Editor's note: This column was originally posted July 3, 2018. We are bringing it back to note that Bao took home an Academy Award for best animated short film.
I’ve known for a while that my parents raised me and my sisters in a world that is entirely different from their own. They grew up in Laos and Australia, in traditional Asian households. I grew up in an Asian household in Plano, a suburban city rooted in American values and traditions.
The things my friends got to do when they were teens, I didn’t get to do until I was older. I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 18. Sleepovers were synonymous with tattoos, both of which were forbidden. While many of my friends left home for school, I went to a university just 10 minutes from my parents’ house.
And though I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup until college, I regularly swiped on mascara in the girls’ bathroom in middle school, ensuring that the makeup was gone once 7th period rolled around.
So you can imagine that it was surreal to see my childhood portrayed on screen during Bao, Pixar’s short film about the relationship between an Asian mother and her Asian-American son, which plays before The Incredibles 2 in theaters.
In the short, the son is represented by a dumpling; the mother cares for the dumpling by feeding it and keeping it safe.
As it grows, the dumpling wants to do more things like play soccer and hang out with friends, but the mother refuses to let him. In a way, she becomes obsessed with not letting him grow up. She does as much as she can to keep her son close to her, but she can’t compete with his desire to leave.
(Dear reader: Spoiler coming!) He announces he’s engaged to a woman and packs his things to leave. In an attempt to stop him, and with much-talked-about shock value, the mother eats the dumpling.
To be clear, my parents never ate me. But I felt the emptiness the mother felt after she realized her son was gone. It was a mix of disappointment and hopelessness. Feeling an overwhelming sadness, my boyfriend cried silently next to me.
He’s also Asian-American and an only child, like the son in the short. He connected to the mother-son relationship with a depth that I will never understand. I still can’t bring up this movie without him getting teary-eyed.
On top of delving into relationships, the film is enveloped in Asian influences, starting from the music down to the rice cooker and lunar calendar in the house. The mother practices tai chi and takes her son grocery shopping in Asian markets. To this day, I will still accompany my mom to the grocery store and push the cart as she shops around. After seeing this, all I wanted to do was go home to hug my mom.
As a kid, I would sulk over not being able to hang out with my friends or not hopping onto the latest fashion trend. Sometimes, I felt like my parents were really trying to make me as uncool as possible.
But they weren’t driving cars when they were 16, and my mother never wears makeup. They hung out with friends, but they always came back home to their parents. It’s a much different world for an American adolescent, where days are usually spent roaming free. And despite the frustration and angst I felt growing up, I know my parents love me.
Bao was able to translate something I could never put into words to my friends: that sometimes my childhood felt like I was living two separate lives, where one was trying to suppress, even suffocate, the other.
It comes with the territory of being a child of immigrant parents. The clash of values created an ongoing battle. Now that I’m in my early 20s, I realize that my parents weren’t trying to prevent me from growing up. They were trying to instill in me all they knew about becoming an adult. Now, looking back, I can clearly see it was all for love.