To prelude the long-awaited “Incredibles 2,” Pixar introduced the delectable short film “Bao,” a unique exposition of parenthood and food against the backdrop of Asian American culture.
The animation depicts a meal-turned-son that gives an aging Chinese mom another chance at motherhood; however, this sentimental work of art didn’t seem to tug the heartstrings of every person to come across it.
The house seems melancholy, and so does the housewife as the film just begins to unfold. The lid of the bamboo steamer is lifted and almost as if it was promised, the home-cooked buns emit a mesmerizing veil of steam. What was not promised was a new life, quickly taken under the wing of an instinctive mother. Time escapes her as the bao grows out of his innocent carefree shell and into a rebellious young adult. After stifling the frustration of constantly being turned away, the mother picks up and eats the bao in a bite.
There is no doubt that this story is fiction, yet so much seems to be real about the magical bao and his mother. The bao was created out of care and love, nursed and protected until the bao seemed to find that nursing and protection was simply a burden — an aspect that corresponds to the mother’s real son and experience with motherhood.
Within a web of symbolism, “Bao” tells a reminiscent story of connection and family tied together by food. As Domee Shi, director of “Bao” and first Asian American female director of a Pixar short put it, “In Chinese culture, food and family go hand in hand… you don’t say, ‘I love you.’ You say, ‘Have you eaten yet?'”
This cultural context seems to be the great wall, prohibiting non-Asian audiences to understand the story behind “Bao.” But strip away Chinatown, the honey glazed pork buns, and the home decor, and all that is left is a woman tortured by empty-nest syndrome. There is nothing abstract about the great generational divide between parent and child, a mother’s reluctance to let go, or a son’s failure to appreciate.
Food plays a similar role in my relationship with my grandmother. Seeing as our even greater generational divide is reinforced by an indestructible language barrier, communication is a rather difficult process. But we juggle our resources and, at the end of the day, find that food is our singular source of connection.
I am able to say “Have you eaten yet?” in proficient Mandarin (as it was often the only thing I would say over the phone to family in Taiwan), and my grandmother happens to be quite the home cook herself, making the exchange of greeting with snack an uncomplicated task. No doubt frustration rises on both ends of the line as food is quite the limited language, but breaking bread is meant to communicate the simple things, the bare necessities of the human experience that often cannot be formed into words.
It is a pity her specialty fried rice doesn’t turn into a mini-me (and a pity as well that some cannot see the obvious place food has in family), but it seems perfectly right that I can taste all the love and care she has ever wanted to express to me in just a single bite.