Growing up, I got used to not seeing myself. In films, TV shows and music videos, the heroine – the girl all the guys wanted – always pivoted around the cookie-cutter standard of Hilary Duff, Britney, Christina or Sabrina The Teenage Witch's Melissa Joan Hart. Their blonde, blue-eyed appearance didn’t match my own so I got used to never thinking of myself as the main character or love interest. I never gave it much thought, until recently.
Fast-forward many years and it wasn’t until I sat down to watch Pixar’s first Asian-led animated film that I actually saw myself on screen, truly, for what felt like the first time in my life. In the darkness – my stomach turning in joy – I laughed and cried, realizing what I'd been missing all this time.
In Domee Shi’s Turning Red, Chinese-Canadian Mei bursts onto the screen, a confident, larger-than-life, 13-year-old girl growing up in early noughties Toronto. Tamagotchi strapped to her backpack and clarinet clutched in her hand, she brags: "I wear what I want, say what I want. 24/7, 365." She balances all the opposing facets of her life seamlessly: she shrieks over boy bands with her friends, is an overachiever at school and runs a temple with her family where she is the perfect dutiful daughter. That is until one day, after her strict mother, Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh), embarrasses her in front of the boy she likes and she wakes up to find that she’s transformed into a huge red panda that leaves a trail of destruction in its wake. She can return to human form if she controls her emotions but any excitement, panic or rage and – poof! – back into the panda she goes.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Yes, there were surface similarities. I was a teenager in the noughties, wore glasses and also owned a Tamagotchi (named Rex). My middle name is Mei. I didn’t have a clarinet but you better believe I played the violin to perfection and my grades were impeccable. I too was horny for floppy-haired pop musicians and drew fan-fic sketches of my crushes, just like Mei does. But the parallels ran deeper.
I also felt the tug-of-war of being split into two people. My dual British-Malaysian identity meant that I spent most of the year worrying about teenage things in London – boys, bands, showing my belly button in cropped hoodies – but passed my summers in the tropical heat of Kuching in Borneo with my aunties and uncles and grandmother, who practiced Buddhism. Sunbathing in denim shorts with a Walkman strapped to my hip blasting Backstreet Boys and O-Town, my relatives lovingly teased me as a "wild child" but back in London I was considered overly studious. An A-grade nerd, if you will.
At home, my mother pushed me and my brother academically. We were reminded that we had to work twice as hard as other kids in school to prove ourselves. When I begged to go to parties or to the park with friends in my free time, it was a resounding no. Like Mei's uptight mother, Ming, my own mother feared that if she slackened the reins even a little bit I would propel destructively off the path to success she had so painstakingly laid for me.
I never turned into a big red panda but the same frustration would bubble up in me: that I was missing out, that people would think I was weird. All I wanted was to be a messy teenager and just like Mei, the more my mother pulled me in, the more I pulled away. I was double bound, an experience that many children of immigrants will understand – constantly battling our parents for a longer leash of freedom so we can fit in while holding on to tradition so we don’t lose sight of who we are. But as I watched the film, all these years later I felt sadness at how much I had rallied against my mum and misunderstood her intentions. She wasn't strict so she could brag about me as her perfect daughter to all our relatives back home; she wanted to set me up for success because the world could be a hostile place and because the way I look meant that the odds were already stacked against my favor.
Turning Red, being a Pixar film, never shows outright instances of racism. But there's one scene where a kid calls Mei out: "Go back to your psycho mum and your creepy temple, you freak!" Enraged, Mei puffs up in her panda self and I felt my throat constrict with a familiar fury. I know, after working hard not to be viewed as 'other', how hurtful words can embed themselves in you like a kernel of self-hatred and grow. I saw how Mei’s friends rushed to her defence and remembered how my own friends would gleefully unleash torrents of colourful, foul, brilliant expletives – probably a little too mature for 13-year-olds – at anyone who dared call me names in the street or even – as on one occasion – spit at me. My own mother practised quiet resilience in the face of prejudice, letting her hard work and success overcome animosity. Eventually I learned the same: that if you let your anger get the better of you, you’ll turn into someone you don’t recognize; that you can’t control what happens to you but you can control your reactions.
I never thought that an animated Pixar character would be the representation I'd always needed, nor how much I would need it right now, at this time in my life. Watching Mei on the brink of puberty, wearing her identity proudly, combating her inner turmoil and navigating her complicated relationship with her mother – who reminded me so much of my own beautiful, force-of-nature mother – I felt a swell of pride in my chest, one that has sometimes been dimmed by amplified anti-Asian sentiment and instances of violence during the pandemic. It's taken me a bit longer than Mei (I'm now well into adulthood) but I’m learning to let all these clashing sides of me tessellate and overlap. More than ever, I feel proud of where I come from and what I look like.
It's funny. When everyone on TV looks like you, you’re able to project yourself onto everyman characters in all media but when you don’t have that, you cling to the fibres of what you can see. There’s no doubt that seeing yourself represented in whatever way shapes your understanding and learning about your place in the world. It confirms you exist and are accepted. As Hollywood has made small strides in diversity, I’ve seen various onscreen iterations of 'me' in media and had a visceral emotional reaction every time. It’s not that I think I’m a crazy rich Asian or a superpower-wielding immortal or a giant red panda. What I see instead is that my life is abundant. I am lovable, strong and patient – powerful beyond measure.
Turning Red premieres exclusively on Disney+ on 11th March