On Seeing Chinese Mothers On-Screen

A Review of Meditation Park

As a child of immigrants, I speak often and I speak loudly about the need to see myself represented in movies, books, and television. I want to read books about Asian kids growing up in white spaces. I want to watch movies about children of immigrants navigating the multiplicity of their identities. I crave stories about people of colour confronting their loneliness, about people of colour falling in love with people of colour, about people of colour written by people of colour. I am part of a growing assembly of underrepresented voices demanding to have our stories told—and to have them told responsibly and accurately.  But in the quest to carve space for first-generation narratives, I wonder if our parents sometimes become afterthoughts—embellishments, plot devices, or foils to our own diasporic experiences; perhaps just another way for us to juxtapose our new and old worlds. Meditation Park—the latest film by Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Mina Shum—is a much-needed reminder of how important it is to see not only ourselves represented in modern cinema, but to witness our mothers portrayed honestly and fully on-screen, too.

 

Meditation Park tells the story of a Chinese immigrant family living in Vancouver. The film revolves around Maria (Cheng Pei Pei), a 60-something year old woman who discovers her husband, Bing (Tzi Ma) is having an affair with a younger woman. Leaving her husband seems out of the question; Maria remains fiercely loyal to Bing. And on a practical level, she has little choice: her English is shaky, and she has not worked outside the home since she was a receptionist in Hong Kong many decades ago. Instead, she directs her energy to filling her life in other new ways: making money through odd jobs, forming unlikely friendships, confronting broken family ties, and last but not least, getting to the bottom of her husband’s whereabouts. In one particularly delightful scene, Maria disguises herself in sunglasses and a large scarf, inspired by a 60s chase scene on television, and assumes the role of spy, following her husband throughout town in a taxicab. You see that brown car? Follow that car! she whispers at the driver. Are you a detective?, the cab driver asks her teasingly through the rearview mirror. Maria responds with a sly smile. She is now.

 

The film captures the powerless situation many older immigrant women find themselves in—bound to their husbands, without their own income, without a command of English. The film demands a heartbreaking empathy from its viewers. In one scene, after her husband scoffs and asks who’s going to hire a sixty year old woman?, Maria is determined to prove him wrong, and works hard to create her first resume. She fills out her name, address, and contact information with a pencil—and when she reaches the section heading of her template titled Purpose, pauses for a moment, and with incredible focus, slowly prints:

 

I want a job.

 

Shum masterfully illuminates the very real hurdles that some Asian women face when they immigrate to North America, but also demonstrates the capacity they have for living resilient and meaningful lives in spite of this. I have sat through many movies portraying older immigrants as the butt of some extended, cringe-worthy, racist joke—where the audience has laughed at their accents, their foreignness, their seeming stupidity.  But during Meditation Park, for what felt like the first time, I sat in a theatre full of people laughing with an older Chinese woman, celebrating her small victories and cheering her on, rather than laughing at her expense. At 60, Maria learns to ride a bike, she dances in her first silent disco party, and she forms her first meaningful friendships beyond her family. Her curiosity and delight in discovering these new pleasures are infectious.

 

It is rare to see older, Chinese women afforded this kind of complexity on-screen; to be given the space to be the three dimensional, nuanced beings they are in their off-screen lives. We see many stories about white families; dysfunctional ones made up of complicated people who can be good and bad all at once, who can be flawed but funny, who can be selfish and forgiven. So why is it that—in the rare instance that we do see stories about Asian immigrant families—our parents are only ever allowed to be one thing or another? They are cute, funny, and caricature-like in shows such as Master of None or Kim’s Convenience. And in films like Joy Luck Club, it’s the opposite: our parents are deeply sad people stuck in the past, clinging onto traumas from their old world.

 

And yet, I have wept for all of these fictional diasporic families, despite their incompleteness, despite their fragmented representation of our realities. For me, there will always be a knee-jerk reaction that comes with seeing any semblance of our lives on-screen. It’s as if any acknowledgement that we are here and we exist and we can love and we can hurt and we can laugh is enough to move me to tears.

 

This is why Meditation Park offers an unprecedented take on the immigrant experience—by allowing an older immigrant woman, a woman who could very well be my own mother in age and appearance, to contain multitudes. The audience is asked to give space for Maria’s sadness, to understand her conflicted loyalty to her husband, but to also revel in her moments of joy and personal progress. Maria is written into all but one scene of the film, and there’s something special about seeing an older Asian woman taking centre stage, in being given substantial screen-time to unfold and develop, when they are asked to take up so little space in their day to day lives.

 

In reality, I know that my mother is both the loving, hilarious, grey-haired woman trying to maximize her iPad’s functionality and the person who feels deeply and darkly, who ruminates on events from decades past. She is both and she is more, because she is multifaceted, because she is human. And although I know this, I wonder if I, too, sometimes fall in the trap of reducing her to something more simple than she actually is. Of brushing her anxieties and behaviours off as just my mom acting in that very Chinese mom way. I wonder if I am guilty of forgetting that my mom can feel sadness, too—of forgetting that she can feel loneliness, too. I think about all the times she just wanted a listening ear and all the times I failed to be that ear; all the times I didn’t give her space to share her worries, all the times I cut phone calls short—all the times I prioritized my own humanity and complexity over hers.

 

I cried during Meditation Park, not simply because I felt like I was seeing my own family, but because the film asked me to do something films rarely ask children of immigrants to do: to imagine and recognize our parents as complicated, growing, and dynamic people. For that, I feel grateful.

 

I think that sometimes, it may take a movie to remind ourselves of our parents’ humanity.

 

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