feel like separate worlds.
I don’t have a definite answer. All I can say right now is that Asian American stories have every right to be as full of joy and levity as they are full of conflict and misunderstanding — and that this doesn’t make them any less Asian American or any less real. That’s the loveliness of the rom-com: to always prioritize joy, to conspire undeterred towards a happy-ish ending.
Nadia Hsu PO ’27 is from Austin, Texas. She enjoys ‘Die Hard,’ going two-stepping, and sci fi love stories.