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What Pixar's 'Turning Red' Got Right About the Struggle of Balancing Between Cultures

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

“Turning Red,” Pixar’s latest release about a young Chinese-Canadian girl on the verge of growing up, touches on a number of relevant issues and struggles that come with growing up. I found Meilin, the main character who turns into a red panda when she gets emotional because of an ancient tradition passed down from her ancestors, incredibly relatable.

Much of the story touches on Mei’s struggles with balancing her Canadian culture, and friend circle, with her traditional Chinese upbringing. In honoring one, she often seems to let down the other. As hard as she tries to meet her family expectations, and friends’ social expectations, she seems to fall short. I found this experience parallel to my experiences growing up in Canada as a child of East African parents with South Asian ancestry.

Similar to Mei, I was very culturally engaged and religious at home, but showed a completely different side at school and with my friends. I was constantly oscillating between two worlds, straddling the line between “Canadian” and “foreign” but never quite getting it right. This is not a new phenomenon, and is experienced by many immigrants or children of immigrants. Evelyn Kwong, in an article about her experiences, refers to this as her “home world” and her “outside world.”

It’s not an easy balance to strike, especially when there isn’t really a guidebook on how to be part of two cultures at once when they often seem contradictory. I found my identity fragmented growing up, and felt like I had to hide parts of myself in front of other groups. Much like Mei, at home I would wholly explore my Asian roots, learning the traditional foods of my people and watching old subtitled movies with my mother. But I wouldn’t always feel comfortable talking to my parents about the more Canadian or American culture I was exploring, and didn’t hang out with friends of other cultural backgrounds very much. On the flip side, around my friends at school, I’d wear terms like “coconut” or “oreo” like badges of honor — brown on the outside, but white on the inside. In denying the wholeness of my authentic self, I slowly chipped away parts of who I was, and my mental health deteriorated.

I never felt like I fully belonged — a piece of me belonged here, or a piece belonged there — but never all of me. I felt ashamed of parts of myself, and in turn, ashamed of myself. While playing music in a friend’s car, I would frantically apologize and change the song if a cultural song came on shuffle. As I grew older, I abandoned the cultural parts of myself more and more — a tragic and heartbreaking choice I felt I had to make. I stopped listening to the music I once loved, I stopped eating the food I grew up eating, and pushed myself to be as Canadian as possible. In doing so, I made the impossible decision to deny part of who I was, and let down my family, my culture, and ultimately myself. Over the years, this created a wedge between who I thought I was, and where I came from. My inability to reconcile both parts of my identity created endless inner turmoil and depression. The mental health toll of abandoning myself and feeling ashamed of myself was significant — whether it was depressive thoughts that no one liked me, or anxiety that I wasn’t good enough.

How could I feel like I ever belonged anywhere if I didn’t have spaces that embraced my whole self? How could I not feel isolated and alone when I never felt safe to show people who I really was? How could I ever feel wanted, or like I mattered, if people only wanted certain parts of me?

In my earlier writing about this, I refer to these parts of myself as plants in need of watering.

“Imagine a garden with a finite amount of water and sunlight. You know you don’t have enough for every single one of your plants, so how do you pick which thrives and which dies? How do you get to justify it by attributing greater value to one plant, the plant that lives, because it means the ‘lesser’ has to die.”

I correlated this experience of denying or killing parts of myself to my experiences with suicidal ideation. Of course it made sense that I often experienced a desire to no longer be here — I had been pushing parts of myself to not be here my entire life.

“I believe that my suicidal ideation was born from a tiredness of slowly killing little parts of me to appease another…Bit by bit, parts were getting chipped away. I got tired of choosing what lived and what died, tired of the idea of not being enough being constantly reinforced.”

The way that Mei has to navigate honoring all her “plants,” and how she finds ways to honor her whole self — aided by the acceptance of her friends, and ultimate acceptance of her family, was beautiful to see and spoke to the importance of community in being your whole, authentic self.

Ultimately, “Turning Red” filled me with hope. Hope that children growing up today with two cultural identities don’t have the same struggles with choosing like I did, hope that they can have both their cultures, and hope that they feel comfortable in showing their whole selves because they are not only accepted, but loved for their beautiful and unique individuality.

It is my hope that as we see more representation in movies, and learn about more than just the dominant culture, we see fewer mental health issues in multi-cultural children, teenagers, and ultimately adults stemming from identity issues. I look at my nieces and nephews growing up today, and I hope they never have to hide parts of their culture — I hope they always feel like they belong, I hope they never are ashamed of proudly carrying where our ancestors came from in the ways that I was, I hope they never have depressive thoughts about who they are, and I hope that the people around them support their authentic, whole selves so they never have to choose or let themselves down.

Image via “Turning Red” official Facebook

Originally published: March 18, 2022
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