TURNING RED: It’s About Asian Mental Health Too

As a 29-year-old woman, I didn’t think I’d see myself reflected in the story of Meilin “Mei” Lee, the 13-year-old Chinese Canadian protagonist of Disney and Pixar’s latest film, Turning Red, which hit Disney+ on March 11. The film, set in Toronto in 2002, follows Lee’s life. She’s obsessed with all the trappings of tween girl life including cute boys, hypnotic boy bands and hanging out with her friends.

In the weeks since the film’s debut, many writers have discussed its significance, particularly when it comes to representing what it’s like to go through puberty as a young girl. The film portrays Mei’s bodily changes through her own physical transformation into a giant red panda. And while Mei’s Hulk-like change is an obvious stand-in for dealing with getting her period for the first time, for me, and many other Asian Americans watching the film, Mei Lee’s struggle wasn’t just about her flow—it depicted her struggles with mental health and intergenerational trauma.

Mei as a Red Panda looks in the mirror in Turning Red

Every morning, I take a 20mg tablet of citalopram, an antidepressant that works to combat the anxiety and anger issues I have lived with for decades. As a child of Japanese first-generation parents, I grew up in a household that valued hard work, contributing to the family and stoicism. My parents rarely utter the words, “I love you,” and preferred to show their affection through acts of service like cooking and working long hours to ensure my sister and I had a comfortable childhood. Talking about our feelings was never in the realm of possibility.

As I grew up, the pressures placed on me by both my parents and myself manifested themselves in perfectionistic tendencies which often resulted in high levels of anxiety and angry outbursts. So watching Mei’s transformation into a giant red panda, for me, didn’t symbolize a coming-of-age struggle, but rather the push-and-pull of dealing with my own mental health issues. Her fear of letting her mother down, of letting her feelings out, of being imperfect, are all anxieties that I and many other Asians can relate to, says Jeanie Chang, a licensed marriage and family therapist and president and board chair of the Asian Mental Health Collective.

“I work with a lot of Asian American professionals that struggle so much with perfectionism, imposter syndrome, because of our cultural heritage,” Chang says. “Things that are ingrained in our blood, where it’s always having to look good and succeed. That still exists and it’s very much what I call filial piety, duty and obligation to really represent your family well and make them proud. And as important as it is that it’s part of our culture, there are things that families have to work to unlearn.”

In a 2007 study conducted by the University of Maryland School of Public Health that interviewed 174 Asian American young adults, participants reported several sources of stress that affected their mental health including parental pressure to succeed in academics, mental health concerns being taboo, pressure to live up to the “model minority” stereotype, family obligations, as well as a difficulty balancing two different cultures and developing a bicultural sense of self.

These issues that are not specific to, but highly prevalent in many Asian American communities, affect her clients greatly, says Dr. Aileen Fullchange, a licensed psychologist of Taiwanese descent and a member of the Asian American Psychological Association.

“In Asian American populations, you see really high suicidal rates among certain age demographics,” Fullchange says. “For suicide in particular, it’s the eighth leading cause of death for Asian American Pacific Islanders. In comparison, it’s the 11th leading cause for all racial groups combined. Amongst young adults, 15-24, suicide is the top cause of death among that demographic.”

And while Turning Red doesn’t tackle the issue of mental health head on, and certainly doesn’t allude to suicide in any way, it’s evident throughout the film how both Mei and her mother suppress their feelings to maintain the status quo. That can lead to a drastic decline in mental health, Fullchange says. And it’s common amongst immigrant families because of intergenerational trauma and resilience.

Mei in human form sweeps the temple alongside her mother in Turning Red

“I think about Asian immigrants in particular in the United States and how we’re sort of made to feel invisible,” Fullchange says. “And the only way we can fit in, is by remaining invisible. In the movie, her immigrant mom and dad have essentially adopted that. That emotionally you have to remain invisible, you’ve got to achieve and that’s the only way to survive in this culture. It’s really through a lens of survivorship that these lessons get passed down through the generations.”

The notion of Asian Americans as invisible is not a new concept. In the years after WWII, the dominant white supremacist culture implemented the rise of the model-minority myth to create a rift between Asian American communities and Black communities who were fighting for civil rights. For decades, the insidious myth has persisted despite the fact that the Asian American population is the fastest growing ethnic group in the US, and the most diverse.

“The thing about AAPIs is that we are the most diverse racial ethnic group in the country and yet we are all lumped into one category,” Fullchange says. “We don’t have this sort of cohesion that perhaps, other racial groups have. For us, we have to go through our own process of figuring out how to navigate the culture and part of that means talking about mental health.”

And yet, despite the decades of invisibility rendered upon us, tragedies in the last two years have finally turned the once-indifferent eye of the American consciousness towards the plights of our community. Since the beginning of the pandemic, anti-Asian hate crimes have skyrocketed with incidents increasing by 339 percent in 2021, compared to 2020. That rise in vitriol culminated in the mass murder of eight people—six of whom were Asian women—on March 16, 2021, when a white man went on a shooting spree at three spas across Atlanta. And just before the one-year anniversary of the murders, Turning Red premiered.

On the surface these two events seem virtually unrelated, but once one digs into the complexities of the Asian immigrant experience—and the film is a narrow viewing of that—it’s not hard to see how the two intertwine.

Mei, as a giant red panda, holds out her arms in Turning Red

Turning Red is coming at a good time when Asian Americans go, ‘Oh, I relate; that’s about our intergenerational conflict,’” Chang says. “Our eyes are open like never before because of what’s happened in the last couple of years. We have made huge strides in the field of mental health to provide culturally appropriate care for our communities. There is definitely a movement.”

Turning Red teaches us not to suppress our feelings, not to hide or shrink parts of ourselves to maintain a detrimental status quo, but rather to let our pandas out because they are what makes each of us unique. And though these issues aren’t specific to the Asian American experience, it’s the culmination of decades of our existence in this country and hopefully, the beginning of our stories being told.

“We’re peeling behind the layers of our Asian culture, which is very complex,” Chang says. “Asians are not a monolith. That’s why we have to see more and more Asian representation in media, because there are many different stories.”

If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Learn more about Asian American mental health through the Asian American Psychological Association, the Asian Mental Health Collective, and Asians for Mental Health.

Sayaka Matsuoka is a journalist living and working in the American South. Her Japanese-American identity impacts everything she does from writing to reporting to what she eats. Her work has appeared in Rewire, Bitch, Bitter Southerner, and the Audubon Society.

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