Interested in social affairs and intercultural couplings?
Scoffing at “news” about the rich and famous and their ostentatious lifestyles?
Enjoy reading the gossip columns and want to read something of a little more substance?
Check out Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend (the latter of which has only just been released this June 2015, just in time for a beach read).
On the surface, these novels are merely fictitious accounts of the lives of truly upper-class – and merely “crazy rich” – Asian jet-setters from Hong Kong, Singapore, and increasingly mainland China.
The look at these people’s lives is hilarious.
There are the parties and shopping trips that are to be expected; there is profligate luxury and concern over social rankings; there are games of status, concerns about company performances and portfolios; and worries about the children.
These super rich people’s lives seem so removed from the lives of ordinary people and even of rich from other places, but at closer look, they appear quite similar, too:
concerned about money, not wanting to pay too much, then again paying way too much on luxuries;
concerned about their children for whom they want the best of educations, but who still seem to end up only questionably well-adjusted – and if they are well-adjusted, then still in ways that the parents consider crazy because it’s not what they’d planned for their children;
caring about social status games and gossip and Habsburgian marriage politics, and all in all having issues like everyone else… except when not. And at very different levels, too.
The novels are, if you are at all interested in these issues, a lot of fun to read.
Interracial, Intercultural, Intersocial?…
Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend are also good starting points, if so inclined, for thinking a bit more deeply about not just intercultural relations and relationships (which are quite a popular topic and ‘educational’ theme), but also “inter-social” issues.
Cultural differences are usually noticed only, but easily, when people from different cultures come together. No big surprise.
One big issue there? When a couple is obviously intercultural and/or interracial. Otherwise, we often assume that all people of a group are quite similar; Americans are Americans, or at least so are Caucasian Americans and African-Americans; Chinese certainly are Chinese (supposedly), and so on. For couplings across those lines, we expect trouble.
In talking so much about intercultural and international relations, we often forget that differences already exist between the lifestyles and attitudes – the cultures, if you will – of people who seem to be (or are) of the same national / ethnic / “racial” / cultural background, but have different wealth, status, and pedigree…
Kevin Kwan’s novels are also all about that theme, if you so read them – and where it is relatively easy to remain above the complications of intercultural interaction (or to feel that way, at least – just don’t interact with “them”), such “inter-social” themes can easily arise even more unawares, but hit you even more intimately.
When you marry into another family, and that family has a different cultural background and social pedigree from your own, especially, complications arise, and you cannot stay detached.
Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend is not just about the spending and the scandalous lives of the super-rich that are those novels’ characters, but also about such intercultural and inter-social issues.
One of the main characters, after all, is Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American who ends up thrown into the world of these super-rich and socially distinct.
Ethnically (“racially”), she may be like them, but in other respects, they are worlds apart.
As a “banana” (“yellow on the outside, white on the inside”) Chinese-American, Rachel’s attitudes and ideas just don’t quite mesh with those of the “real” Chinese; but it’s not making things any easier that there is a chasm in net worth and social class and family background between her and her fiancée (and his family, especially).
The issue is all the more noticeable when the novels look at Kitty Pong, a Chinese marrying into a super-rich East Asian/Chinese family – except that she is mainland Chinese and from a, let’s say “challenging” social background, while her husband(-to-be) is from an established uppercrust one.
She would be just the type of person often mocked for the bad taste and ostentatiousness of newly rich like her, but here… Well, things take some unexpected (and some to-be-expected) turns, and one can come to feel for her.
Nouveau riche, like… having to drive a Ferrari to a cheap mall in Haikou, Hainan
Being Your Other
Almost all the people we learn about are Chinese, would one go by superficial looks, but they all also set themselves apart from each other through their background in different countries and, rather more importantly, from different family lineages.
All the hijinks, the challenges of personal life, the meddling of mothers, and the general acceptance or ostracism by society ladies (and it is noticeable – and not far from the truth, I dare say – that it is women who are much more concerned with status and standing than the men… even if the men are far from immune to it) thus hide a deep question that is straight out of the intercultural education handbook:
How do you remain and/or change yourself in order to fit into a different cultural context? Can you even do so?
Only here, this different context is one that is socially and culturally different not in the way we constantly talk about it, in terms of race/ethnicity or nation-and-culture, but in terms of social standing and the culture that goes with it.
And there, it can all look so calm and peaceful…
The way of being that goes with that is just what Bourdieu described as “habitus,” the typical kind of bearing and poise (and then more) that makes one recognizably belong to a certain class even before words need to be spoken … and I bet not many people who start reading Kevin Kwan’s novels expect themselves to end up thinking about such highfalutin concepts from social theory.
Once you get just that little awareness of it, however, you can approach intercultural/”inter-social” affairs with much more clarity, at least when it comes to why, thanks to different contexts, different ways of having grown up, made (or even lost) fortunes, and formed identities, people from different social backgrounds will act and appear so differently.
And of course, you can simply enjoy the whirlwind tour that Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend takes you on.
Taking an interest in how other people live, whether it is through gossip or analysis, in envy about lifestyle or relief not to be living with such issues, is only human, after all. You don’t have to pretend it isn’t, no matter your social/cultural standing ;)
And besides, in the allure of some brands, all people seem equal ;)