Soft Power: Chinese filmmakers spotlight Asian American struggle

Lauren Schatzman | Daily Trojan.

Full disclosure: I didn’t watch “Try Harder!,” director and producer Debbie Lum’s new documentary about Asian American students at Lowell High School and their quest to gain admission into the nation’s “elite” universities. Others were talking about it and I wanted to be able to talk about it too, but there were too many (virtual) things going on for me to make the two screenings at the Sundance Film Festival. I was increasingly stressed with upcoming assignments, and I think deep down, I knew it would have been too difficult for me to watch. 

I know it’s silly to write about a film that I haven’t seen yet but just the existence of it is enough. Really, this isn’t even about the film itself, but about the idea of it being here, spotlighting Asian American struggles. Just watching the trailer, I felt like I was going to burst into tears at any moment. Despite the cheerful background music, it was too much for me. Students were talking about Ivy League schools and essentially, the conflation of acceptance letters with their identities, and it just hit too close to home. 

The stories felt especially personal, as someone who just transferred to USC last semester and had spent the past year grappling with many of the same questions these students spoke about in the two-minute trailer. 

Watching those snippets of the film brought up so many memories, most of them emotional. When teachers in the trailer spoke about how difficult it was to get into college, I remembered crying in a religion class as I thought about a particularly heartbreaking college rejection the night before. I felt as if I was back in my senior year of high school, clicking through multiple college application portals and watching as each one told me, in some way or another, that I wasn’t good enough for them.

“It’s OK,” I remember saying even as I felt tears springing to my eyes, “I’m OK. It’s just college.”

Yet it wasn’t “just college.” It was college with a capital C, something that growing up as a Chinese American in the Bay Area, I had grown up believing was my livelihood. I kept a heavy binder full of college materials. Like the students in the trailer, I believed that I needed to attend an “elite” university to be respected. Whenever someone gave me a condescending look or commented negatively about how I wasn’t “smart enough,” I believed that one day I would prove them wrong with the college I went to. 

After I was rejected from multiple colleges, I kept thinking about how much it would have meant to me if anyone had just told me that they understood. That I didn’t have to “get over it” right away, but that I could take some time figuring out who I was without having college make that decision for me. 

That’s why I think films like “Try Harder!” are so powerful. When I reflect on how a two-minute trailer gave me a life lesson more emotional than those in many full-length films, I’m reminded of the significance of representation and empathy. Just the fact that I wanted to cry after watching the trailer is a testament to the power of stories, and more than that, storytelling that actively engages the Asian American community and experience. 

It isn’t just a documentary about academic pressure, but a narrative that probes deeply into Asian American identity. It’s a narrative that makes many Asian American struggles feel validated, seen in ways that are difficult to grasp if you’ve never taken the time to look. Lum tells us to look, and to look closely into ourselves. 

I spent most of my first year as an undergraduate hunched over a laptop in a dorm room, trying to memorize facts and write essays because my dream was to be at USC. It’s why I’m even more grateful to be a student here, writing this arts & entertainment column for the Daily Trojan, and having the opportunity to attend this school. Even if it’s not the typical USC and Los Angeles experience that I dreamed about, I remind myself daily that it’s a privilege for me to be here. Here I thank USC for taking a chance on me, a student who internalized the sentiment of “Fight On!” in my hope of transferring. 

In an interview about the film, Lum said, “I think all of us are like the kids, you know. Everyone knows what it’s like to dream big and try really hard to get there, and that’s kind of what we love about this story.”

I hope that many people watch this documentary when it comes out, if not to understand the experiences of many Asian American students, then to at least appreciate the work that independent filmmakers are doing in bringing important stories to the screen. More importantly, I hope we can learn from the film to respect our dreams while also having critical conversations about the cultures that have shaped them.

As for me, I think I’m going to watch the full film someday, possibly even in the near future, once I can better articulate who I am beyond my college rejections. That’ll be okay, I think. I won’t stress too much about it. With filmmakers like Debbie Lum, I don’t have to try too hard.

Valerie Wu is a sophomore writing about the arts and pop culture in relation to her Chinese American identity. Her column, “Soft Power,” runs every other Monday.