I’m imagining myself walking a fictional waterside street in my hometown of Seattle, Washington. I pass a pregnant Chinese woman, a plethora of designer handbags laid before her on a table. “Sale! Sale!” the woman is shouting. What do I think of this woman? What assumptions do I make about her life in China and her journey to America? What do I think of her after learning she is in the country to give birth to her baby at an illegal birthing center for wealthy Chinese who want their children to be American citizens?
Last week I was faced with this scene and I was free to pass judgment. I was in a Zhongguancun movie theater watching Finding Mr. Right (北京遇上西雅图), the new romantic comedy from director Xue Xiaolu. Usually when I say I’m from Seattle, I get one of the following responses: Sleepless in Seattle, Starbucks, Microsoft (and once in Korea: “the gays, right?”). But as soon as the film was released I kept hearing, “Ah, Seattle. Finding Mr. Right.” So I had to see it.
I went hoping to see a Chinese view of my hometown. Instead, I saw Chinese watching Sleepless in Seattle. (Literally. There’s a scene in the movie where the characters go to the theater to watch Sleepless in Seattle.) It wasn’t real Seattle (it’s filmed in Vanouver), but it also wasn’t stereotype Seattle. There was no Starbucks scene and not even a Pike Place Market fish-throwing scene (although they do buy fresh crab from a Chinese-speaking fisherman on a dock). And the characters never wind up at a grunge concert, but a very 1990s punk-ish pierced and tattooed couple is met with shock.
The biggest audience reaction was upon discovering (spoiler alert!) that the butch woman living in the birthing house is a lesbian. The audience literally gasped when the shot of her and her newborn baby panned out to show a female partner standing by her side.
The story may be edgy for Chinese audiences, but it isn’t anything new or original: Wen Jia Jia (played by the charming and often hilarious Tang Wei), a rich woman, discovers money isn’t everything and finds true love (and is rewarded with success and money). But Finding Mr. Right is a very Chinese version of the rom-com cliches. Wen Jia Jia is an unmarried mistress, meaning her child won’t have a Beijing hukou. The father of her baby is lavishly rich and briefly gets sent away on vague corruption charges. One of the biggest laughs came from a joke about how many designer handbags he’d bought her.
The movie is wildly popular — it has outgrossed most Hollywood movies in mainland China since its release — but I haven’t found many people who will cop to loving it. Rose, a Chinese friend, couldn’t get over how unrealistic the story seemed. I wonder about how much easier it is to believe a foreign film. To me, it’s obvious Sleepless in Seattle is fake; Tom Hanks rows a boat from Lake Union to Alki Beach! For Rose, it was too much to try to believe a rich man would leave his wife for his mistress. “That wouldn’t happen,” she told me. And when I pressed her about it she corrected herself, “That couldn’t happen.”
As Wen Jia Jia peddles her handbags, people on the street glance at her and keep walking. They are blonde people who look like me. What are they thinking? They definitely aren’t buying any handbags from her.
What’s interesting is how this scene changes for me with the benefit of subtitles and context (of course I also have the benefit of knowing it’s fake and that she’ll end up with the handsome doctor in the end). It’s an immigrant story we don’t usually hear in America. These immigrants aren’t struggling to survive, they’re taking weekend trips to New York and buying wedding dresses covered in diamonds. Their coming-to-America story doesn’t have much to do with freedom or opportunity. Yes, they are still taking risks to get US citizenship for their children, but it’s not done out of necessity, it’s just one more thing that money can buy.
I would look at Wen Jia Jia selling her handbags and I would make assumptions about a crowded apartment in the International District. I would feel bad for her, picturing her pleading her case of Chinese persecution at the INS office. It’s easy to see your hometown and home country as the center of the world. I would have no idea that I was just an extra in a wacky foreign comedy.