Walking into a dark theater to watch Incredibles 2 this summer, I was excited to watch a highly anticipated sequel to a movie that had been a part of my childhood, not to be emotionally wrecked. When the customary animated Pixar short began, I gasped as the image of a squat Asian woman deftly shaping meat-filled buns on her kitchen counter filled the screen. The familiarity of the motions as well as the hunger-inducing detail of the ingredients brought to mind moments of my own childhood, moments that I hardly expected to be represented in animation before a blockbuster Pixar film. The short film, “Bao,” depicts the complex relationship between a Chinese mother and her son, a steamed bun that suddenly comes alive, from birth to rebellious adolescence.
Directed by Domee Shi, a Canadian-Chinese woman, “Bao” is able to accurately capture bits and pieces of the Chinese-American experience, from a house filled with objects that can be found in every Chinese household to the pain and distance the son inflicts on his mother in his attempts to navigate assimilation. The film quickly progresses from idyllic mother-bun ventures set in a vibrant Chinatown to escalating conflict, as the son rejects his mother for soccer, beer and, eventually, the ultimate betrayal, a white woman. The story culminates when the mother, faced with her bun-son leaving home permanently, decides to eat him.
As she plopped him into her mouth, and chewed, eyes closed in defiance, the theater erupted with laughter, scoffs of disbelief and audible “What?”s. While everyone in the audience around me was dealing with their initial discomfort or shock differently, I slowly realized that I was uncontrollably crying. I’m talking full snotty, noisy waterworks — in summary, pretty disgusting. Despite appearing visibly upset, I was overjoyed. There was something about this violent and visceral act that made complete sense to me, as if the only way for the mother to grasp the situation was to consume and contain an emotion that could not be communicated through words.
The short film was billed as a story of a mother suffering from “empty nest syndrome,” or the onset of loneliness after a child leaves home. As my friends and I have gotten older, I’ve seen many different forms of “empty nest syndrome,” manifesting in actions that vary from flurries of texts to their children to increased spending on gadgets for the house. In “Bao,” however, Shi digs deeper, mulling over the underlying tradition of filial duty that is often at odds with Western culture and that, in turn, leaves children of immigrants at odds with their parents, sometimes fostering guilt and resentment. Shi presses into this theme and shows the possibility of reconciliation, as mother and human-son (of whom the bun was representative) eat sweet buns together after they overcome their differences.
I left the theater optimistic, having resonated with the short film, and enthusiastic that a story about the Chinese-American experience had been shared on such a large platform. However, when I scrolled through the ol’ volatile Twitter-feed, I was not surprised to find that there was a whole contingent of mostly non-Asian-Americans that had missed the analogy and were upset, confused or being downright mean about what they perceived as a cannibalistic scene. Disappointed, I was reminded of Frank Chin’s play, The Year of the Dragon. In the play, Fred Eng, a second-generation Chinese tour guide, cynically proclaims to his tour, “Food is our only common language.” The food to which he refers is the delicious Western simplification of Chinese food, a rich culinary culture reduced to popular dishes with sweet and sour names like Kung Pao and General Tso’s. According to Fred, this type of Chinese food, simplified and made palatable to Western tastebuds is the only part of “Chinese” that the American visitors are willing to engage with, unwilling to look beyond what is caricature of their own creation.
Unlike the Chinese food described by Fred, the food depicted in Shi’s Bao is complex and intimate. The animation of the food evokes the precision and emotion of food scenes characteristic of Studio Ghibli films and the gleaming, mouthwatering quality of fellow Pixar film Ratatouille. But the animation goes even further, conveying the conviviality of making dumplings with family friends on special occasions and the nostalgia of picking the choicest fresh baked breads from the Taiwanese bakery with your grandparents. In “Bao,” Shi uses food as a vessel through which the mother can communicate what she cannot say to her son — a vessel for love, for apology and for reconnection. While the storytelling in “Bao” is particularly resonant with a certain demographic, it still draws upon overarching themes of family, love and loss that are relatable to all audiences.
Maybe “Bao” was too different, too difficult, too confusing for the Western audience. It is in this space of unknowing, however, that lies its ingenuity, its ability to present a truth — someone’s truth, but not everyone’s truth — unapologetically, without an obligation for explanation. As storytellers with diverse backgrounds begin to spin their deeply personal yarns on larger platforms, I look forward to the unique and the hard to swallow. In these stories, there are differences to be celebrated, reflections of ourselves and seeds of sameness to be found in each other.
Isabel Ling is a senior in the College of Art, Architecture and Planning. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Linguistics will run on alternate Mondays this semester.