IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'Turning Red' shows how adolescence is more than physical change for Asian girls

For Asians in the diaspora, those teen years are also confounding because of the negotiations they make between their own heritage and the dominant cultural norms, experts said.
Everything is going great for 13-year-old Mei — until she begins to “poof” into a giant panda when she gets too excited.
Everything is going great for 13-year-old Mei — until she begins to “poof” into a giant panda when she gets too excited. The movie features the voices of Rosalie Chiang, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and Hyein Park as Mei, Miriam, Priya and Abby.Pixar / Disney

Sophia Luo, a high school junior who recently watched the coming-of-age film “Turning Red,” said she immediately felt pangs of familiarity. As she watched main character Mei attempt to conceal her love of a boy band from her mom, whose approved activity of choice is watching Chinese dramas together, she felt represented. 

Luo is among the many Asian American women who saw the Pixar movie, which was released on Disney+ last week, as an affirmation of the cultural tensions that girls in the Asian diaspora often feel, predominantly in adolescence.

“As I was reaching puberty, having struggled with these new changes as a person, I also had to think about so many other things,” Luo, who’s of Chinese and Vietnamese descent, said of her upbringing in an Asian immigrant household. “Like, who am I? … Do I belong?” 

The film, about an Asian Canadian teen going through puberty, reflects how, for Asians, those teen years are confounding not only because of the physical changes they undergo, but also because of the negotiations they make between their own heritage and the dominant cultural teenage norms, experts said.

Image: Turning Red
From left to right: Priya, voiced by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan; Mei, voiced by Rosalie Chiang; Miriam, voiced by Ava Morse; and Abby, voiced by Hyein Park, in "Turning Red."Pixar / Disney

“That movie was really cathartic,” Joy Ng, a Chinese American millennial who also felt deeply connected to the film, said. “It’s saying, ‘Hey, you can have all these parts of yourself, and you don’t have to repress it.’”

The beginning of the film shows Mei, voiced by Rosalie Chiang, living much of her life in Toronto, aligned with the path that helicopter parent Ming, voiced by Sandra Oh, had laid out for her. Rather than do karaoke with her friends, Mei opts to help out at her family’s temple after school, prepare dinner and stay on top of her homework in addition to participating in her mother-daughter soap opera ritual. Her love of boy band 4*Town is relegated to spaces away from home, with her close-knit group of fellow “4*Townees.” 

But as Mei enters puberty, she steps away from her sheltered life. Not only does she contend with a newfound ability to turn into a red panda when she feels strong emotions — an ancestral trait that her female family members have all found a way to control — but she also deals with the introduction of crushes, the yearning to spend more time with friends and a stronger development of interests, like music, away from her family.

It’s a heady mix, especially as Mei attempts to manage her mother’s expectations, and one that causes an uncomfortable, inner anxiety that is so central to the coming-of-age of many girls in the Asian diaspora, said Richelle Concepcion, a clinical psychologist and former president of the Asian American Psychological Association. Exploring sexual attraction, social interactions and outside interests often presents tensions within the family due to particularly stringent expectations placed on women across many Asian cultures to be ladylike, respectful and ensure that their actions positively reflect their families, Concepcion said.

“When we think about it, at least from the parents’ standpoint, it’s about saving face,” Concepcion said. “You don’t want your child to have this reputation of being this boy-crazy, sexually curious being.” 

A scene from “Turning Red,” introducing Mei Lee.
A scene from “Turning Red,” introducing Mei Lee.Disney/Pixar

Concepcion added that in immigrant households there’s the additional weight of upholding the legacy and values of those who came before. In “Turning Red,” this is portrayed through Mei’s family, for example, running a temple that pays homage to the ancestor who began the red panda tradition. 

“There’s just that cultural difference, where they grow up and just do what they want to do, whereas we have to kind of take into consideration what our elders want for us and how they want us to be here,” Ng recalled of her teenage years.

With media often perpetuating the idea that Western culture is superior, making those in the diaspora feel pressured to choose between worlds, Concepcion said many girls feel stuck in between and unable to conduct themselves authentically. 

For Mei, it manifested in lying to her parents about her after-school activities and choosing 4*Town-related endeavors over her temple duties and family time. It symbolized a bicultural teen tendency to resort to hiding interests or rebellious tendencies from parents, critics say. Ng recognized those moments in the movie as versions of her own experiences, recalling how she would seek out spaces outside her family to foster her love of hip-hop and dance. 

Luo acknowledged that her early adolescence felt dark, and she said she engaged in much of the same behavior, turning to heavy social media use to explore her political views and love of K-pop bands, interests her parents did not immediately approve of. She said though she wanted to find her own way, she grew fearful that she’d lose the connection she shared with her family. 

“I remember I struggled a lot with wishing I was white and thinking that my life would be easier,” Luo said. 

She added: “I grew up admiring [my parents] and just wanting to be exactly like them. And when I hit that age, I was realizing, ‘OK, I can’t exactly follow your footsteps anymore.’” 

The control many Asian immigrant parents exert does not come from a malicious place, as the movie shows. In one emotional part of the film, Mei meets Ming’s teenage self, who’s balled up on the ground, sobbing over the fear of not being enough. It’s evident that Ming’s emotional scars have been passed down to her daughter. The pair then share a sobering moment of reflection and empathy. Ultimately, Mei learns she doesn’t have to compromise any part of herself, as Ming honors her daughter’s choices. 

“They internalize a lot of things that they grew up with,” Ng said of her own parents. “Part of that is also because they’re so busy surviving that they don’t have the time or privilege to sit down and think about these constructs and say, ‘Let’s challenge these things.’ It’s what they know.”