An awkward 13-year-old Asian-American girl with bottle-cap glasses walks down her seventh-grade hall in funky jean overalls, laughing with her friends as they talk about their latest crushes. She’s full of confidence, reciting the lyrics to Snoop Dogg’s “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” and breaking out the Running Man dance without hesitation. Her mom definitely wouldn’t approve. When school is over, she transforms into the “perfect daughter,” quietly doing her homework in her room, eating rice and soup for dinner, and studying for the next day’s spelling test.
I’m describing myself in 1993. However, I could have easily been describing Mei Lee, the main character from Oscar-winning director Domee Shi’s latest film “Turning Red.” Mei is a dorky 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian who is silly and social but lives a double life when she gets home. She has to balance her desire to be rebellious with the cultural traditions long ingrained in her strong-minded mother Ming’s family. These include being respectful to elders, doing what you are told, and simply not talking about things that are taboo. Like periods.
Thankfully, Shi flips the script on everything that is considered acceptable and polite in Asian adolescence in “Turning Red,” and I couldn’t be happier.
I never had the sex or puberty talk with my Korean mother, who came to America when she married my Oklahoman-born father in the 1970s. After they divorced, she was a single mother raising two children in a foreign country with little education and knowledge of American culture. We never talked about personal things, especially about boys or our bodies or feelings. Obviously, a period talk was out of the question.
I think it’s important to talk to your kids about the squirmy things like periods, because it not only educates them, but it also builds trust between you two. My mother never opened up about this, or anything really, because that’s how Asian culture is. Emotion is a sign of weakness. It made me feel alone and isolated, so I looked to my more mature friends and television shows for answers. Half the stuff I learned was honestly frightening, so I think a talk with a loved one could have bridged that gap between the scary unknown and reality for a kid with an active imagination.
As writer Lee Yang Yi states in her article for Smart Parents, “Asian parents, in particular, tend to avoid talking to their teens about puberty.” Topics about bodily and hormonal changes are simply too difficult to discuss. (That’s why I shyly told my mom when I first got my period and then quietly stole one of her panty liners to hide the shame).
What Shi does by turning Mei into an emotional, over-the-top giant red panda after she gets her period puts that taboo right in her mother’s face. In fact, in front of everyone’s face. It forces others to see her physical and emotional changes without filter, something she has mastered while living her double life. She can no longer be sheltered or ashamed. She is free to be herself, which is something I think all adolescents, regardless of culture, should experience.
“That movie was really cathartic,” Joy Ng, a Chinese American millennial, said in an NBCNews article. “It’s saying, ‘Hey, you can have all these parts of yourself, and you don’t have to repress it.’” Of course, Mei tries to repress this bodily change from her mom in a funny scene where she hides behind a bathroom shower curtain. Her mother eventually asks, “Did the red peony bloom?” and gives her a basket full of pads, so the secret doesn’t last for long.
As a mom to a seven-year-old girl, I appreciate the humor that Shi uses in this coming-of-age story. My mom didn’t have a sense of humor at all when I was growing up. She didn’t laugh hysterically at “In Living Color” like I did, or clap when my brother and I impersonated Vanilla Ice. She always seemed so serious, like all of my mother’s Asian friends did. It was as if they couldn’t find joy in the little things in life.
I would later realize when I became a mother myself that we all have our own unique ways of showing affection to our children.
Shi felt the same when she made the movie. She told Uproxx, “Making the movie was kind of like therapy. I think my perspective changed a lot. Like when I first started the movie, I think I was more on Mei’s side. I was on the side of the kid. I think I grew to understand my mom and what she was going through and why she was being so kooky and overprotective and obsessive.”
I couldn’t agree more. Aren’t all of us parents a little bit the same way about raising our kids?
In Asian culture, even though there isn’t much cuddling and physical affirmation that “You’ll be okay,” there is a deep-rooted sentiment to always protect and take care of your children. In Western culture, parents are much more outwardly affectionate, but it’s still super challenging to watch your baby turn into a young adult.
I am grateful that Shi had the courage to make a movie about the “Red Monster” that those who menstruate face and show it in a way that is humorous, enlightening, and sincere. When I was growing up in the 90s, all of the taboo topics appeared on shows like “Beverly Hills, 90210.” There definitely were no Asian girls who looked like me in cartoons or TV shows. Today we have Asian women like Shi and Chloe Zao directing movies, cartoons like “Raya and the Last Dragon” and “Over the Moon,” and comedians like Ali Wong being unapologetically themselves.
Yes, “Turning Red” is about periods, which isn’t something everyone can relate to. But what almost everyone can relate to are themes of adolescent awkwardness, family traditions, and strained relationships. And singing catchy pop songs out loud with our friends.
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