Turning Red: Will It Be Okay If I’m Not Good Enough For My Parents?

Parents, be advised that there are spoilers ahead! Also, before you watch with your kids, please be aware the film gently addresses the onset of puberty. 

Turning Red is a coming of age movie centered on a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl growing up in the early 2000s. Featuring fantastic animation and plenty of nostalgic throwbacks to that golden age, the film does a wonderful job dealing gently with many “emerging teen” issues. But those are just secondary themes. Turning Red is primarily a story about the generational conflict between the parents and children of immigrant families.

The main character is Meilin Lee (Mei), who is confident, a bit goofy, and loveable. Her friends adore her and label her a “goody goody,” which is a testament to the parenting heroics of Ming, her mother. Mei has a deep sense of duty towards her mom, and it is not surprising given how Ming seems to balance high expectations (Academics! Sports! Music! Chores!) with unwavering love and support. This mother and daughter have an amazing relationship.

But times are changing. A teenager now, Mei is facing everything that puberty brings. She’s interested in boys and goofing off with her besties, and the most important thing in the world to her is the boy band 4Town. None of these things bear the coveted stamp of mom’s approval. Though they are still close, Mei realizes that her mom’s dreams, goals, and wishes are no longer one and the same as her own. To make matters worse, this coming-of-age process is thrown into warp speed by the emergence of a magical hereditary trait: when she is triggered by extreme emotions, Mei transforms into a big, hairy, smelly, (but very cute) red panda.

What do we make of this panda power? When a familiar trope like animal transformation appears, it’s tempting to try to assign a familiar narrative to help make sense of the story. However, imposed narratives can lead to false interpretations. If we allow the story to remain in its cultural context, the way it is meant to be understood, we can get a clearer picture of the story means.

All of the women in Mei’s family share this trait. Ming explains the origins of their panda power to Mei in this way:

“The gods gave her (Lee ancestor Sun Yee) the ability to harness her emotions to transform into a powerful, mystical beast. She was able to fend off bandits, protect her village, and save her family from ruin. Sun Yee passed this gift to her daughters when they came of age, and they to their daughters. But over time, our family chose to come to a new world. And what was a blessing became ….an inconvenience.”

The panda is the anthropomorphic version of the unacceptable, frowned-upon, shameful, and embarrassing inner beast that many Chinese believe they have within themselves: their raw, unfiltered feelings and emotions. 

Chinese people are generally not a “feel my feelings really deeply” people. Voicing displeasure is seen as oversensitivity, disrespect, or ungratefulness. Hurt feelings are something to be ashamed of, to hide and sweep under the rug. Contrary to Western culture, feelings are not so much perceived as part of someone; they’re seen as an unwelcome intrusion on that person. 

This aversion to emotions is part of the collective mindset of traditional Chinese culture. If the family is a unit, in order for the unit to operate smoothly, the individuals must be largely homogenous. In a group oriented culture, the good and thriving of the group is more important than that of the individual. Anything that diverges from the group identity threatens the identity and stability of the group as a whole. 

But if someone is upset, that makes them different from the rest. To the Chinese, love = proximity, so separation = no love. And if Chinese parents know anything, it is that they really, really love their children, with the kind of love that makes unimaginable sacrifices. Separation is unthinkable. Instead, parents would choose to be resolutely blind to any indication that their child is separating or different from them — even if the child is the one insisting on this. 

Generational conflict rests here, in the gap between what parents need from their child and what the child needs from their parents. In order to keep the child close, the parent wants to dismiss their child’s feelings. The parent will tell themselves, “Those bad feelings that my child is trying to share with me, they are not a part of her.” Out loud, the parent might say, “This is not you, my child, speaking. This is your oversensitivity.” The child hears this, and feels unheard and unloved, because they grew up in a culture where “being heard = being loved.” 

The trauma happens when neither parent nor child get what they need. The child distances themselves because they feel unheard and therefore unloved, and the parent loses the proximity that they need.

Director Domee Shi masterfully illustrates these nuances in the Lee family. Ming’s love for Mei is unwavering and unquestionable. Yet she refuses to see that Mei is growing up and forming her own hopes and dreams (and even liking boys, yuck!). When she finds Mei’s crush-induced drawings of Devon, her mom-blinders are on full force as she storms the convenience store to chew him out for corrupting her daughter. Mei is humiliated, but instead of expressing her feelings to her parents, she screams into her pillow in her room.

Likewise, after the disastrous Panda Party, Ming accuses Mei’s friends of scheming to corrupt her daughter. Rather than acknowledge either Mei’s part in the mess or her feelings, Ming stubbornly chooses to believe that Mei is still the same daughter that she wants her to be. Again, Mei remains silent and won’t tell her mom the true story or how she really feels.

Then there is Ming’s personal story – we find out that Ming and her mom had a falling out of epic proportions many years ago, over Jin (Mei’s dad and Ming’s husband). Emotions were high, pandas were large, and Ming and her mother still have a strained relationship today. However, Grandma’s interpretation of the past is not that she and Ming had a conflict over Ming’s independence in choosing a husband. Grandma remembers that her harmonious relationship with her “good daughter” was torn asunder by the intrusion of Ming’s unwelcome panda. 

Everyone’s suppressed feelings reach a boiling point when, to all her family’s (and even her own) surprise, Mei decides to not go through with the panda-binding ritual, and the ceremony comes to a screeching halt. Declaring that she’s “keeping the panda”, she refuses to conceal her defiance and rushes off in her panda form to get to the 4Town concert. Ming, Jin, grandma and all the aunties are left floored in utter disbelief. Ming is finally forced to contend with the separation that she has been working so hard to deny.

Ming and Mei’s confrontation takes the form of battling pandas – and as the dam of unvoiced feelings breaks open, as Ming and Mei yell and roar at each other to make themselves heard, we see a visible metaphor for these family conflicts that seem larger than life. Finally, the dust settles and the film moves to the mystical realm, where Ming and Mei meet in human form after their fight. Ming has been painfully forced to acknowledge that Mei is different from her, different from how she used to be, and that their relationship cannot be the same… and now comes the reckoning. 

The tension does not lie in whether it is right or wrong for Mei to keep her panda – Ming knows that Mei will choose to keep her panda. The great tension, for Ming, Mei, and we first and second generation Chinese, is in these unspoken questions we have for our parents:

I am different from you. I have my own identity, my own thoughts and feelings. I have dreams for myself that may not be your dreams for me. I have failed to be what you want me to be. I couldn’t meet your expectations. I am not good enough to validate what you have done for me. 

But… is that ok? 

Can you still be proud of me? Will you acknowledge my efforts? 

Will you still love and support me?

For many first and second generation children of immigrant families, we hang in the balance of how our parents answer these questions. While the answers may be obvious, even unnecessary for some, there are those of us who grew up unable to answer them. We truly don’t know. And perhaps it’s that uncertainty, of whether we can count on that security, that love, that drives us to try harder still.

How then, is the great tension resolved? How are those all-important questions of belonging, of finding approval, of having affirmation, answered for Mei?

Domee Shi calls this film a “love letter.” Yes, I think so, because love letters wax poetic on the good and the beautiful and tend to omit the bad. In this movie, both Ming and Mei get to win in ways that many of us never got to win. Many of us are still wondering if the lengths we are going to are being seen, whether we’re good enough, whether our parents would approve of us, whether they would be proud. We wonder if we can be free to be different from their dreams for us, and yet turn around and still have their approval and feel their love. 

I may be someone who hangs in the balance of how my parents answer my all-important questions. To be sure, my family is a gift from God, and it’s a testament to his design for families and their closeness that I will always, to some degree, crave my parents’ approval. 

But the older I get, the more I hang on to this truth: for those of us in Christ, all that we need, we already have. I’m not good enough, nor will I ever be. But Christ is, and his perfection is what I can claim as my own, not because of what I’ve done but because of his death on the cross. I hold securely my Father’s love, a love that is brimming with assurance, a love that is absolutely firm, a love that grips me rather than leaving me wondering and guessing. He is strong enough to handle my feelings. I cannot offend him by being me. Because he already knows all of me, he truly sees me. I can never “pay him back” for his kindness, so I aim to please him not because I fear he will withdraw his love, but because I want to bless his delight in me. And yes, he does delight in me. 

Believer, he delights in you too. 


Please also see Cali Yee’s Panda-monium, Puberty, & Piety Pressures, The Hope of Reconciliation From Generational Trauma in Pixar’s Turning Red.

Connie was born in Hong Kong and has lived in Alberta, Canada since she was 6 years old. She has served in youth ministry for over 10 years and is a leader in the college fellowship at her church in Edmonton. She also works with a Guatemalan missions organization. Connie enjoys warm weather, her husband’s cooking, and chatting with friends over a hot cup of tea. She and her husband Chris have 1 teenager, 2 kids and a ridiculous number of houseplants.

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