Transmitting CultureA New Slate of Films Serve as Love Letters to Korean American Mothers

Randall Park as Marcus, left, and Ali Wong as Sasha in Always Be My Maybe (Photo credit: Ed Araquel/Netflix)

At the beginning of Netflix’s groundbreaking film Always Be My Maybe, latchkey kid Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) is eating dinner alone, with Nickelodeon’s cult classic show Clarissa Explains It All her only company. On this particular episode, Clarissa (Melissa Joan Hart) is having a loving exchange with her mother Janet (Elizabeth Hess), which only underscores a glaring gap in Sasha’s upbringing: quality time with her hardworking Vietnamese immigrant parents. The show’s laugh track is interrupted by Sasha’s neighbor and best friend Marcus Kim (Randall Park) knocking on the door and inviting her to have dinner with his family. Marcus’s mother Judy (Susan Park) teaches Sasha how to prepare red Kimchijigae, the pungent spicy Korean stew made of fermented cabbage, which she, her family, and Sasha will enjoy together.

When Judy realizes Sasha’s inclination for cooking this cultural dish, she tenderly jokes, “Are you sure you are not Korean?” Sasha and Marcus’s relationship takes a drastic turn when Judy dies while they’re in high school, and the unexpected grief creates a rift that lasts until adulthood. Always Be My Maybe, like teen rom-com To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and thriller Searching, includes an unexpected and formative element: the loss of empathetic, creative, and loving Asian American mothers. The first 10 minutes of Searching innovatively narrativizes this loss: Pamela Kim (Sara Sohn), the wife of protagonist David Kim (John Cho), dies from cancer, and all of the stages of her illness are shown through a montage of computer footage, photographs, video, and Google search pages.

Lara Jean Song Covey’s (Lana Condor) Korean mother died when she was a child, so in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, she laughingly endures her white father’s putrid attempts to cook Korean food. Even Lulu Wang’s July 2019 film The Farewell centers on a family coming together to support their dying Chinese matriarch. In these complex films, Asian American mothers are transmitters of domesticity, culture, and care, and their tragic deaths leave behind relatives who are struggling to find themselves in their absence. It’s a new and different kind of familial negotiation for Asian American families. On many shows, including All American Girl and Fresh off the Boat, Asian mothers are immigrants whose accents and domineering personalities are played for comedic relief.

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While these aren’t necessarily negative portrayals, this new crop of Asian American mothers are creative, kind, and gentle with themselves and their children: Judy decorates her family’s dining room with her paintings; Pamela teaches Margot (Michelle La) how to play piano and cook; and Lara Jean’s father tells her that her mother used to dance to Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” in the aisles of the diner that they now frequent. These women aren’t “tiger mothers,” a term described by lawyer Amy Chua in her 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, who use “traditional” strict discipline, rules, and “tough” love in order to ensure success. Instead, these Korean mothers are loving forces in their children’s lives who are treated as worthy of grief. By portraying their deaths, these films depict Asian American mothers as worthy of the same care, sympathy, and compassion that they bestow on their children, family, and friends.

Historically, Asian American women, particularly Korean American women, have been depicted as sexualized military brides or “dragon ladies” who’ve been denied access to reproducing and mothering.  For example, the Page Act of 1875 barred Chinese women from entering the United States, which effectively prevented early Asian immigrants from creating families. In the 1990s, Korean women were depicted as angry, aggressive, and violent in pop culture. These representations were drawn from real-life issues in urban cities, such as Los Angeles and New York City, where there were escalating conflicts between Korean merchants and Black patrons. The deeply tragic shooting of Latasha Harlins, a Black teenager who died after a verbal altercation with Korean store owner Soon Ja Du, is still an important flashpoint in the Los Angeles Uprising.

By portraying their deaths, these films depict Asian American mothers as worthy of the same care, sympathy, and compassion that they bestow on their children, family, and friends.

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Feminist scholars Elaine Kim, Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, and Christine Choy’s 1993 documentary Sa I Gu offered another perspective on race relations during the Los Angeles Uprising: In one interview, a Korean store owner describes how her husband encouraged her to treat her customers with respect and as family. Still, the frenzied, repeating news cycle represented Korean women as stoic villains without compassion for dead Black children. While the crimes that individuals like Du committed were violent and unjust, for more than two decades, these individual actions have been used to paint a one-dimensional portrayal of Asian women. Pop culture continued these stereotypical depictions of Asian men as distrustful convenience store owners.

In the Oscar-winning film Crash, the only Korean American characters are aggressive store owners who unapologetically enslave Southeast Asian people. Crash follows previous depictions of aggressive Asian/Korean woman such as in the film Menace to Society, and other variations on television such as the strict Mrs. Kim (Emily Kuroda) on Gilmore Girls or Ms. Swan (Alex Borstein) on MADtv. These women haven’t been seen as figures worthy of grief or sympathy—until now.

The end of Always Be My Maybe reminds of the early scene in Judy’s kitchen, where we see shots of Judy’s paintings of a bird. Instead of tiger mothering, Judy’s mothering is more like a dove, grounded in creativity, comfort, home, and care. Instead of “tiger mother” ideals of hyper success, celebrity, or capitalism, Sasha reincorporates the memory of Judy in her new restaurant. Here, Asian American motherhood is gentle, creative, and comforting. By the end of the film, we see how Judy’s Korean recipes, domesticity, and mothering is incorporated into Sasha’s new restaurant “Judy’s Way,” as a loving gesture to Marcus and Asian American culture devoid of the trappings of celebrity and success. Instead, the new restaurant is like home. Always Be My Maybe, Searching, and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before demonstrate the importance of seeing Asian American mothers as fully human. By shifting this limiting representation, these films serve as a new kind of love letter to motherhood.

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by Margaret Rhee
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