Pixar’s first female-directed short film, Bao, hit cinemas recently, tugging at the heartstrings of viewers worldwide before Incredibles II started to play. The latest in Pixar’s now famous shorts has quickly become a favourite for many, especially among those whom it spoke to the loudest: Asian immigrants to the West.
But it should speak to us all, right? The majority of us have parents, families, lives that shift and change, and periods of loneliness and emptiness. But for many, many white people across the Internet, Bao was utterly baffling. Inverse.com and the Huffington Post have both touched on the issue, and their articles are well worth checking out, but here is our two cents’-worth as well.
What’s It About?
Bao centres around a middle-aged Chinese woman living in Toronto. After her husband shoves three freshly-prepared bao into his face and heads out for the day, our protagonist watches as one remaining bao sprouts arms and legs and begins to burble like a baby.
What follows is a chance for this childless woman to experience all the joys, fears, and sorrows of motherhood as her child grows, gets hurt, learns new things, and eventually begins to rebel and try to fly the nest with his white fiancée, at which point the mother – in a last-ditch attempt at holding on to her dear child – devours him.
It is revealed soon after that our protagonist in fact has a son of her own (who has just returned home) and that the bao’s growing up and fleeing home mirror her real son’s step-for-step. This simple story of a mother struggling to let her child grow, find his own way in life, and eventually make a life of his own, has left some white folks baffled.
Eastern Family Values
Of course, there are significant Chinese cultural elements here: simple ones – easy to pick up and understand – like our protagonist steaming baozi instead of cutting sandwiches into triangles for her husband; and more subtle and important ones, like the greater emphasis Chinese families typically and traditionally place on family bonds and values.
In China, Korea, and Japan (but China most of all) it is ordinary – indeed, expected – for a child, male or female, to remain at home until they are married. In recent years this has shifted a little: in big cities with greater career and financial opportunities, ‘married’ may be replaced by ‘employed’, especially for men.
Nevertheless, the stigma we have in the West of wanting, and being expected, to leave home the moment we are able (going so far as to mock those who still live at home past the age of, say, 21) does not exist in China. In fact, if you were to bring up the idea, to a modern Chinese person, of mocking someone aged thirty-or-so for still living with their folks, they would be horrified. Where is the shame in remaining close to one’s loving and supportive parents, after all?
On top of this, the expectation that children, once grown up and with families of their own, will then go on to care for their ageing parents is a given. A family in China, even one in cooped up a small apartment in Shanghai, will typically consist of three – maybe even four – generations under one roof. The generation in the middle raise their children and take care of their parents, as their parents did a generation before. It’s a fair and even trade, ensuring that everyone is safe and secure. This tradition builds love, breeds familiarity, teaches respect and kindness, and gives the children a sense of stability.
All of what I’m saying here is a foreign concept in the West. And that’s certainly not to say it’s wrong (I’m a twenty-something white man who flew as far from his nest as possible); it’s merely a lesson in context and culture.
These cultural differences aside, it still bears repeating that, just because an animated film contains unfamiliar foods and a protagonist that is not young and white, this does not make its themes mysterious, confusing, or unrelatable. In fact, it simply goes to show that the oversaturation of young white people in our visual media today is perhaps a detriment to our ability to empathise with, and understand, others.
Bao should be a simple story to follow and, if it isn’t, then taking an interest in the cultures and traditions of other people only benefits both sides, in the end.