Meilin "Mei Mei" Lee is a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl in Toronto who is navigating two important identities: her Eastern and Western. This is a dilemma that many in the Asian diaspora have felt, and one that ties together a struggle that is wrapped beautifully in a movie about a fluffy red panda. This coming-of-age story impacted the hearts of many, and as an Asian American therapist, my thoughts ran with it.
A huge theme in the movie is the value of family. Mei Mei has a strong relationship with her mother, but they have different cultural values. As a child of immigrants, this stood out to me. The balancing act of carefully embracing both your Eastern and Western is tricky. US norms prioritize the individual where one's wants, dreams, and desires aren't expected to include family. Mei Mei's friendships were suffering from it, but not because it was an impossible task. What we realize later on is that Mei Mei had to learn to speak up for herself and vocalize how her values were different from that of her mother's.
If you had gone through puberty and adolescence, this conflict can sound very familiar. When we start thinking for ourselves, discovering what values we do and do not want to carry from our family, and striving for more independence, this is process is called separation-individuation. It's known to create conflict across nearly all adolescent-parent relationships. When you throw cultural obligations into the mix, it gets even trickier. It becomes a battle of cultural values that seem to be polar opposites all in one teen who is trying to reconcile them.
I won't spoil the movie for you (I highly recommend you go and watch it!), but I will say this: Mei Mei's journey of finding who she is and searching through her values was both enjoyable and painful to watch. It captured the struggle of how Asian Americans may feel like they are living in two worlds. We often fight with the decision of choosing between our cultures, and that's a very painful choice to face. We sometimes forget that it's possible to take some and leave some from each culture. Maybe even finding a happy medium somewhere is possible.
This movie is so important for Asian American kids and families because it normalizes the experience of growing up in two cultural systems, struggling with cultural differences, and seeking resolutions. Even more importantly, it shows a classic and relatable Asian American coming-of-age experience that many Asian Americans like myself rarely ever get to see.
It was one of the few times where we weren't depicted as mysterious ethnic creatures. Mei Mei's personality wasn't built upon how much martial arts she was able to do. There weren't hardened stereotypes of her as a perfect student or a submissive daughter. Mei Mei was relatable. She was a girl coming from the height of the Tamagachi and 90s boy band craze. She was unapologetically herself, even in moments when she struggled. She was the Asian American kid many of us didn't know we wanted to see on the big screen.
If you're also Asian American and this movie touched your heart like it touched mine, it probably brought up a lot of emotions for you. What does it mean to be Asian American? What does it mean to honor your family and cherish your friends? What does it mean to stand up for your values, even when we aren't sure what they are, yet?
While friends can sometimes give you that insight, another place that can help with this part of your identity is with a therapist. At Cultured Space, our therapists are trained in having discussions about cultural identity to help you grow as a human. We hope that your path crosses with ours in that way. If you're considering therapy services, schedule a consultation with us today!
And if not now, we'll be here for you when you're ready.