Whether you were your parents’ translator, questioned incessantly about how white you are or you just awkwardly didn’t know who you were, being first-gen is complicated.
For Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I’ve picked six films about Asian-Ameicans for you to check out. This wasn’t easy — mostly because Hollywood has a race problem. I didn’t want just a coming of age film or a foreign film; I wanted an American-made film about the kinds of struggles that would make me and other first-gens say, “that’s me.”
Here’s a marathon of films that take you on a chronological journey (if maybe only a taste) of what it means to be first generation Asian-American.
The Joy Luck Club (1993)
Maybe you remember reading this in high school, or maybe this seems like an obvious choice, but hear me out: The Joy Luck Club is literally about the first-gen struggle, told by bridging two generations. It’s the story of four women who immigrated to San Francisco from China and had American-born/first-gen daughters. They regularly play mahjongg together in what they call “The Joy Luck Club.” Through vignettes, we see each of the mothers’ stories about their lives in China and how they came to America. Complementing each of the mother’s stories is one from their first-gen daughters. Each daughter is going through a modern trial that mirrors her mother’s. The Joy Luck Club is one of the most poignant stories of intergenerational mother-daughter relationships, made all the more complex by bridging the gap between cultures.
The Namesake (2006)
I’ve always been a big believer in the relationship between love and identity. Being able to find a partner and have a strong relationship directly depends on how good your relationship is with yourself. Enter Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn). Gogol is first-gen Indian who has supportive but traditional parents. After graduation, Gogol changes his name to Nikhil and begins dating a white girl. Identity issues arise as Nikhil distances himself from his parents and grows closer to his white girlfriend’s family and their Western values. Then, Nikhil’s father tells him the true origins of his name. The Namesake explores the idea of cultural expectations vs. cultural realities and how they are constantly being written and re-written.
The Debut (2001)
The tumultuous teenage experience can be exacerbated by first-gen issues. If being first-gen means that you are a bridge between two cultures and two identities, remember (or imagine) how much more complicated it is when you’re a teenager. Your hormones make everything a bigger deal than it is. Your body is changing is scary ways. Your parents just don’t understand — literally, because English isn’t their first language. The Debut holds a special place in my heart because, for the first time ever, it shows Filipino characters roughly my age telling a Filipino story that I 100 percent identified with. Ben (Dante Basco) wants nothing more than to go to art school, but his father is pushing him to become a doctor. Family tensions come to a head during his sister’s debut (18th birthday party). Though the film is a touch corny and slightly reinforces Filipino stereotypes, it also does a decent job of tackling the very specific story of a first-gen Filipino cis-male while making it relatable to others.
Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)
Better Luck Tomorrow is a crime drama loosely based on a true story. Ben Manibag (Perry Shen) is an overachieving Chinese-American high schooler who aspires to attend an Ivy League university with his overachieving Asian-American friends. However, these kids eventually use their hyperintelligence to run scams and cons that eventually escalate. Better Luck Tomorrow is so heartbreakingly accurate in its portrayal of the cultural pressures faced by a lot of Asian American first-gen students. The film is not afraid to dive deep into the dark parts of the psyche and showcase, in the most extreme way, that pressure does not always make diamonds.
Meet The Patels (2015)
If you were thoroughly bummed out by the last film, this feel-good rom-com will help you remember that dating is awkward for everyone, but more so when your first-gen struggles come creeping in. Geeta Patel directs this documentary about her brother, Ravi, looking to marry a “nice Indian girl” just like their parents want. Ravi breaks up with his white girlfriend after realizing his debilitating anxiety about introducing her to his parents. The film candidly takes us through the high and lows of finding love — and finding ourselves when we have two cultures and a whole bunch of relatives whispering in our ear.
Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (2004)
This comedy may have a cult following among fans of stoner humor, but there is so much more to this film. The slapstick and crude humor serve mostly as superficial punctuation, but the root of the plot (and the resulting jokes) are completely identifiable to first-gen-ers. There are strong themes of cultural pressure, expectation and, most importantly, these two leading men of color get sweet, sweet redemption. In the end, it shows that being first-gen is amazing. Our differences make us beautiful, and overcoming obstacles together makes us stronger (or at least hungry for White Castle).