I want to address something I've been seeing from a few white progressive-ish folks (particularly ex-evangelicals) who were raging about Meilin's mother (and grandmother) in the new Disney-Pixar film Turning Red. About how unhealthy and toxic her treatment of her daughter was.
And no, I'm not gonna give her a pass here, but I want to say a couple things about it. First, it's a cartoon. That is to say, it's a caricature of the way nearly every Asian parent interacts with their child. While the ridiculousness was heightened, it was incredibly relatable, and I'm sure every first-gen Asian diaspora-born felt a deep sense of connection to Meilin's experience with her mom.
Every kid raised by Asian immigrants in North America knows the struggle of trying to fit in with their non-Asian friends while bearing the weight of their parents' expectations.
And those expectations come with the baggage that our own parents carry. In our podcast episode on being Asian American in 2021 (which is available at https://fullmutuality.com/s1e7), Gail's cousin reminisced about how his parents (who were interned at a Japanese concentration camp in Canada—no, my country wasn't the only one that sent their Japanese residents into concentration camps) would remind him to "'always behave because people will remember it's the yellow guy that's doing something wrong.' People would remember me more because I was Japanese."
I'm not sure where I heard the following story, whether in a podcast or in a book, so if you're reading this and you know where/who it's from, please let me know in the comments. The storyteller was talking about how her Chinese grandmother living in one of the outer boroughs was attacked or robbed in a subway station. When asked why she didn't want to report the incident to the police, she replied that the police wouldn't help her—and she was right, of course, but not in the way we talk about the cops today. No, she was expressing something that an Asian American who lived here prior to 1965 would feel: the reality of having no status, no rights, no pathway to citizenship, and the constant threat of deportation.
East Asian cultures also heavily emphasize relationships to ancestors and elders to a much greater extent than the western world does. It's against that backdrop that this movie sets its themes.
One more thing before I get into how I felt about the movie. It's something that no white person in North America could ever possibly feel, but I hope that if you're reading this, you'll try to at least understand a bit. Every Asian American is asked to answer for their country of origin. When Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, every Japanese American had to answer for it in the concentration camps (and every Chinese American and Korean American bore the brunt of that discrimination as well). When the Japanese automotive industry overtook the American companies, the murder of Vincent Chin (who wasn't even Japanese) put every Asian American on alert. And when COVID-19 made its way to American shores, every Chinese American is held responsible (and my brother and I as Japanese Americans, my Korean American friends, and my Filipino American friends and family feel the sting of those attacks as well).
We are perpetual foreigners. Our parents left their homes to try to make homes for us in a land that won't allow us to feel at home.
So when the Asian parent sets expectations for their child, these are the burdens they carry on their shoulders. Is it healthy? Of course not. But when our parents have given up their homelands to make what they believed to be a better life for us, the expectations are heavy. And while I want to acknowledge the pain ex-evangelical folks feel when they think about how their parents treated them, I also need to express that this movie was not about your struggle. Do you think you could let us have this one?
Okay, since the rest of this rant was so long, I'll keep my thoughts on the movie itself short: it hit me. Hard. I don't find Disney films terribly compelling for several reasons (that I won't get into here), but this one felt different. Maybe it's the affinity I have for other members of the Asian diaspora. Maybe it's how I saw so much of my own relationship with my mother in this movie. Or maybe it's just so damn nice to see Asian-Canadian (and by extension Asian-American) representation in a big Disney movie. (Also, Meilin's Korean friend is probably based on me. I'm told that I'm dramatic AF when I'm hungry.)
Fitting that I should watch it on the anniversary of the Atlanta shootings. Or that it should come out so soon after an Asian woman was punched over 125 times in Yonkers. Or while we're still reeling from the recent murders of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee.
I'm definitely feeling things tonight. And this movie is hitting all of those things.