“Sorry I’m not perfect. Sorry that I’m not good enough. Sorry I’ll never be like you.” These were the words Meilin (Mei) Lee said to her own mother after finally having enough of her overbearing control. For many Asian teens, failure to live up to parents’ expectations is universal, especially when negotiating between keeping their own heritage and conforming to the majority cultural norm.
In the first few seconds of Pixar’s animated movie, “Turning Red”, Mei describes the sacrifice her Asian parents made to give her the life she lives. In return, she feels obligated to do everything they ask of her and be the perfect child. She honors her parents at the expense of her own happiness and self respect.
This mindset and practice of filial piety has always been rooted deeply within East Asian culture. Obeying your parents as the superior is a value passed down from generation to generation. Though this effect has its reasons, it can also result in a constant desire to please elders, sometimes forfeiting a person’s own sense of self respect. This effect then gets passed down through the family which is shown in the later part of the film when Mei realizes her mother, Ming’s, struggles during her own adolescence. It comes as no surprise then, how her mother’s emotional scars were passed down to Mei through her parenting.
In the film, Mei is seen to be extremely tied to her culture. For example, Mei watches historical Chinese dramas with her mother and volunteers at the local Sun Yee temple, dedicated to their ancestors. But as Mei starts to appreciate and find interest in boys, pop culture music, and Western influence, Ming only starts to grow more and more suspicious of her daughter, feeling as if she is losing grip over her own child. For Mei, she can never shake the feeling that she is disappointing her mother, and that her mother is stopping her from living authentically.
Misa Suigiura, an Asian American young adult author, expresses how “I was thinking about other Disney films and Pixar films and the initial rebellion is against the parent. Every teenager sees their parent as a villain a lot of the time” said Misa Sugiura, a young adult author, in an interview for Today.com.
Although Mei’s mother may seem like the villain in the story, she cannot be blamed for being overprotective of her daughter.
During the movie, the audience may find Ming’s true care and affection, showing the awkwardness and authentic love in which Mei’s mother actually has for her daughter. For example when Mei’s mother thought she had begun her period, the audience is drawn to the fact that her mother had supposedly been preparing for this day for quite awhile. Later, her mom is seen stalking the school yards in an attempt to give her daughter the pads she forgot at home.
While at times it may seem to cross the line, the reality is, Asian parents mean no malintent and only want their children to do well and succeed. Personally, I sometimes find my parents to be a bit overcautious and worrisome, but they remind me that they only want the best and point out my shortcomings for me earlier, instead of having to suffer through them later on my own.
In an NBC News Article, Joy Ng, an Asian American millennial, expresses how she can relate to Mei herself and how the movie felt “cathartic” to her.
“There’s just that cultural difference, where they grow up and just do what they want to do, whereas we have to kind of take into consideration what our elders want for us and how they want us to be here,” said Ng.
The balance of culture for many Asian Americans is tough. Oftentimes, parents find that their thinking is the only right one, and therefore the child must listen and do exactly so. While on the other side, the child usually has so many thoughts and opinions, but ends up not expressing them and obeying their parents.
I find it hard to balance what I learn from outside of home from my friends and school, and how I’m taught to think at home. With parents who often implement their thinking on me, I find myself conflicted with which part of my culture I should hold on to and which I should ignore.
Both sides ultimately contradict the other, with parents losing their children to another culture, and kids feeling the pressure and burden of staying loyal to their family heritage– not to add the expectation to be perfect on top of that. Therefore the need to choose between two worlds and the feeling of being stuck in between can lead Asian teens to feel as if they do not belong anywhere, or that they can not act authentically.
Although Ming accepts Mei’s changes and growth in the end, the bittersweet truth is that Ming’s control over Mei will never truly stop. But nor will her love and care.
What stuck out to me the most was when she apologized to Mei, realizing that she may be the reason as to why Mei is so hard on herself. Ming reassures Mei that the farther Mei goes, the prouder she’ll be.
Even though the perspective of the story is specifically told from an Asian-Canadian girl’s perspective, the film also touches on important topics that other cultures and communities can relate to. With adolescence being one of the more obvious ones, the movie also highlights what it is like to grow up in an immigrant family.
“…in immigrant households, there’s the additional weight of upholding the legacy and values of those who came before.” said Richell Concepcion, a clinical psychologist for Asian American Psychological Association.
On top of that, the movie itself has also provided another main character with glasses, much like Mirabelle from Encanto, and has also been one of the first to address health issues, such as diabetes, in one of the scenes where a supporting character is wearing a diabetes patch.
“I’d like to thank whoever did this. It’s such a little gesture, mostly unnoticed by the most, but it’s literally the first time ever I’ve seen someone with a diabetes patch, let alone in a cartoon. This is so important, thank you,” said a fan on Twitter.
Despite “Turning Red” only sharing the experience of a single Asian girl’s teenage story, the movie itself can be both universal and uniquely relevant. I am also trying to find the perfect balance between both worlds, while trying to stay true to myself and my own values. I try to make room for both sides of my culture like speaking Mandarin at home with my parents, but also sharing with them English pop culture and modern trends.
Even though it can be a struggle to accept either side at times, as I grow up, I’m starting to adjust to both. The fact that the story is also provided through an Asian American scope makes the story more unique to me, as I can find myself relating to similar experiences as Mei does with her parents.
I appreciated that the story included the struggle between finding yourself and not losing the strong relationship between your parents. Personally, the movie is much more relatable compared to some of the older Disney movie princesses. This is a story that portrays the truth and roots about another’s culture and values. This is a story that reaches beyond a unique group of people, because this is a story that reflects the truth about growing up between two very different cultures.