What Pixar's 'Bao' and 'Crazy Rich Asians' Meant to Me

Monday, August 20, 2018

P H O T O  B Y  W A R N E R  B R O S  S T U D I O

I don’t care if you didn’t “get” Bao. This is for the ones who did. Traditional mama’s girls who need a support group, I am here for you. Contains tiny spoilers. 

It's literally in my OCL bio that I'm a mama's girl. My life's work navigates a strange dichotomy between "hot pot of rice that don't need no side dish" and "most filial child #1." Like many of my Asian American friends, I am independent, opinionated, and strong-willed. But I have never believed that my life is wholly my own.

So you understand why I might be frustrated by polarizing rhetoric like “tiger moms” and “crazy Asian mother,” why the Royal Wedding reaction that broke me wasn't that of the bride or groom, but of the mother who sat alone. Why my mom cried at her wedding (not happy tears, y'all), and why I think I may, too.

The little heartache from a rom-com like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ or an animated short like ‘Bao’ comes from seeing my/our mothers finally represented as their beautiful, complicated selves. For Asian children, every romantic relationship can feel upended, or at least suspended by a filial one. Maybe it is duty. Resentment. Adoration. All of the above. In very traditional Taiwanese households (like mine), marriage is not an affair strictly of love, but a sort of obligation -- who do I belong to now? Who did I belong to first? I didn’t realize how steadfastly I believed this until I saw, in flashes during a past relationship, that the crossroads of tradition were ahead. I never wanted to marry an Asian boy, in case his mother would expect to own me as much as my own mother does. I would have obeyed them both until my spine split into three. I am just that kind of daughter. I always will be.

In my family, love and duty are Siamese gravities. We have a duty to those we love; we are loving because we are dutiful. My mother and aunt have an old Taiwanese proverb about the girls of our family being the flowers. Any boy we bring home is only our flowerpot. My family’s affection for him will always be, first and foremost, to ensure his affection for me. That Nick Young is allowed to propose to Rachel with his mother’s ring has little to do with Rachel but everything to do with a mother’s devotion to her son.

Tell me, then: what sort of personal passions stand up to a tradition like that?  

An Asian mother’s love is bewildering and overbearing, but with age we might learn to recognize its various apparitions. The strange-smelling soups. The elusive expectations. The infinite fears, dressed as disapproval. Their absolute unwillingness to lose us, to bid goodbye to the products of such sacrifice. Bao’s mother stuffs him into her mouth so he cannot leave. Eleanor lives separately from her son to ensure his grandmother’s favor. There is no limit to what they will do for us. There is no limit in either direction.

They are the willing villains, determined to be the only ones to hurt us. Our mothers are at once the boggart and the Patronus: she whose disappointment is every filial child’s darkest fear, she who shields us unconditionally. They are the battered body between us and the casting directors who would turn us away. The producers who would tell us our faces are not commercial enough. The editors who would see too little in our stories.

They are the first ones to tell us no, for the sake of being the only one allowed to break our hearts in this way. 

Eleanor Young isn’t a straightforward hero or villain, but she is the one my heart goes out to. That's not to say our mothers are absolved of their accidental violences. They (not my own mother, because she is perfect, obviously) can be cruel, unyielding, quick to dismiss our personhood. Asian American Studies would not serve as proxies for therapy if our mothers' love was an understood and well-received one. And yet. These mothers have raised generations of daughters and sons who recognize their intentions, even if they struggle to understand them. They are mythologized to embody entire islands, cultures, histories. Mine is my compass, my passport, my home -- all at once.

So what I'm trying to say is, watching Pixar's 'Bao' and 'Crazy Rich Asians' alongside my mom allowed me to show her: the whole world honors what you have done for me. Kam sia. 

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