Disney-Pixar released their new animated short Bao by Domee Shi, the first woman – and ethnic Chinese(-Canadian) to write and direct one of their shorts. The short originally aired before Incredibles 2 earlier this summer. Bao is the tale of Chinese motherhood.
It’s free on Youtube for one week. Do watch it before you read the rest of this post.
Only a Chinese person could tell this story, with its very specific emotional nuances that are very Asian. And the cultural details that are specifically Chinese. As someone before me has explained, in Chinese:
包 bāo = bun or dumpling
饱 băo = full (from eating)
宝 băo = treasure, often referring to a baby or child
Sometimes, Chinese mothers would say this when they get frustrated with their kid,: “生个叉烧包好过生你!!”
Translation: “I am better off giving birth to a barbeque pork bun than to have given birth to you!!” (Meaning that at least a bbq pork bun would fill her stomach rather than the troubles the child has brought to her), which is less harsh than “I wish I died at childbirth so I wouldn’t be here to put up with your crap!”
I guarantee every Chinese mother who watches this cartoon is going to go, “THAT’S MEEEEEEEEE!”
If they watch it together, they’ll probably start commiserating and exchanging stories about their ungrateful sons who don’t call or visit often enough.
And the story is about every Chinese son’s guilt about wanting to get away from mum. Chinese mothers tend to dote on their sons because of the tradition of treating boys like princes since patriarchy means the son is the one to carry on the family name and genes. In Bao, there’s also the story of children of immigrants drifting away from their parents when they want to fit in with the culture and their insensitive and cruel indifference to their parents’ pain. The brattish son is pretty much every Asian mother’s pain, immigrant experience or not. I was told that the story might be autobiographical, about Shi’s own relationship with her mother. In any case, Bao is shot through with guilt over mum. It’s very Confucian in that respect.
Domee Shi and her mother making dumplings as reference for Bao.
Dumplings, of course, are considered a symbol of Chinese culture and family unity when they sit down to make them together. They even made a point of that in the dumpling-making scene in Crazy Rich Asians. I have to admit my family never sat down to make dumplings together and I don’t think it ever occurred to us to do that, but hey, not every Chinese family sits down to make dumplings together. But we never cooked dumplings at home. It was easier to just buy them, frankly.
But anyway, I found the portrayal of familial love and pain to be very typically Asian. Asian stories love the drama and the tears, and the mother-son stories more than Western stories do. Western movies and TV shows about mother-son relationships seem to number less than stories about fathers while mothers are often either sidelined or invisible while the main characters, usually sons, deal with their daddy issues. Daddy issues seem more acceptable in Hollywood stories than mommy issues. I always found that interesting.
As it is, the naked sentimentality of Bao and sympathy for the aging mother is sure to go down a treat in China and Asia. Disney’s conquest of hearts and minds and wallets worldwide continues unabated.