Warning: This post contains spoilers for Crazy Rich Asians.
The first time we meet Nick Young (Henry Golding) in Crazy Rich Asians, he's staring adoringly at his girlfriend, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she teaches an NYU economics class.
It's a lovely moment, which telegraphs a relationship of equals between two smart people who love and respect each other. But don't be fooled!
Nick goes on to invite this accomplished woman that he has been dating for a year (and wants to to spend the rest of his life with, although she doesn't know that yet) to his hometown of Singapore. His best friend Colin is getting married, and what better time for Rachel to meet Nick's entire family?
So far, so normal. People engaged in a long term relationship meet each others' families all the time! It's encouraged. Except that Nick has omitted the small detail that he's actually the heir to one of the human universe's largest fortunes. His family, the Youngs, are the biggest developers in Singapore, not to mention key players in the Hong Kong finance world, personal friends with some of England's most distinguished aristocrats, and members of several royal families.
Rachel gets her first taste of Nick's life when they board their flight, and instead of slumming it in coach with the rest of the normals, get whisked off to a private suite in first class complete with fancy slippers, silk pyjamas, and a bed. When she confronts Nick about the opulence of their trip through the skies, he comes clean. Yes, his family is "comfortable."
"That is exactly what a super rich person would say," she counters.
She has no idea. In this world, there's super rich, and crazy rich, and the Youngs fall firmly into the latter category. They rule the crazy rich universe. And the fact that Nick did not adequately prepare Rachel for the kind of situations that might arise in that context is inexcusable.
Take his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), for example, who fails to invite the couple to stay with her, suggesting that they might be better suited in a hotel. Ouch. Major snub. Nick knows that she won't approve of Rachel, and yet he doesn't brace her for it, leaving her to fend for herself.
The same goes for the family party at his grandmother's place on their second night in town. Nick's grandmother, the Young family matriarch, occupies a majestic mansion on a hidden compound — there is no such thing as an intimate gathering there. Nick knows this, and knows that not only will there be a dress code, but that every thread covering Rachel's body will be picked apart and analysed by the glitterati in attendance. They'll talk about her hair, her pores, her toes, anything that might stand out as unworthy of being in the presence of the great Nick Young. But rather than prepare her for this scenario, and gift her a day of pampering and couture shopping to get ready for it, he leaves her to hang out with Colin, promising to meet her there. If it weren't for Peik Lin (Awkwafina), Rachel's college friend and native Singaporean who knows just what she's in for, Rachel would have shown up completely unprepared, and in a cute vintage red dress rather the gorgeous Missoni gown that wows the crowd.
In my book, this is break-up worthy behaviour. Not because of the embarrassment that comes from failing to adhere to a dress code, but because it indicates a complete lack of consideration of one's partner. Meeting the parents is hard enough, but meeting them in a situation designed to humiliate you? That's unacceptable.
Rachel would have been completely within her rights to show up at this party, bid him adieu, and storm off. Still, Nick seems like a genuinely nice guy, so let's give him the benefit of the doubt and try to unpack why he would act this way.
Option A: He is blind to his own privilege.
It is possible that having grown up in this kind of glitzy, aristocratic bubble, Nick takes it, and the conventions that go along with it, for granted. He could be genuinely clueless about what it means to show up at gathering thrown by his grandmother. Of course, men would wear impeccably white, creaseless linen suits, and the women gowns and massive jewels passed down from 18 generations. That's just what one does.
But the fact is that Nick probably knows better. He lives in New York City after all, and his life with Rachel appears to be on the normal side. They go to Tea & Sympathy a lot. That smacks of a person who knows the difference between the Gossip Girl life he was born into, and what regular people expect from a family party. The fact that he was reluctant to share information about his family with Rachel before this trip only serves to reinforce this point. If he was truly oblivious, why would he bother to hide it?
Option B: He's aware, but doesn't want his wealth to change their relationship.
Okay, this is kind of cheating, but I asked Henry Golding what he thought when he stopped by the Refinery29 office for a Facebook Live shoot.
"He could’ve totally filled her in a lot more," he said. "Nick’s angle really is — the reason why he moved to New York and left Singapore is because he didn't want to be defined by this huge family burden. He wanted Rachel to love him for who he was and not judge him in that sense."
"Imagine if he went to Singapore and had a normal life, normal mum, normal Archie Bunker house," Awkwafina, who joined him during the interview, chimed in. "[The movie] would just be called Asians."
Point taken. But if this relationship were to take place in some semblance of reality, it would smack of an unwillingness to engage in a real and constructive conversation about his identity with the woman he claims to love.
Is Nick embarrassed of his wealth? Maybe. But that's still information he should be sharing with his partner. It seems more likely he's worried that telling Rachel about his situation might change how she feels about him, or worse, that it might alter her in some way. But that also indicates a lack of trust. A woman can get a blowout without turning into a gold digger. If you love and trust her, you have to accept that as well. Giving her tests — consciously or not — to see if she's up to the task isn't exactly the right way to handle it.
In the end, it takes Rachel breaking up with Nick to realise that he's botched the whole thing. He does eventually apologise, and it's very hard to resist that puppy dog look when it's coming from someone who looks like Henry Golding. But in the back of my mind, I'm still thinking: It's a red flag that we had to go through this rigamarole in the first place. Watch yourself, Rachel. Prince Charming needs to check his privilege.