The latest YA rom-com movie on Netflix, “The Half of It”, offers a smart and queer rendering of the classic “Cyrano de Bergerac” tale in a story that features interracial friendship and flirtation, along with the challenges that face many Asian American families.
The movie’s “Cyrano” is Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a Chinese American high-school student who has parlayed her brilliance into a side hustle writing papers for her peers. She’s also a closeted lesbian, and remains shyly distant from other students (some of whom mock her with racist epithets as she bikes home), apart from taking their cash for homework. So of course, when Paul, the inarticulate but lovable oaf of a white jock (Daniel Diemer), has a crush on the high school’s “it” girl Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), he goes straight to Ellie to help woo her with a letter.
Except for one problem — Ellie develops a crush on Aster too.
Once Ellie reluctantly jumps on board (her own family’s financial situation pushes her to accept), the blossoming interracial friendship between the odd couple of this straight white football star and Asian lesbian and literary wonder drives the story as much, if not more, than the disguised flirtations between Aster and Ellie-as-Paul.
The hardships facing some Asian American families also factor into the story in “The Half of It”. Ellie’s dad, who had arrived from China with a distinguished engineering education, is shunned because of his English and can only land work overseeing a lowly train station in a small town in Washington state. Ellie fears leaving him, especially when she’s the one calling the electric company to learn their payment is overdue and the power will be cut soon.
“The Half of It” delivers many heartfelt moments that transcend the usual boundaries in terms of culture and sexual orientation, and shines with a diverse cast.
A forbidden love affair between an enslaved man in colonial Indonesia and a young Dutch woman marked the beginning of a life of anti-imperial rebellion, propelling him into Indonesian history as a powerful national hero known as Untung Surapati.
Untung Surapati, born in 1660, most likely in Bali, was sold during his childhood as a slave to the Dutch military officer Deler Mur, who happened to have a daughter, Suzanne. Stories claim Surapati and Suzanne grew close through association and, eventually, fell into some kind of romantic attachment. But they happened to live in Batavia of the Dutch East Indies, which would enact one of the first anti-miscegenation laws (prohibiting marriage between Europeans and enslaved locals). Whether or not Surapati and Suzanne actually married depends on your source (and many draw upon the rich folklore and legends swirling about Surapati and his legacy). Still, any such relationship, official or not, would have violated Dutch authority.
According to Identity in Asian Literature, which summarizes the historical facts of Surapati’s life, “Gathering a band of loyal followers, Surapati subsequently fled to the mountainous tract of West Java.” Some versions of Surapati’s past give a more dramatic take on the consequences of the illegal tryst — that Surapati landed in jail where, like another Spartacus, he would come to ignite a slave revolt, leading his fellow men out of prison in noble opposition to the Dutch colonists.
Regardless, Surapati would go on to continue his rebellion against the Dutch East Indies, with notable success, as described in Identity in Asian Literature:
With his band he proceeded first to Cirebon and then to Kartasura where he was welcomed by the Sushunan of Mataram and granted a village near the raton. In 1686 Dutch troops under Commander Tack, were dispatched to Kartasura in order to intimidate Sushunan and to arrest Surapati. They were, however, defeated and Tack was killed, after which Surapati moved on to East Java where he founded a kingdom at Pasuruhan. Repeated Dutch attempts to oust him were to no avail. He ruled more or less undisturbed until 1705. … A gauge to the threat posed by Surapati comes from the fact that when the Dutch forces were finally victorious [against Surapati and his sons] they desecrated his grave, burned his remains, and scattered the ashes.
It’s no wonder that Indonesia has extolled Untung Surapati as a shining example in history.
In particular, the statistics on Asian Male/White Female (AMWF) couples appeared rather alarming. Based on data from the 2008 study, AMWF marriages had a 59 percent greater chance of ending in divorce.
Granted, this wasn’t as high as the divorce rate for marriages between Black men and White women, deemed 200 percent more likely to split. But it also didn’t compare favorably with White Male/Asian Female (WMAF) marriages, with only a 4 percent likelihood of divorce.
So was the data illustrated in the “cute, handy chart” right about interracial marriages of Asian men and White women? Are our relationships really that vulnerable to divorce?
The short answer is, not necessarily.
Driven by curiosity, I headed over to the very Wikipedia article the Thought Catalog piece referenced to look at the section on marital instability among interracial and same-race couples.
In this 2009 study, Asian-White marriages were the least likely interracial pairing to result in divorce, with even lower divorce rates than White-White marriages.
Or, as the authors of the 2009 study put it, “Mixed marriages involving Blacks were the least stable followed by Hispanics, whereas mixed marriages involving Asians were even more stable than endogamous White marriages.”
I was stunned.
Why did the author of the Thought Catalog article and subsequent “cute, handy chart” ignore the 2009 data?
Well, it’s true the data wasn’t in Wikipedia when he was working on his article. (See screenshots of the page for Feb 13, 2014 and July 14, 2014 as proof.) But seeing as the 2009 study was already published and available in 2014, you can’t blame this on a Wikipedia omission alone.
And while we could sit around and ponder why the author of the Thought Catalog failed to do his due diligence on the subject of interracial divorce, I feel that his “cute, handy charts” (which probably should be renamed “cute, misleading charts”) are symbolic of our human tendency to want black and white answers, even when the reality isn’t so clear cut and conclusive.
Research on the outcomes of interracial relationships is inconclusive, with some evidence showing that Asian-White relationships are at less risk for relationship dissolution. Some research on interracial romantic relationships has found that interracial relationships involving Whites and Asians do not necessarily have worse outcomes than their same-race counterparts (Gaines & Agnew, 2003; Gaines et ah, 1999; Troy et al., 2006), challenging the long held notion of relationship dysfunction among interracial couples (Bratter & Eschbach, 2006; Bratter & King, 2008; Eeckhaut, Lievens, Van de Putte, & Lusyne, 2011; Heaton, 2002; Zhang & Van Hook, 2009).
In other words, you shouldn’t necessarily jump to conclusions about interracial divorce rates — or worse, enshrine them in potentially deceptive charts — including when it comes to Asian-White couples.
If you asked me what graphical illustration I’d use to represent the outcomes of interracial marriages, I’d say this is more on target:
When it comes to interracial marriages and divorce, we need more people asking the right questions — and less people coming to simplistic conclusions.
What do you think?
P.S.: The data above come from studies on interracial couples in the US. Still, for anyone wondering about interracial marriages and divorce in China, there doesn’t appear to be enough evidence to conclude, as people often do, that divorce is necessarily more likely.
As Figure 3 below shows, the number of divorces registered between mainland Chinese citizens and foreign nationals rose from around 80 couples in 1979 to over 1,000 couples in 2000. That figure increased to over 3,000 couples in 2003, before skyrocketing to nearly 9,500 couples in 2008. It then decreased to around 5,700 couples in 2010.
This decline is consistent with the fall in the number of Chinese-foreign marriages registered in mainland China starting in the early 2000s. The PRC’s Ministry of Civil Affairs began to disaggregate Chinese-foreign divorce statistics in 2005, by including separate figures for those involving ‘waiguoren’. Unsurprisingly, given the higher proportion of other categories of Chinese-foreign marriage until recently, most divorces relate to the ‘Chinese’ categories of Chinese-foreign marriage.
In other words, the divorce rate appears consistent with the rate of Chinese-foreign marriages registered in China, and the authors believe that many of these divorces are still between people of the same race and ethnicity.
* I’ve intentionally chosen not to link to the WeChat article I referenced, but if you absolutely must see it for yourself, search for the official account for HiTouch艾达旗 and check their articles in the past few weeks.
Recently, I awoke to a powerful headline in the China Daily:
Determination is everything
The headline accompanied a group of photos underlining elite athletes’ perseverance in the world of sports. But I found myself so inspired by the phrase that I used a pair of scissors to cut it out of the paper and asked my husband to paste it on a door in our apartment.
Given the determination we’ve had to summon in the past several years to fight against a grave injustice (a fight that is still ongoing as I write this), it was inspiring and comforting to read these words, to be reminded of the power of sticking with it even when times are tough.
But as I pondered the phrase, I also recognized that it could apply to interracial relationships, including what I’ve experienced and observed among interracial couples here in China.
Longtime readers of this blog will recall what happened many years ago when Jun and I first began dating, and he returned home to share the news about his new girlfriend from America. His father said, “You can be friends with a foreign girl, but not date her.”
You can imagine, then, that when I once again encountered this response from Jun’s father, I thought our relationship was done. It was as if a parent merely uttering any rejection toward dating a foreign woman would automatically set in motion a cascade of events that inexorably led to breakup.
Except, in our case, it didn’t.
Jun just shrugged his shoulders, as if his father had merely offered an opinion on the latest news or one of their neighbors. It didn’t matter to Jun that his father disagreed with him about dating me. Jun was going to date me anyway.
He was determined to date me. So we stayed together, and eventually got married.
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to connect with and meet many other women like myself, who were not Asian and happened to date or marry Asian men. And what I’ve found is that many of them have very similar stories, with their beloved’s parents voicing some kind of opposition to the relationship. But they persisted, they stayed together and everything turned out OK too.
I’m also reminded of the many stories I’ve read of other interracial couples, who had to navigate all sorts of landmines before they eventually made it to their wedding vows, and more than just a statement that it’s not good to date someone. Things like friends who reject your partner, racial epithets from strangers who happen to see you and, worst of all, family who decide to disown you. I’ve read stories of couples so deeply committed that being shunned and even disowned by their families didn’t stop them from moving forward in a life together.
Now I’m not saying that determination is the answer for everyone. Sometimes we’re faced with really tough choices when we date differently, and not everyone can afford to risk a rupture for life with their families.
At the same time, I’ve also learned that there’s a difference between families who would outright expel you for your choice to date outside cultural and/or racial borders, versus families who might not initially welcome it (but could warm up to your presence, over time). And in the latter, a strong dose of determination by a couple could decide whether the two of you end up together in a glossy wedding photo – or apart, writing out the painful history of what went wrong in a diary.
What do you think? Do you believe determination is everything, even in interracial relationships?
The vast majority of people (whether consciously or unconsciously) date and marry within their own race.
According to Wikipedia, 97% of married white men and women in America are married to another white person, 89% of married black men and women are married to another black person and 91% of married Asian men and women are married to another Asian person.
If you happen to be in the less than 4% (according to Wikipedia only 3.9% of married couples in the US in 2008 were interracial couples – this is a big increase from less than 1% in 1990 but still an extremely low percentage) you are almost certain to get a question or comment about your interracial relationship at some point.
Both my fiance and I are Australian. I was born in Australia to anglo parents, he was born in China to Chinese parents.
While most people I’ve encountered don’t (at least openly) say anything about us being an interracial couple, I have encountered curiosity from both westerners and Asians as well as a few rare comments that are at least misguided if not racist.
The most common question I have gotten from Asians is a surprised “but how did you meet/get together with a Chinese guy?” while I’ve had both Asians and white people ask if I am “attracted to Asians”.
The first question stems mostly from curiosity, I think. While it’s fairly common to see white men with Asian women it is far more rare to see Asian men with white women (although I am happy to see it does seem to be getting more common).
The first question is also easy to answer – we were flatmates, we didn’t get along at all at first but slowly became friends and eventually fell in love.
The second question I honestly find bizarre. Imagine you asked that of a white person who was dating another white person “so, you are attracted to white people?”
No, I am not attracted to white people, or Asians, or black people or any race.
I am attracted to the man I am with because of WHO he is not what race he is.
I am attracted to him because he is strong but also prepared to show true vulnerability with me (something I have found to be incredibly rare).
I am attracted to him because he takes responsibility (for himself, for his decisions, for his family). He doesn’t expect anything from anyone.
I am attracted to him because he has an adventurous spirit and finds ways things can be done rather than putting them in the too hard basket.
I am attracted to him because he doesn’t shy away from things that are difficult, he faces challenges as they come up.
I am attracted to him because he knows what he wants and is prepared to work hard for it.
I am attracted to him because he prioritises what’s important to him and doesn’t let other things or other people run his life.
I am attracted to him because he’s upfront, he doesn’t manipulate or play games.
I am attracted to him because he is great at solving problems, an excellent traveller and can fix things.
Most of all I am attracted to him because we get each other on a level I find hard to explain – I haven’t felt this in any other relationship (even one that lasted for years).
Also, I think he’s pretty cute and his snuggles are second to none 🙂
Chi (her real name, no exotic background, pronounced Chai, like the tea) is engaged to a man who was born in China and grew up in Argentina before immigrating to Australia. Chi writes about her experiences (mostly her struggles trying to learn Mandarin) at www.talkingofchinese.com. —–
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