- Red Panda is the symbol of suppressed emotions among the Asian diaspora.
- To many Asian Americans, the lived experiences of previous generations are often passed down through nonverbal communications.
- There may be harm in transforming strong emotions experienced by Asian women into giant red pandas for a comical effect.
Warning: Spoiler alert.
Pixar’s newest movie, Turning Red, is a story about a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl embarking on the rollercoaster ride of puberty with a close-knit group of friends who struggled to find her voice and identity against the cultural backdrop of repressed family lineage.
At the height of Covid-19, hate crimes against AAPI individuals surged. As an Asian American mental health provider, I have directly felt the impact of the ongoing anti-Asian sentiment and witnessed its impact on my patients, with a mixture of sadness, disappointment, and anger at a system that has failed to protect us. As an Asian American, watching Turning Red left me feeling bittersweet.
Perhaps the celebration of Chinese cultural heritage in contrast to the daily news report of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate crimes brings forward a deep-rooted melancholy. I could not help but wonder if turning intense emotions into a red panda cheapens the intergenerational trauma and loss experienced by the Asian diaspora.
Navigating Individuality and Family Responsibilities
Many immigrant parents are unaware of the invisible struggles faced by their children. Asian Americans live in two worlds and navigate different roles in each social space. In the mainstream society characterized by American values, they search for individuality through achieving a balance between peer acceptance and separation from the family of origin.
Within the family unit, they are often tasked with devotion to the family, to carry on unfulfilled hopes and dreams of previous generations, along with unprocessed trauma and loss that are woven into the fabric of family dynamic.
In Turning Red, Mei lived a “double-life:” At school, Mei and her friends wrestled with a set of developmental issues, navigating friendships budding attraction while adapting to changes in her body. Meanwhile, at home, Mei faced tremendous expectations from her mother, having to succeed 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 confronted with having to choose between being “Asian enough” and “American enough.” The immense tension between individuality and family expectations is often driven by a message internalized early on: “parents are the supreme beings who gave you life.”
Growing up, I was told that “a child is indebted to his/her parents for being born.” If you think there’s a way to repay the debt, the saying also implies it’s a debt that you could “never” fully repay your parents for.
Feeling “Never Good Enough” and Unprocessed Intergenerational Loss
As an Asian American psychologist, I’ve often wondered why many of my patients grew up carrying such rigid expectations from their upbringing. Some of them have internalized these expectations and, in turn, felt like a perpetual disappointment to their family. In contrast, others pushed their families away and were resentful for carrying the heavy burden of their family's dreams and aspirations.
The moment when Mei encountered 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 or not being good enough for her mother, feelings of guilt and shame were intertwined with the untold stories of the many generations before her, including her mother’s inability to gain approval from her grandmother. This loss has been unprocessed but nonetheless unconsciously lived on in Mei.
The mother-daughter dyad is centered around a theme of protection and sacrifice; Ming wanted to protect Mei by imposing rigid rules and expectations that pushed Mei to rebel, the very thing that has alienated Ming from her mother.
According to Pew Research Center (2021), about 27 percent of Asian American households are multigenerational. To Asian Americans, the lived experiences of previous generations are often passed down through nonverbal communications.
I have worked with patients whose parents escaped devastating wars and worked tirelessly in the new country without complaining, finding themselves struggling to assert their needs in relationships. I have worked with adults from families that suffered periods of deprivation (e.g., food, money) and finding themselves unable to move past the perpetual anxiety of not having enough security in life, despite having successful careers and financial stability.
For many Asian immigrants, trauma takes on different forms, from the unspeakable destruction of war to the melancholy of hiding part of one’s identity to fit in and survive in mainstream society. In immigrant communities, trauma is often suppressed and replaced by more immediate needs for survival and having to attend to family needs until some level of safety is established.
When we banish trauma and leave it unacknowledged, it seeps through the connective tissues of family relationships and can have a devastating impact on the later generations. William Faulkner infamously said, “the past is never dead. It is not even past.” The remnants of unprocessed trauma live on.
“Red Panda” and Dissociated Emotions
In Turning Red, Mei’s intense emotions would suddenly transform her into a giant red panda that is fuzzy, cuddly, and loved among her peers. There have been many theories of what the metamorphosis represented.
Perhaps it represented Mei’s developmental transformation into a teenager characterized by confusing emotions.
Perhaps it was a metaphor of the process between separating from one’s family of origin yet maintaining a sense of connection through the ancestral rite of passage to tame her red panda, or perhaps it was a happy coincident made by the director Domee Shi given the creatures aesthetics and the film’s homage to anime.
The film sends a strong statement throughout by portraying the protagonist, Mei Lee, as a fierce and unapologetic dorky girl. However, I found it uncomfortable that in the movie, strong emotions experienced by Asian women were transformed into giant red pandas for a comical effect and even rented out for others to take photos with. In many Asian cultures, emotional suppression is hailed as a virtue, an admirable amount of self-regulation that is programmed to maintain social harmony. For so long, Asian women have been boxed into stereotypes, portrayed as docile, meek, whose anger is often misinterpreted as sadness or minimized as “over-reacting.”
I fear the film’s interpretation of an Asian woman’s emotions as a cuddly, harmless, and fuzzy red panda cheapens the real and deep emotional pain experienced by the Asian diaspora. Perhaps Ming’s supersized red panda is a cautionary tale to all of us: Instead of denying your emotions, use them to guide your decisions. Otherwise, they will become the “giant red panda” in the room.
It would be reductionist to assume that every Asian American family wrestles with the same issues, yet some undercurrents run deep and silent in the Asian diaspora. Each Asian immigrant and their children’s stories are embedded in the mosaic of the Asian diaspora experience. It paints a hopeful picture, juxtaposing trauma and resilience, loss and self-acceptance, sacrifice and love. In Turning Red, the color red has many layers of meaning, the first period into womanhood, a lucky color in Chinese culture, a color that symbolizes anger and also fierceness.
As an Asian American woman, I choose to unapologetically embrace all my emotions: sadness, disappointment, hopefulness, vulnerability, and especially anger.
Pew Research Center (2021). Key facts about Asian Americans, a diverse and growing populationRetrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/04/29/key-facts-about-asian-…