Warning: spoiler alert.
Pixar’s latest movie, To reddenis a story about a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl who embarks on a rollercoaster ride of puberty with a close-knit group of friends struggling to find her voice and identity against the cultural backdrop of an oppressed family lineage.
At the height of Covid-19, hate crimes against AAPI individuals increased. As an Asian-American mental health provider, I have felt the effects of the ongoing anti-Asian sentiment directly and witnessed its impact on my patients with a mixture of sadness, disappointment and anger at a system that has failed to protect us. Watch as an Asian American To redden left me with a bittersweet feeling.
Perhaps the celebration of Chinese cultural heritage, in contrast to the daily news of Asia-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate crimes, brings out an ingrained melancholy. I couldn’t help but wonder if turning intense emotions into a red panda cheapened the intergenerational trauma and loss suffered by the Asian diaspora.
Source: | DisneyPlus
Navigating between individuality and family responsibilities
Many immigrant parents are unaware of their children’s unseen problems. Asian Americans live in two worlds, navigating each social space with different roles. In mainstream society shaped by American values, they seek individuality by balancing peer acceptance with separation from family of origin.
Within the family, they are often tasked with caring for the family, carrying on the unfulfilled hopes and dreams of previous generations, along with unresolved trauma and loss woven into the fabric of family dynamics.
in the To redden, Mei lived a “double life”: At school, Mei and her friends struggled with a variety of developmental issues, navigating friendships, germinating attraction while adapting to changes in their bodies. Meanwhile, at home, Mei faced tremendous expectations from her mother, had to excel academically, and honor the ancestors who paved the way for her family to live in prosperity and abundance.
Between the two worlds, Asian Americans are also faced with a choice between “Asian enough” and “American enough”. The immense tension between individuality and family expectations is often driven by a message that is internalized early on: “Parents are the highest beings who gave you life.”
Growing up, I was told that “a child owes a debt of gratitude to its parents for birth.” If you think there’s a way to pay off the debt, the saying also implies that it’s a debt that you could “never” repay your parents in full.
Never good enough feeling and unresolved loss between generations
As an Asian-American psychologist, I have often wondered why many of my patients grew up with such rigid expectations of their upbringing. Some of them have internalized these expectations and, in turn, have felt themselves to be an eternal disappointment to their families. In contrast, others pushed their families away and resented that they carried the heavy burden of their family’s dreams and aspirations.
The moment Mei met her mother’s younger self in the bamboo forest, sobbing and blaming herself for not being good enough for her mother (Mei’s grandmother), the answer became painfully clear. Perhaps behind Mei’s fear of disappointing her mother or not being good enough were feelings of guilt and shame intertwined with the untold stories of the many generations before her, including her mother’s inability to get her grandmother’s approval. This loss was not processed, but lived on unconsciously in Mei.
The mother-daughter dyad revolves around a theme of protection and sacrifice; Ming wanted to protect Mei by imposing strict rules and expectations that drove Mei to rebel, the very thing that alienated Ming from her mother.
According to the Pew Research Center (2021), about 27 percent of Asian American households are multigenerational. Asian Americans often pass on the lived experiences of previous generations through non-verbal communication.
I have worked with patients whose parents had escaped devastating wars and worked tirelessly in the new country without complaining, struggling to assert their needs in relationships. I have worked with adults from families suffering from deprivations (e.g. food, money) who, despite successful careers and financial stability, have found themselves unable to overcome the constant fear of not having enough security in life.
For many Asian immigrants, the trauma takes different forms, from the unspeakable devastation of war to the melancholy of hiding part of one’s identity in order to fit into mainstream society and survive. In immigrant communities, trauma is often repressed and replaced with more immediate survival needs and the need to attend to family needs until some level of security is established.
When we banish trauma and ignore it, it seeps through the connective tissue of family relationships and can wreak havoc on later generations. William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even over.” The remnants of unresolved trauma live on.
Source: Angela Roma/Pexels
“Red Panda” and Dissociated Emotions
in the To redden, Mei’s intense emotions would suddenly transform her into a giant red panda who is fluffy, cuddly, and popular with her peers. There have been many theories as to what the metamorphosis represented.
Perhaps it represented Mei’s developmental transformation into a teenager riddled with confusing emotions.
Perhaps it was a metaphor for the process between separating from one’s family of origin and maintaining a sense of connectedness through the ancestors’ rite of passage to tame their red panda, or perhaps it was a happy accident that director Domee Shi considered the aesthetic who made creatures and the film’s homage to anime.
The film makes a strong statement throughout, portraying the protagonist Mei Lee as a wild and unabashedly stupid girl. However, I found it uncomfortable that in the film strong emotions of Asian women were transformed into giant red pandas for comic effect and even rented out for others to photograph. In many Asian cultures, emotional repression is celebrated as a virtue, an admirable level of self-regulation programmed to maintain social harmony. For so long, Asian women have been stereotyped, portrayed as docile and meek, whose anger is often misinterpreted as sadness or downplayed as “overreacting”.
I fear that the film’s interpretation of an Asian woman’s feelings as a cuddly, harmless and fuzzy red panda cheapens the genuine and deep emotional pain experienced by the Asian diaspora. Perhaps Ming’s oversized red panda is a cautionary tale for all of us: instead of denying your feelings, use them to guide your decisions. Otherwise they become the “giant panda” in the room.
It would be reductionist to assume that every Asian American family wrestles with the same problems, but some undercurrents run deep and quiet in the Asian diaspora. The stories of every Asian immigrant and their children are embedded in the mosaic of the Asian diaspora experience. It paints a hopeful picture by juxtaposing trauma and resilience, loss and self-acceptance, sacrifice and love. in the To reddenthe color red has many levels of meaning, the first time of femininity, a lucky color in Chinese culture, a color that symbolizes anger and also wildness.
As an Asian American woman, I choose to embrace all of my emotions without compromise: sadness, disappointment, hope, vulnerability, and especially anger.