Like many Asian writers, I have never written about being Asian.
The Asian adjacency to whiteness has something to do with it; I’ve never had to write about it. Also, writing about immigration and my race in a way that doesn’t feel like cosplay is difficult. It’s easy to describe my exotic meals growing up. But it’s too hard to talk about why, for example, Asian women have one of the highest rates of interracial marriage but also experience disproportionate rates of violence. We’re assimilated, but also hypersexualized and small, so it’s easy to murder us lest we lead innocent white men astray.
If there’s anyone who should be able to empathize with me on this, it’s my mom, who is also Asian, a woman, and an immigrant. But just because we’ve shared similar experiences doesn’t mean she has anything helpful to say. If anything, her advice would be that if you do everything exactly right, you will be safe. My parents never pushed me to be a doctor or a lawyer, but the pressure to get good grades, behave perfectly, and restrict my free time—a phenomenon researchers call “disempowering parenting”—is familiar.
It’s only recently that I’ve examined the flaws in this thinking. Perhaps that’s because only recently have there been movies like Turning Red and Everything Everywhere All at Once to illustrate that perfection is both unnecessary and impossible. I get it, though. If we daughters accept the pressure, it’s only to justify the sacrifices our mothers made in coming here and having us. And watching my oddly specific experiences reflected on-screen has led me to empathize with my mom in a way I wasn’t able to before.
Turning Red was the first inkling I had that something was up. Multiple reviews have latched onto the notion that the film is about puberty. That a preteen girl transforming into a giant panda when she gets upset is a metaphor for menstruation. And indeed, Meilin’s mother does publicly brandish a box of menstrual pads in one of the movie’s more humiliating scenes, but for me Turning Red’s message lies in its denouement, when her mom discovers evidence of Meilin’s various transgressions under her bed. Money! The pop band 4Town! And most of all, schoolwork that is bunched and crumpled! The grades are visible. B+! C! “Unacceptable!” I cried out loud, before I could stop myself.
I brought home a C in high school physics once, as I recall, which immediately landed me sessions with a private tutor. It was disorienting to discover, safely in my thirties, that I envied Meilin the ability to turn herself into a red panda as a teenager. It was involuntary! It wasn’t her fault! When she poofed into becoming huge, furry, cute, and stinky, she wasn’t small and obedient and quiet. She was loud and took up space, and it was fine. Her friends—who accepted her for who she was instead of punishing her for what she wasn’t—saved her. She could experiment. She got bad grades and made dumb decisions.
Like most high school girls, I belonged to a clique. I hung out with them a lot, but I missed a lot of the inside jokes. Until now, it never occurred to me that my friends spent so much time together without me because they didn’t have soccer, piano, violin practice, internships, and big family gatherings every weekend like I did. The structure holds you up, but it can also stifle you.