Whether you know what a bao is or not, the slow and comforting preparation of one is the perfect set-up to the deep, complex and layered metaphor that food can play in our lives.
The calm rolling out of the dough, the visceral act of hand-mixing the filling, squelching raw meat between your fingers and the companionship of assembling the two parts into a dumpling. Bao, the Pixar short film that played in cinemas paired back-to-back with the film The Incredibles 2, perfectly encapsulated this moment in its opening scenes.
As a huge fan of the family with superpowers, I went to the screening of The Incredibles 2 expecting a comedic yet exciting two hours of being transported back to my childhood. Within a few moments I was taken back to a childhood I had lived, where I could see a story with characters that reflected my family on screen.
In Chinese culture, where verbal declarations of devotion and affection are rare, food plays an integral role in parenting — it is a method of loving, nurturing and growing, a way of showing how much you care. Feeding children by hand continues into young adulthood, a contrast to most Western children’s experiences, and finishing the food on your plate is absolutely non-negotiable. From a young age, I realised the way to my mother’s heart was to compliment her cooking and thank her for the effort, time and labour it took for her to feed me every meal of the day.
The centrality of food in Bao is evident in much more than the name. Using a humorous allegory, the protagonist—a Chinese-Canadian woman whom I like to call Mama Bao—raises a bao that anthropomorphically comes to life. She tends to him by feeding him, teaching him and protecting him from harm.
As with many real parent-child relationships in diasporic communities, intergenerational culture clash between Mama Bao and Baby Bao causes conflict. First-generation migrants who move to Western countries often don’t realise the internal struggles their children may encounter, growing up caught between two (or even more) cultures. As a child, it took me just one year of primary school to learn and understand with deep anxiety that ‘our’ food and culture was considered abnormal, something shameful. I felt my only option was to distance myself from my Asianness and, in the process, this created huge barriers between my mother and me.
Her perception of my endeavours for independence and acceptance by my peers as vapid, unimportant and in pursuit of whiteness—which it sometimes was—only served to drive the wedge deeper. The expectation that we, as children of migrants, can disregard the culture we are surrounded by leaves no room for us to grapple with our desire for acceptance and connection. This expectation can overshadow the very real and difficult experience of feeling as though you do not truly belong anywhere. I could see so much of myself and my mother in the culture clash depicted on-screen between Mama Bao and Baby Bao, a space where overwhelming love and conflict can co-exist. This is not to say that all the problems between Mama Bao and Baby Bao are driven entirely by a lack of understanding—her overprotective parenting is a relatable experience many children of migrants know all too well.
Similarly, children of migrants can often lack the cultural knowledge or even verbal language to truly understand where their parents are coming from. I would always bristle and complain about my mother’s cloying questions about my day while I was in my teens: “Where are you going? Who did you see? Have you eaten yet? Have you had a shower?” I felt claustrophobic in my own home, unable to move without being interrogated. You can imagine my surprise when, on my university exchange to Indonesia, I learned how to make small-talk and found these questions turned out to be everyday chit-chat, similar to “How have you been? What have you been up to? How are you going?” All that teen angst for nothing!
The conflict between a parent’s overprotection and a child’s desire for independence often comes down to different conceptions of selflessness and selfishness. Anglo-Celtic cultures place more emphasis on individualism, particularly in the current climate of neoliberalism. Comparatively, the notion of sacrifice in order to give your children ‘a better life’ was a very prevalent narrative in my life, whether from my own family or the stories in our community. I grew up with numerous confronting stories of my family and our friends coming together to support undocumented folks, organise marriages for citizenship papers, visit people in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, and help children who were born here naturalise their parents. Taking on the economic burden of caring for your relatives was a given; sending money made in Australia back to relatives living in poverty, caring for our parents into their old-age and taking on the children of poor, widowed or deceased relatives.
Does this familial ‘selflessness’ still have a price though? For many second-generation migrants, their parents’ sacrifice means that any pursuits that contradict what their parents want can become a point of conflict. Never mind that restricting the independence, personal growth and dreams of your children seems a little selfish...This is reflected in Bao when Mama Bao’s attempts to control Baby Bao only results in his decision to move out, with a white girlfriend to boot; a conclusive rejection of his culture. His attempt to leave the family home, after everything Mama Bao had done to raise him, is the final straw for their relationship.
In a climatic struggle to stop him running out the door with a suitcase, Mama Bao eats him.
It is the ultimate destruction of their relationship and Mama Bao cries as she comes to terms with what she has done. The toxicity and inflexibility of parental relationships can result in an unbridgeable distance between parent and child, and this is what Mama Bao’s actions exemplify.
In the next scene, her real son enters the room as she cries on her bed; definitely human but with the same dumpling-shaped head as Baby Bao. It becomes evident that Baby Bao was a curious manifestation of Mama Bao’s relationship with her son, whom she has clearly not been speaking with since he left home (suitcase, white girlfriend and convertible in tow). Mama Bao may not have eaten her real son, but she did kill their relationship. It was the pain and regret from this relationship breakdown that resulted in the sad loneliness she was experiencing at the top of the film before Baby Bao came to life.
Mama Bao and her son eat together and cry together over their favourite snack, the motif of food granting them both forgiveness. In the last scene, the whole family (father and white girlfriend included) cook and prepare dumplings and baos. It is food that brings these characters back together; for nourishment, their growth as people, and their love for each other.
The metaphorical use of food in Bao resonated with me on so many levels. Food and recipes passed down, generation to generation, are a form of cultural knowledge, as important as language or custom. One of my favourite dishes is Ham Choy Kon—a homely meal of pickled mustard greens with pork. It is a distinctly Hakka dish, not fancy, not made with the best cuts of meat, a kind of peasant food. It has taught me about the ingenuity of fermentation, nutrition and survival. It has taught me about resourcefulness and flavouring when ingredients are scarce. Most of all, this dish has taught me so much about who I am. In our food, we find our histories and the knowledge of our ancestors.
Food is specific to its environment. It teaches us what vegetables and spices could grow in what climates, which animals were for food and which for worship, what methods of preserving, fermenting and pickling food were utilised to nourish our bodies, to bring us to where we are right now.
Bao brought me to tears more than once throughout its poignant story. I was astonished at just how much it affected me to see the digitally animated chopsticks, Chinese food, representations of Chinese people with authentic, three-dimensional personalities, and a story that spoke to my heart. There is such potential for this story to bring modern parents and children together into a better understanding of each other—how might my relationship with my mother be different if she and I had watched a short film like Bao together when I was ten years old? Maybe she would have understood my desperation to attend sleepovers or catch the train by myself, maybe I wouldn’t have corrected her English and ridiculed her to my friends. Maybe we would have gotten to where we are now: a supportive, flexible and proud relationship, without all the heartache.
Progress, however giant or incremental, is necessary: while 2018 has been a big year for Asian representation, from Bao to Crazy Rich Asians, these films were developed in the wake of other Asian-led films in previous years, like The Namesake, Slumdog Millionaire and Sanjay’s Super Team.
Sanjay’s Super Team is a Pixar short film with a culturally-diverse storyline. Released in 2015, the short explores a young boy’s fascination with the world of superheroes and cartoons, and his father’s frustration and disappointment at his son's lack of interest in Hinduism and prayer. It has the same premise as Bao— the generational gap between parent and child in the context of diaspora — and just as beautifully pulls together Sanjay’s wild imagination of his Super Team and the Hindu gods Vishnu, Durga, and Hanuman. What is most touching about this story is the real cartoon drawings of writer and director Sanjay Patel in the closing credits, illustrating his synthesis of Hinduism and superhero cartoons from his childhood.
This synthesis, from Sanjay’s cartoons to Mama Bao’s interracial dumpling cook-up, is what gets so deeply to the root of being part of the diaspora. We must accommodate, compromise and become culturally flexible in order to survive and thrive after migration. Concurrently, we must move through these clashes in culture in a healthy and understanding manner to maintain our ties to family and identity.
Diverse children’s media has the ability to bridge so many cultural gaps between migrant parents and their children. Had this kind of media been accessible during my own childhood, I can only imagine the positive impact on my parental relationships, self-esteem and internalised understandings about race.
Bao’s power as a story lies in giving kids the opportunity to learn and take on new empathetic ways of understanding each other and their different cultural backgrounds. In sharing this media with their parents, they open the door to a whole new world of authentic relating.
Bridget Harilaou is a mixed-race Asian-Australian and social justice activist who writes extensively about politics and race. She has been published in The Guardian, SBS Life, New Matilda and Feminist Writers Festival, and tweets @fightloudly.