HomeAsian AmericansOPINION: Confusion over Bao is Nothing New for Immigrants

OPINION: Confusion over Bao is Nothing New for Immigrants


By David Ho

Norm: Something that is usual, typical, or standard. (Google definition)

Being an immigrant forces us to rethink the definition of “norm.” What were always customs and traditions started being labelled as weird and confusing. For the lucky ones, two norms develop over time. One for when we visit our motherland, or when relatives from the motherland visit us. The second norm is one crafted by adaptation and assimilation, two necessary tools for survival in a new environment. Having the ability to see what is “normal” from another’s perspective is something immigrants can do uniquely well. We have to recognize what flies and what doesn’t in our adopted homeland. For the less fortunate, the ones who lost touch with their heritage as they seek more ways to fit in than stand out, what was once the norm becomes meaningless or irrelevant, sometimes even repelling.

Growing up as an Asian in a Western society, I remember distinctly anytime I opted for dumplings over sandwiches for lunch, my classmates would scowl and repeat the same insulting remarks. “That smells / that’s weird / that’s gross” became regular lunchtime banter. Not only was this experience traumatizing for a 5 year old in a foreign environment, but it also led to a long period of self denial and self hate. I attributed everything wrong in my life to my culture and race. Insults always stemmed from an amusement over something that was culturally normal for me.

Photo by dave.see via Flickr Creative Commons

I became one of the less fortunate ones during my teenage years, refusing to abide by and respect the norms of my motherland. Despite the constant reminders from my parents that I’ll always be Chinese, I was only concerned about being accepted. When your way of life becomes another’s gateway to demeaning humor, assimilation takes a dark turn.

So it wasn’t surprising to me when Bao, the animated film played before the highly anticipated Incredibles 2 was met with confusion and ridicule by dominant culture. Anything that deviates from their definition of the norm is seen as strange, weird, outrageous, and stupid. For many who are part of dominant culture, only one norm can and should exist.

When I saw comments on Twitter such as, “The most confusing 10 minutes of my life,” I was numb. I’ve become accustomed to this shit. I’ve long given up hoping dominant culture would stop labeling anything not common to them as weird. I sat through Bao almost too emotional at how much the film resonated. An overly protective mother who couldn’t stand the idea of her son/bao venturing into the real world and having his own life. I, along with nearly every Asian person I knew, could empathize. It doesn’t take a deep philosophical thinker to recognize that Bao was a metaphor for the Chinese experience.

But why is a non-white experience automatically associated with words such as “weird” and “confusing,” words that have negative connotations? I’ve never heard the Italian American or Irish American experience described as weird. Maybe Chris Rock was right all along. If it ain’t white, it ain’t right.

I was taught to use chopsticks. Soy sauce and cilantro was added to nearly every dish for dinner. If I didn’t pay attention to school, I’d pay the price. I was forced to learn the piano. I was told to live at home until I was married, though I broke that rule early in life. These are all very Chinese experiences, and while it would be blasphemous for me to expect anyone not Chinese to know exactly how this shoe fits, I implore you next time you’re sitting at Yum Cha on a Sunday afternoon, eating the same food I was teased for bringing to lunch as a kid, please attempt to view the world through someone else’s lens.

Maybe that thing you always thought was weird is just different. Perhaps even unique. Take the time to understand why another culture does things differently. In an increasingly globalized economy, it’s almost inevitable that everyone has to meet a certain level of racial and cultural sensitivity. What doesn’t make you tick may irk another person to the core. We’re all the center of our own world, but we should all acknowledge we’re just parts of a diverse universe.

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