A Pop Culture Shock After the Trip of a Lifetime

It wasn’t until old friends started tweeting out their Top 10 lists for the year that I realized I’d seen only six movies, all on planes or Netflix: “Mamma Mia 2,” “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” “Set It Up,” that one where the Rock goes “Die Hard” on a skyscraper, and two Netflix Christmas movies.

They’d been delightful, but the real treat came this January on the plane back from Taiwan to the United States at the end of my 52 Places trip, when “Crazy Rich Asians” popped up on my seatback screen. It was just over six months since it came out and I squealed with excitement to the nice Chinese girl sitting next to me. She didn’t speak much English, but she nodded, smiling, and turned on a Chinese-language soap opera for herself.

For months, I’d been devouring Twitter threads and think pieces about the impact of “Crazy Rich Asians.” I’d followed along as three Korean friends from New York magazine tweeted about seeing it together, and weeping, for the third time. Over the years I’d written about the lack of realistic Asian representation in American pop culture because I’d felt it, too. A history teacher saying “ching-chong-chong” and slanting his eyes while teaching my class about China in middle school. Asian men like my dad being used as the butt of sexual jokes.

So much of coming home after a profound experience like a long trip, especially one taken alone, is reckoning with how much you’ve changed and how much everything you left behind has stayed the same. But while I was gone, Hollywood had changed.

I watched the penultimate scene three times: Hollywood’s new star, Henry Golding, rushes onto an airplane to get back the girl (a radiant Constance Wu), in a clichéd moment straight out of a dozen rom-coms. It didn’t feel clichéd or over the top. I’d just come from two months of tasting the richness of Asian cultures in India, Bhutan, Japan, China, South Korea, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, and that scene felt right, like it had a place in the world I’d been fortunate enough to see over the last year. And then I watched the whole movie over again.

A WEEK AFTER I GOT BACK, I went to Utah for the tail end of the Sundance Film Festival, which I’d attended for years as a January ritual for work. Some people were surprised that I’d headed back on the road so soon, but wandering around Park City, puzzling out how to make it to screenings in the middle of a snowstorm, felt more like home to me than the apartment I hadn’t lived in for a year.

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