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Crazy Rich Asians Was a Lot Like Our Gay Love Story

Crazy Rich Asians Was a Lot Like Our Gay Love Story

Michael Dumlao
Daniel and Michael with Michael's mother Racel

Michael Dumlao recounts the experience of introducing his husband to his "crazy Asian family" at a wedding.

My husband, Daniel, and I were determined to watch Crazy Rich Asians on opening night for several reasons. First, we felt a responsibility to support the first all-Asian cast in a Hollywood blockbuster in a quarter of a century. Second, we had a fan curiosity about how favorite characters from the book would be interpreted ("they better not screw up my Astrid!"). And third, we had the pressing need to form an opinion ahead of reviews and spoiler-rich social feeds.

By this point, it was impossible to escape the cultural gravitas and expectation imbued into what is otherwise a typical rom-com with a dashing leading man, a strong-willed heroine, and an overprotective mother. As immigrants from the Philippines and Peru, we knew how important this movie was to people who grew up with a scarcity of characters in entertainment that looked and lived like us.

But this was also our date night, and we were resolute to keep it light and fluffy. So, as the lights dimmed and the opening credits ran, we did as we have done for the last 11 years of our relationship: We held hands, I placed my head on his shoulder, and we sank deeper into our seats, eagerly waiting to be plunged into a world both strange and familiar.

It didn't take long for the telltale signs of emotion to appear. My heartbeat quickened, my throat swelled, and I inhaled a pocket of air -- then held this breath in my chest, hoping it would keep a tear from falling. Funny thing is, this emotional response happened only a few minutes into the movie, during a scene that, in the context of the narrative, was little more than an establishing shot for where the story would take place.

For many people watching, it was a beautiful vista of a gleaming skyline. But for me, it introduced the character that I was most eager to meet: Singapore -- and by extension, the broader Asian cultural milieu that millions of people like me share but very rarely ever see on the big screen. As I'm a gay Filipino-American, the sight filled me with a complex mix of yearning and affirmation alongside memories of angst and uncertainty. I asked myself, Is this what representation feels like?

Daniel -- who serves as my fount for all things cool and relevant -- introduced me to Kevin Kwan's novel Crazy Rich Asians in 2013, not long after we had returned from my cousin's wedding in Sydney (where I had spent my own childhood and early adolescence). We both loved the book because it reminded us so much about our own -- well, perhaps not rich -- but certainly crazy Asian family. We gobbled up the trilogy, hooked on Kwan's skillful weaving of fashion, fantasy, and familial drama. So we were elated when news broke that a movie version was in the works. As fans of the books, we were already prepared to be fans of the film.

What I wasn't prepared for was how it would impact me so thoroughly -- and not in the way I expected. The movie is many things: hilarious, heartbreaking, and essential. But it also reminded me of all the fear, anxiety, and trepidation I had when -- like the story's main characters -- I brought my own "Rachel Chu" back home to meet my giant family at a cousin's extravagant wedding on my mother's island in the Philippines.

Fortunately, unlike in Crazy Rich Asians, Daniel had already won over the heart and approval of my mother and family, so no drama there. But going back to my ancestral home with the man I just married meant going back to expectations I could never meet in a culture steeped in a religion in which I could never truly belong. It meant facing rejection and scorn and -- worse -- the crushing fear that I failed my family by living my truth as an out and proud gay man. It meant facing those days shortly after I came out as a teenager, when I fled alone across an ocean, still believing that I had to make a choice between love and family, never thinking I could have both.

So when we stepped out of Ninoy Aquino International Airport, I gripped Daniel's hand tight and started to arm myself with steel and ice, lest a distant relative fling a snide remark or dismissive glance. I prepared a wall of deflective remarks with cannons made of snark and skillfully deployed shade, should anyone dare to address him as anything other than my spouse. But then it happened. An aunt I hadn't seen in decades greeted us, arms open wide, and said, "I'm so glad I finally get to meet your husband. He looks hungry. Let's eat."

With that, my defenses were shaken, my offenses disarmed. Throughout the trip, across island beaches and city rooftops, from home to home, we were welcomed with brown, open arms. We were treated like any married couple. And Daniel was treated like any in-law crazy enough to marry into this family, in that he was overfed, poured too much to drink, and given recommendations on the best local facial and microdermabrasion spas, #becauseAsia. By the end of the trip, I felt an immense amount of gratitude and hope, and a longing to go back.

All this and more ran through my head as I watched Crazy Rich Asians. Which proved, if nothing else, just how powerful seeing your story, your family, your people reflected back at you can be. Is it a story that everyone can relate to? Yes! Even if it is set among the jet-setting .001 percent in Singapore. But then again, people like my husband and I have been forced our whole lives to "relate" to white people in film, as if white experiences are absolute in their universality. So if we can relate to a rom-com with white actors playing white characters in white worlds, then anyone should be able to relate to a romantic comedy featuring an Asian narrative refreshingly unanchored by a white perspective.

It is a beautiful story. And yes, it is so empowering. And I encourage everyone to see it.

MICHAEL DUMLAO is a senior associate at Booz Allen Hamilton and CCO & cofounder at Fashion Fights Poverty.

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