Does My Culture Confuse White People?
An examination of the 'Bao' short film response.
This June, the Pixar animated short Bao was released preceding the Incredibles 2. And while Incredibles fans have waited patiently 14 years for the sequel’s premiere, Asian-American audiences have waited 23 years for a Pixar film to reflect their experience, much less a lifetime of Asian-American centered films that are popular enough for the general public to consume. And there lies the problem.
The short film, directed by Domee Shi (the first woman to direct a Pixar short), offers viewers a glimpse of empty nest syndrome from the perspective of a Chinese Canadian mother.
Viewers from Asian immigrant families deeply resonated with the concept, myself included. However, responses on social media made it clear that this was not the case with everyone, as predominately white users expressed great confusion over the short and an even greater unwillingness to understand.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the 'Bao' short film.
As I mentioned before, the short follows a woman experiencing empty nest syndrome.
In the short, she discovers that one of the baozi dumplings she made is alive. She then raises the dumpling as her own "son," feeding and molding him with spoonfuls of dumpling filler anytime his head becomes dented and partaking in activities together, from tai chi to shopping in Chinatown.
However, the relationship between mother and son starts to waver once he hits adolescence. He tries to play with the other human children, but the mother refuses in order to protect him. As the little dumpling becomes a teen, he becomes more rebellious, seeking out more independence. Soon enough, the mother discovers that her son is engaged to a white woman and ready to move out of her house.
The mother fights to keep her son from leaving her home, but in a shocking twist of events, she eats him. She is instantly filled with regret and cries herself to sleep. Then, her real son, who is the human version of the dumpling, is pushed into the room by his father. The son comforts her, but she ignores him. He then comes closer and offers his mother a baozi. They share the treat and both break down in tears.
The film ends with everyone coming together as a family to make dumplings, including the son's fiancé.
I was in tears from the waves of mixed emotions. I am the daughter of two Taiwanese immigrants and this story hit home more than any story I've seen in theaters.
I felt joy from seeing people who represented me and my experience on screen for the first time. I felt frustration towards the suffocating protectiveness of my mom growing up. I felt guilty for being the child who moved across the country to follow my own “American” dream. I felt sadness and love for my mother, who I saw reflected in the woman in the short.
Ultimately, Bao tells the tale of a mother’s love and the desperation she may feel when her child leaves the home, all while capturing the struggle between Chinese and Western cultures of immigrant parents and second-generation children.
And that's exactly what the director was going for.
In an interview with My Statesman, Shi explained that she pulled inspiration from her own life.
"Growing up, I was that overprotected little dumpling for my Chinese mom. I was an only child living in Toronto with my parents, and they’ve always kind of watched over me and made sure I was safe—kept me really, really close," Shi said. "I just wanted to explore that relationship between an overprotective parent and their child with a dumpling as a metaphor."
Not everyone understood Shi's message, however.
THIS 👏🏼 WASN’T 👏🏼 MADE 👏🏼 FOR 👏🏼YOU pic.twitter.com/cNDe1cDmAD— William Yu (@its_willyu) June 25, 2018
A number of people expressed their confusion over the short via Twitter, calling it "dumb" for their lack of understanding.
It genuinely baffled me when American audiences failed to understand the story. And it was even worse that they were dismissing the short as confusing or weird rather than using those feeling to inspire understanding.
Where was their sense of family? Of empathy? Of curiosity? Is empty nest syndrome confusing? Arguably, no. It's a seemingly universal concept that can be understood and felt no matter where you come from, and without the Chinese nuances throughout the film, Bao showcases the relationship between a mother and her child.
That leaves the themes of Chinese culture. Is that the part that people don't get? Is my culture confusing to others? It's clear that the representation and diversity are severely lacking in today's media.
Unlike most films in Hollywood, Bao was not made from the perspective of a white person. The Asian values within the film are missed by a predominantly white audience, because they don't know how to recognize them. They've learned that their white perspective is the norm, and when something goes outside of that comfort zone, people often react as if it's wrong. As if what they have seen is a mistake.
Bao is a story that needed to be told, especially for the people who are confused. The tale offers a refreshing perspective outside of our mostly white, mostly male perspective, all while portraying universally powerful themes about the parent-child dynamic at its core. Seriously, go see it. And if you are confused, ask.
Remember, a comfort zone might be a beautiful place. But, nothing ever grows there.