It took 47 years to see a movie where all the characters look like me

Mae Suramek
Mae Suramek

A few weeks ago I joined scores of Asian Americans in Kentucky and all over the country in watching the Netflix release of the film “Always be my Maybe” – the first American rom-com of its kind featuring a nearly all-Asian cast. Of course, I couldn’t just quietly watch the movie alone while sitting on my couch. I had to shout it out to the world and make it Facebook official! Within minutes of updating my status informing my 1000+ Facebook friends what I was up to, they started commenting with enthusiasm and excitement: “Let me know if you liked it.” “Was it any good?” “Would you recommend it?”

But what would have usually been a routine sweep of Facebook notifications followed by a few brief responses to the comments, ended up being a night of deep reflection and contemplation. For once, I found myself stumped, unable to respond to such simple questions. It mattered that most of the questions were from my white friends. Was this particular film “good”, they asked. I imagine they simply wanted to know if this was another feel good romantic comedy that could illicit those warm, fuzzy feelings in the vain of “Sleepless in Seattle” or “The Notebook.”

But for someone who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s where the only Asian characters on the screen were the socially and sexually inept Long Duk Dong from the 1984 film, “Sixteen Candles”, and David Caradine, who was actually a white man playing an Asian character in the television 1970 series, “Kung Fu”, the term “good” was painfully relative. Was it “good” that it took 47 years for me to see a movie where every single main character looked like me…and not a single one of them was engaged in a Kung Fu battle or spoke with an accent?

Was it good to see a female lead who wasn’t fetishized or over-sexualized, who was wicked funny, smart, and maybe even a tad raunchy? Was it good to see Asian men who weren’t emasculated and de-sexualized, who played in a band, and who had the gumption to punch John Wick in the face? Was it good to see family dynamics that were heterogeneous and not just a collection of stereotypes, many of which reflected my own and not those of someone living somewhere halfway across the globe? Was it good to see concepts like code switching, passing, and selling out tackled beautifully with complexity and humor?

Was it good to see a sweet and imperfect love story unfold before my eyes - but this time between people I could resonate with, imagine myself as, see in myself? Was it good to see food that I grew up with - kimchi, dumplings, and rice - as if they were the everyday norm and not part of some exotic celebration? Was it good to see that even supporting characters were people of color, and white people were not tokenized in those roles in the same way that Asian actors often are? Was it good that even if you replaced all of the characters with white actors, the writing was fresh, funny, relatable, and could still stand on its own?

So yes, my non-Asian friends, for me, this movie was quite “good”. But for those of you used to seeing yourselves reflected in the movies you watch, perhaps “Always be my Maybe” was just simply another feel-good rom-com. Of course, the movie debuted to rave critic reviews and lavish media coverage so maybe I’m not the only one who thought it was “good.” Perhaps Hollywood should take note.

Mae Suramek is a recovering non-profit professional turned social entrepreneur, and founder of Noodle Nirvana, a socially conscious noodle shop with a side of world peace, located in Berea, Kentucky.