A few weeks ago I stood outside my office on the way back from the dentist, talking my mother down from her various threats to disown one or more of my sisters. This is not an unusual occurrence; there was a fight, and my mother reacted the way I expected her to react: with the temper she passed down to each of her children in varying ways. “I guess I have to realize that I need to let my children go,” she said. “I have to learn that my children can be independent, too.”
This brief moment of heartbreaking clarity was as carefully constructed and as genuine as the emotions behind Bao, the heartbreaking Pixar short that plays before Incredibles 2—an emotional rollercoaster that tugged at my unwilling heartstrings and left me in tears, feeling as if I needed to call my mom.
For those of you who wish to proceed into a movie theatre armed with no knowledge of this short, fair warning: There are spoilers ahead.
The story, directed by Domee Shin, Pixar’s first woman director, is simple: a Chinese woman experiencing empty nest syndrome is delighted when the bao she makes for dinner turns into a small dumpling boy. Thrilled to have made herself a companion, the mother and her small stuffed bun of a son partake in every activity together: tai chi in the park, shopping in Chinatown, and eating sweet buns out of pink pastry boxes. Eventually, different pastimes entice her bread son; soccer, soda, staying out late at night, and eventually, a (white) woman. Horrified by her dumpling son’s attempt to leave the nest, the mother does the only thing she can and eats her son whole.
Because this is a Pixar movie and the metaphor of a mother’s consumption of her child as a stand-in for her all-encompassing and suffocating love is a lot of look for a children’s movie, there is a happy ending. It was all a dream, the dumpling boy is a real son, and in the end, the white woman he is set to marry perfectly shapes a bao and presents it to her mother-in-law.
While the story of a mother’s love is largely universal, these nuances that resonated with Asian American viewers were lost on many Americans who expressed their displeasure and confusion via Twitter.
The lack of understanding—and the unwillingness to try -is perhaps the most frustrating thing about the backlash. As Petrana Radulovic writes at Polygon, “When people don’t get a cameo at the end of a Marvel movie, they Google it for better understanding. Yet more often than one might expect, when people are confronted with a particular cultural experience that they don’t get, the confusion rarely seems to turn into curiosity.”
The details of Shin’s vision—the rice cooker, the bamboo steamer, the house slippers, the jars of spices and hot sauce in the kitchen—resonated with me personally, nothing about the actual message was polarizing. A mother’s love for her child and the desperation felt when said child leaves the nest happens across cultures; most mothers don’t eat their children to keep them with them forever. Tiny bao do not turn into tiny boys. But the suffocating, over-protective love of a mother is very real. Shin was drawing on experience, as she told the Los Angeles Times.
It also came from my own life. My mom would often hold me close and say “oh I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I knew exactly where you were at all times.”
I was like “mom, that’s sweet. But creepy.” And I wanted to explore that.
The mom character immediately regrets it, as I think we all would if we did that.
But I wanted to tap into that feeling. That primal feeling of just wanting to love something so much that you’re willing to destroy it so it won’t go away.
What American audiences are reacting to is not the filicide implied by a cartoon woman eating a cartoon bun that is shaped like a surly teenaged boy, but the sense of filial piety that any children of immigrants find themselves rebelling against. As a unit, the family is the strongest and your dedication to the family supersedes anything else; in Bao, we are treated to the specific struggles of Asian American kids raised by immigrant parents who are still struggling with the nuances of a culture that has partially claimed their children. When children grow up in American households, they’re expected to leave the house and forge their own lives, independent of their parents and free from further scrutiny. The space that develops between a parent and child is not a detriment, but a sign of growing up. When faced with this reality, which is a side effect of raising an American child, a feeling of betrayal is natural and not unexpected. It’s also completely foreign to an audience that has no frame of reference.
Eating the small bun in desperation is not an act of violence, but an attempt to physically close the gap between mother and child. The mother in Bao spends most of her time bonding with her bun son by immersing him in his own culture, so that he doesn’t forget. His rebellion is natural, and it’s relatable: As Inkoo Kang writes in Slate, “All children go through a period of distancing themselves from their parents, but that process for many children of immigrants involves rejecting aspects of the culture that they’d grown up with.” At one point the small bun drinks a soda in rebellion and slams the door in his mother’s face, as he sits on the bed talking on the phone and eating junk food—a perfect betrayal of the home-cooked meal that his mother makes as a sign of her love, which he summarily rejects.
Rebellion is a familiar theme that runs through other works, but none so much as Ken Liu’s 2011 award-winning short story “The Paper Tiger,” a story that I cannot read without weeping. A son rejects his mother’s love, but lives to regret it. The first time I read this story, which I will not spoil, tears leaked out of my eyes for at least an hour after. It serves as a nice companion to Bao—darker but thematically similar, and a nice reminder to me and maybe to you to call your mom.