“Bakso bulat seperti bola ping-pong..”
The popular Indonesian children’s song, Abang Tukang Bakso, talks about buying bakso (a meatball soup dish) from a street vendor. The line in the introduction translates to “bakso is round like a ping-pong ball”. Growing up, I would eat bakso with my family for dinner; praying together and eating while talking about what we did during the day. Bakso is a mark of collectivism and love in our family. At the same time, I also discredited bakso. During my teenage years, I refused to eat Indonesian dishes because I was bored of it. I preferred pasta and steak. However, I never understood how close to my heart bakso is before I moved to the United States to pursue my bachelor’s degree. I felt that intensely when I watched Domee Shi’s short film, Bao before I watched The Incredibles 2 in cinemas. I was crying the whole time because the film resonated with my own experiences as an Asian immigrant and international student. While I was in the middle of my own crying mess, the people around me laughed through the film, and some of them looked confused. I was baffled on why these people felt unimpressed over this poignant short film. Is it a cultural thing? Or is it something else? Bao really struck a chord in me, yet these people remained unimpressed and recognized it as just another cute Pixar short and a brief piece of entertainment.
A few days later, I went out for dinner in downtown Seattle with my close friend, who is also an Asian international student. The meal itself was a somewhat inauthentic Asian fusion fare, which brought us to the topic of Bao, as we were expecting food that is a little more authentic and less pretentious. Similarly, he felt a wave of longing as I do while watching the short. He also mentioned that some of his Asian friends felt the same way: some of them finally understanding their parents’ feelings, and some of them crying because they didn’t have a good relationship with their parents. We then discussed why this film evoked different reactions from different cultures over that evening’s subpar pan-Asian cuisine, in which we realize that films like Bao and the reactions garnered by it is just one step we have to face in diversifying mainstream cinema, which is accustoming audiences to be introduced to cultural discourses they are not familiar with.
Bao tells the story of a Chinese-Canadian woman whose dumpling came to life as a child. She raises the dumpling child and protects him as much as she possibly could, to the frustration of the dumpling child who wants independence. When the child reveals a fiancee and is about to move out, the mother resists and swallows the dumpling child. As the mother cries upon what she did, a twist is revealed: her real son, who resembles the dumpling child, enters the house and shares a tender moment with the mother, with the short film ending with the child and the fiancee making dumplings with the parents.
The dumplings felt like bakso in my story. In Bao, food symbolizes the love between mother and son and also signifies a personification of the mother’s love. The experiences of the child in Bao reflects my experiences as a child — during his teenage years, he discredits his mother and his culture, similar to how I preferred steak over traditional food. This also happens to my close friend, who preferred indulgent chocolate cakes over martabak and eventually regretting that mindset when he moved to the United States. We wanted to conform to Western culture which is regarded as the “standard” — we didn’t realize that our culture makes our lives richer.
Another point addressed by the internet-wide Bao discourse is Eastern collectivism and Western individualism. American culture is mostly based on individualism; some of my non-Asian friends didn’t felt the same type of parenting as I did — they were subjected to more freedom once they’ve reached 18, even creating a stigma in Western culture that shame adults who still live with their parents. However, some of my Asian friends have their parents and even their grandparents live in their house for as long as they possibly can. My parents try to visit my grandparents for at least once every two weeks, and I felt like this culture resonated in Bao. This also applies to the parents’ perspective as well. The empty nest syndrome is a big highlight in the short, and watching the film reminds me of my parents at home. I have always been raised with a lot of love that sometimes felt suffocating — much like the dumpling child in Bao — and I didn’t realize how empty my parents must’ve felt when I went away for college; even more so for me, as I moved across the globe to pursue my undergraduate degree.
After a taste of the not-spicy-at-all spicy ribs during my dinner, I realized something: Bao made me more sympathetic of my culture and will diversify the cultural mindset of someone not exposed to the same culture as portrayed in Bao. However, the tweets saying that Bao is the “most confusing 10 minutes of my life” reflects the ignorance and the close-mindedness of some people towards Bao. This is just a hurdle in making films culturally diverse; there will always be members of the audience who won’t understand, where in reality, one does not have to follow the intricacies of other cultures completely — they just have to open their hearts and minds and accept that their culture is not superior. We Asians have endured decades of fitting into the narratives white Western media; why can’t we present 10 minutes of our own culture to the mainstream?
This clash of cultures shows that Bao brings audiences to a cultural perspective that seem strange to them, and Bao is one of a small number of films that brings the Asian and Asian-American discourse to mainstream cinema. All the audience has to do to understand this kind of diversity in film is to open their mind to how different cultures think and to celebrate that in their lives. Bao introduces non-Asian audiences inside a cultural discourse that is different than theirs and reminds Asian students like me to cherish the emotional weight my parents bring when they hug me at the arrivals gate of my hometown’s airport every other summer. And as I go home to eat bakso with them after a long time, I will always embrace my upbringing, and I will always try to have my culture’s voice be heard.
Patricia Kusumaningtyas is an undergraduate computer science student (with a deep interest in computational linguistics) currently studying at Columbia University after transferring from a community college in the United States. When she’s not solving problem sets or analyzing The Iliad, you can find her enjoying obscure movies or conquering pop culture trivia. You can contact her through her email address at email@example.com.