Without exaggeration, I cry every time an Asian parent comes onscreen in an American movie. But that doesn't happen in very many of them, so it isn’t too exhausting. Like every other second-generation millennial or Gen Z Asian kid, I wept when Rachel’s mom flies to Singapore to comfort her in Crazy Rich Asians. Every minute of Pixar’s animated short “Bao," about a lonely mother. And don't forget the 1998 animated Disney classic Mulan — specifically the part when Mulan’s dad collapses when swinging his sword. I cry at all of these scenes, because I do exactly what the filmmakers want me to do: I think about my own parents. I think about the sacrifices they've made for me, about the distance they’d fly just to make sure I’m OK, and about their love, which defines who I am.
Yet, in line with the model minority stereotype, the way Asian American parents have been portrayed on-screen is incomplete. It's also quietly dangerous. Hollywood is still in the process of moving away from depictions of black and brown mothers as exploitable caregivers and nothing else; from stereotypes of black and brown fathers being negligent or absent. Even today, storytellers haven't fully left these stunted characterizations behind. Meanwhile, Asians have been slotted into stereotypes that, on the surface, appear healthy, assimilated, and competent. That is why it can be hard to see why the Asian parents in movies we have now are problematic at all. After all, isn't it good to put your family first? Sure. But I’m excited for movies that will move beyond sacrificial Asian parents to incorporate and revolve around real Asian people.
That’s why the new Netflix original movie Always Be My Maybe is so gently groundbreaking. This latest entry into the limited but growing canon of Asian American cinema is directed by Nahnatchka Khan and co-stars Ali Wong and Randall Park, who also co-wrote the script. Always Be My Maybe is a classic romantic comedy that checks all the boxes. It’s the story of childhood best friends Marcus Kim and Sasha Tran, who have a falling out and then reunite as adults to find sparks still flying. But in addition to falling in line with the rest of the genre in a lot of ways, Always Be My Maybe is also chock-full of subtle — and not-so-subtle — details that make it much more than the typical American rom-com. There are children who take off their shoes before entering the house, there is Spam musubi for dinner, there is the ease with which parents and friends enter bedrooms without knocking—just to name a few. (There is also a band with the name Hello Peril, the historical wordplay of which only certain viewers will get right away.)
Familial love takes a backseat in Always Be My Maybe — understandable since it is a rom-com. But family, and parents especially, are still essential to its story. For example, adult Marcus wouldn’t be brave enough to confront his feelings without the compassion and sweetness of his father Harry, played by James Saito; and young Sasha wouldn’t have spent so much time with the Kims if her own parents hadn’t so often left her home alone. Always Be My Maybe continues the important work of recognizing and paying tribute to the importance of parent-child relationships in Asian American families, maintaining the momentum of 2018, which was a huge year for Asian representation in Western media.
Yet, while it is fantastic that, for the first time in American history, families that look like ours are even getting time on the big screen, we also have to take care that these families — our families, and especially our parents — are represented fully and realistically. Currently, we almost exclusively see Asian parents depicted onscreen only as Asian parents. Only as their relational identities. And although the sacrificial love of immigrant parents is realistically a cornerstone in many Asian families — precisely why I respond to them so emotionally — I’m disappointed that so many of these parental characters don’t have more nuance, nor are allowed lives of their own.
Take, for example, the parents in Crazy Rich Asians, including Rachel’s mother Kerry (Kheng Hua Tan) and the unforgettable matriarch Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh). A few non-Asian friends told me that Eleanor and her familial and sacrificial motivations for opposing her son’s marriage had an impact on them. They felt that they had learned something from the movie about the complexities of Asian families. While I was happy that they had taken something away, I was worried. Was this how non-Asians would forever understand Asian parental love and discipline, which can be so much more nuanced than Crazy Rich Asians shows? Was this all that my friends got out of Eleanor? Was this all there was to get out of Eleanor?
In the 2018 thriller Searching, all we see is that David Kim, played by John Cho, is a desperate father searching for his missing daughter. We don’t know what he does for a living, what sort of friends or hobbies he might have, or who he was before he became a dad. If we keep creating Asian parents who are only one-dimensional in their sacrifice for family, then the cost of "diversity" will be a lacking in character development and showing the full range of humanity in people of color.
Asian families can have single mothers, like Kerry in Crazy Rich Asians, and single fathers, like David in Searching — in Always Be My Maybe, we’re reminded that Asian parents can also be not present. They can raise latchkey children because they’re too busy with their own jobs, as Sasha’s parents are. They can be bad parents, perhaps. They can be their own people, too. Asian parents aren’t perfect; Asian parents, like all parents, love in the ways they know how.
And sometimes this love vocabulary is limited, whether because of language, or cultural context, or something else entirely. Always Be My Maybe helps liberate not just Asian parents, but whole Asian American families from traditional expectations, recognizing the way that these families communicate internally. For example, when Sasha’s mother admits to her grown-up daughter, “We know we weren’t around much," there is no pleading the “hardworking immigrant parents and ungrateful child" trope, a favorite of the white gaze. And when Sasha’s parents then attempt to make up those lost years to her in their own, awkward, sad, and ultimately loving way, the Tran family reaches their own implicit reconciliation. It needs no verbal explanation, because this is their reality.
Speaking to The Atlantic, Wong said of the representation in Always Be My Maybe, “It’s such a cool, confident thing when you don’t explain the premise, you just have the premise … It’s our reality, and we’re not going to take the time to explain it.” And that’s exactly what the film does.
The movie isn’t perfect. There's the odd fat-shaming joke and an uncomfortable disability gag. As a rom-com, it’s fast-paced, plot-focused, and hence has less room to fully develop any characters other than the leads. But Always Be My Maybe reminds us that our Asian parents are real, imperfect, incredible human beings — capable of dance battles, being called by their first names, and of love, in its multitudinous forms.