In ‘Turning Red’, I finally saw myself as a main character

With a box of tissues in hand and my phone on silent, I braced myself for the full body experience of 100 minutes of “Turning Red,” a new animated feature from Toronto’s Domee Shi.

And yes, I knew it was a colorful, happy, PG-rated Pixar movie featuring a giant red panda, but I still expected tears. Why?

This is one of the first times I – and many others – have seen themselves as a main character.

Told through the eyes of 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian Meilin (Mei) Lee, the film is about navigating the tricky stages of puberty and the impact these growing pains have on home and school life – two different “worlds” that I know all too well.

Growing up in Toronto, I lived two very different lives, just like Mei. One was my “home life” instilled in me from birth.

It was about upholding the values ​​that would make my family and my Chinese ancestors proud: achieving academic excellence, respecting elders, and being a “good kid,” which meant being obedient and less of a burden. After all, I have often been reminded of all the sacrifices my family made in immigrating to Canada for a “better future”.

But I learned in primary school that my “home life” would make it difficult for me to fit in at school – my “outside life”.

Entering kindergarten was a culture shock – from the strange looks I had to questions and comments from others about my appearance, the food I ate and the language I spoke.

In class, I also felt the cultural disconnect when children were encouraged to discuss their individual feelings, whether good or bad. The way I was raised, like many other immigrant children, was to keep my negative thoughts and feelings to myself – just be grateful for what I was told.

In my desperation to know how I could fit in better, I watched shows like “Lizzie McGuire” and “Gossip Girl” to try to find characters I related to.

But it quickly became clear to me that people who looked like me — not to mention all the chaotic thoughts I had — would never be found as a star on those shows. These main characters have never dealt with questions such as “why do your people eat this” or the ever-dreaded question “where are you in fact from”, at a young age.

I started getting rid of anything “Chinese” when I entered the classroom. This came with the tension and guilt of needing to be “a perfect girl”. To survive and fit in, I felt the need to hide my different “lives” from each other, code-switch, and look “white enough” at school, while making my family “proud” at home.

Another strategy was to blend in with the background.

I learned this from instances where I saw Asians acting in a show or movie. They were either the “quiet, studious student” or “the tech wiz,” who only had a line or two, only there to support the white main character storyline.

While it’s true that the saying “seeing is believing” is cliché, sometimes when there are only a few depictions of us on screen, we just lean into what seems to be expected of us.

As you can imagine, with no other pop culture references or idea of ​​what we might be like, it was incredibly lonely. There were no tools available to me as a child to explain who I was over and over again to my peers. Nor was there an easy way to explain to my mother why I had started to ‘rebel’ – which for her was to dye my hair, get tattoos – as a need for me. integrate into my “external life”.

That’s why watching Mei in “Turning Red” was incredibly cathartic and moving for me.

She wants to do anything to impress her mother Ming and her family, to bring them honor – just like I did growing up.

But she also wants to be able to see the popular boy band she’s in love with in concert – something she shares in common with her group of friends at school. His parents just don’t understand.

In portraying this struggle that unfolds during these difficult teenage years, Mei is a reflection of those strange and nuanced burdens we carry as immigrant children. Her story tells us that we are not alone in these complex and confusing experiences.

I also hope that through this film and the relationships Mei shares with her mother, grandmother, and aunts, my mother will understand me a little more. That she better understands the pressure I felt to fit into a world that seems totally different from the world at home. That it will be a starting point for dialogue to understand the differences between generations – why we are the way we are and how we can learn to accept each other.

While we see more representation in movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” or shows like “Bling Empire,” they often only portray the diasporic experience through the spectacle of luxury and elites. They may feature Asian characters, but the stories are unrelated to a majority.

“Turning Red” isn’t just relatable, it also takes place in Toronto, which makes it even more special. It’s the quintessential story that defines Toronto – a melting pot of people from all parts of the world, coming together and learning from each other, and from ourselves.

Although Mei and I don’t have exactly the same upbringing, she gives me hope that young Asian Canadian girls of the future won’t need to hide different parts of their lives or, worse, erase parts of which must exist.

Instead, they will be able to kiss each other whole. That their two so-called “worlds” can live together – even if it sometimes feels like they’re a giant red panda sticking out like a sore thumb.

Mei gives me hope that we can all embrace the panda within us.


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Elizabeth J. Harless