Give Me All the Stories About Asian American Moms
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We’re at my friend Inyoung’s house. I’ve dropped in unannounced, two daughters in tow, and she’s laying out a beautiful meal: gamja-guk potato soup, gyeran-mari egg rolls, and hobak-jeon zucchini fritters. Watching my daughter wolf down more zucchini than she’s ever eaten in her life, I begin to spiral. I can’t conjure up soup from the sorry depths of my fridge. I can’t make Asian food. I can’t even speak Mandarin. I’m a bad Asian mom.
But then I jerk myself back from the precipice. I’m Asian enough, I tell myself. I’m mom enough. I’m enough.
This defiance in the face of my own negativity is something I’ve been practicing for a few months now. I’ve been rewiring my neural pathways. I’ve been reconfiguring my thinking. And it’s all thanks to a new spate of books and movies about the Asian American mom.
Witness her comeback in film. At this year’s Oscars, Everything Everywhere All at Once is in the lead with eleven nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. The supremely talented Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn Wang, the exhausted owner of a Laundromat who discovers not only that she exists in a multiverse, but that she is the superhero tasked with saving it from its greatest threat: an alternate version of her daughter. Critics have swooned over the movie’s hot dog fingers, the butt plug fight scenes, the trippy zigzags through possible worlds, but stripped of its zaniness, the indie sleeper dominating the Oscars is essentially the story of an aging Asian American mom confronting her very real flaws to reach her daughter.
It’s not just Everything Everywhere All at Once restoring the Asian American mom. Rumors of her return have been building for years across film, television, and comedy—think Sandra Oh’s Ming Lee, the overprotective mom in Pixar’s hit movie Turning Red (2022), Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor Young in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Constance Wu’s Jessica Huang in Fresh Off the Boat (2015–2020), and Ali Wong’s three Netflix specials Baby Cobra (2016), Hard Knock Wife (2018), and Don Wong (2022). But the medium where she’s really staging a comeback is books.
I’ve been waiting for her return in literature for more than two decades. The ’90s was her heyday, when Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989) took the literary world, and then Hollywood, by storm. The stories of four Asian American mother-daughter pairs marred by unspeakable trauma, struggling to express hope and love in translation, became a global phenomenon within the Asian community and beyond.
For me, reading The Joy Luck Club was the first time I felt the alchemy of fiction. As a second-generation immigrant teen immersed in white culture, I was baffled by my Asian family—my grandmother’s harrowing war stories, my mother’s laser focus on achievement. The Joy Luck Club changed that. Suddenly, my grandmother’s stories weren’t foreign or strange, but rooted in a shared Asian suffering; my mother’s fixation on success, her way of protecting us from a world that saw first the color of our skin. Amy Tan brought the Asian American mom to center stage, and in her, I saw my grandmother and my mother.
But as dramatically as she’d arrived, the Asian American mom disappeared. It was as if the world had lost interest. To anyone watching, the message was clear: Asian American motherhood was a trend that could pass, not an identity to be represented.
Without sightings of her, I’d grown up and given up. Decades of being mistaken for other Asians, of being asked where I’m from, of rarely seeing Asian authors on best-seller lists had taken its toll; I stopped looking to books to make sense of my Asianness. I abandoned the power of fiction to make me feel known.
Then, in 2016, I had my first child. Suddenly, my need for the Asian American mom became urgent. I needed her after my daughter’s traumatic birth, I needed her when I wasn’t sure if I had postpartum depression, I needed her when I doubted my ability to look after my captivatingly precious but astoundingly fragile baby. But she wasn’t there.
My anger blazed as my daughter grew. It wasn’t just that there was no fiction featuring Asian moms who looked like me; there was no fiction featuring dual-heritage girls who looked like her. Frustrated, I started writing my own book about a dual-heritage girl who mysteriously starts having her Asian mother’s memories. A story about memory and trauma, Asianness and whiteness. A story where Asian women aren’t portrayed as quiet or submissive, but as the complex people they are: fierce and flawed, strong and vulnerable, hurting and hurt. It was the beginning of my novel, Bad Fruit.
Little did I know that I was joining the groundswell of writers restoring the Asian mom. The first signal of her return was Michelle Zauner’s viral essay, “Crying in H Mart” (2018), which was expanded into a best-selling book in 2021. Zauner didn’t just articulate the profound connection between food and our moms, she captured the zeitgeist of second-generation Asian immigrants like me—how our moms are the source of our Asianness, how losing our moms feels like losing our culture, the strange precariousness of our heritage.
But it wasn’t until 2022 that I witnessed the return of the Asian American mom in full force. Leading the charge was Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers. The dystopian satire follows Frida Liu, who, after leaving her daughter unattended, is forcibly enrolled in a reformatory school for bad moms. To see her daughter again, she must pass motherhood tests with a robot daughter who is transmitting data about her parenting—how long she maintains eye contact, the length of her hug, the spark in her stories. Race plays a significant role; Frida is the “most palatable kind of Asian” but as scrutiny over her intensifies, judgment breaks down racial lines: “She didn’t sound attentive enough, patient enough, Chinese enough, American enough.”
Reading The School for Good Mothers and meeting Jessamine herself sent me down the path to finding the mantra that came to me in Inyoung’s house. Sleep-deprived, my stomach still aching from the C-section, I’d left my three-month-old baby and my six-year-old daughter with my husband to speak to Jessamine. Sitting opposite from her, I felt two things: mother guilt, yes, but also overwhelming relief. Because I was finally having an honest conversation about motherhood—sharing traumatic birth stories, empathizing about the challenges of breastfeeding.
“It’s such a taboo for moms to reveal any flaws, or thoughts or feelings about a subject that isn’t their children,” Jessamine said to me. “[Moms] aren’t allowed to say, ‘I want to text with my friends,’ or, ‘No, I don’t want to watch you draw.’ Because that would make you a bad mom.”
I thought of the times I felt bored babbling to my baby, how I tired of singing the same nursery rhymes, how my whole world had narrowed to the feeding, cleaning, and entertainment of my tiny child, and then the guilt that followed swiftly after. The brilliance of The School for Good Mothers is in identifying these anxieties, and then ratcheting them up to reveal their absurdity. It made me rethink the standards I’d placed on myself. It challenged me to show myself more compassion, more grace.
And then, there was Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts (2022). The book sat on my bedside table for weeks before I dared to open it, the premise alone too close for comfort. Set in a dystopian America, years after Asians have been blamed for the financial crisis and laws have been put in place to relocate the children of dissidents, 12-year-old, dual-heritage Bird searches for his Chinese American mother, Margaret, a poet whose words have formed the language of the rebellion.
I was very quiet after I read the novel. Like so many, I’d watched the world fall to pieces, first over the pandemic, and then again as the number of anti-Asian hate crimes skyrocketed. In my neighborhood alone, the Chinese takeaway I walked past on the way to my daughter’s school was vandalized. The impact on me was instant; I was afraid to go out without my white husband. Racism had become more permissible, more palpable than ever before, and I didn’t want to confront what had happened; I wanted to bury it.
Our Missing Hearts refused to let me do that. Gently, tenderly, it forced me to reexamine the racism I’d witnessed during the pandemic and to follow it through to its terrifying conclusion. How assaults on freedom of speech can slide into full-blown censorship. How slurs against one race can crystallize into laws. The devastating effect on Asian and dual-heritage children who looked just like my own. The School for Good Mothers gave me permission to be a real mom. Our Missing Hearts showed me the mom I need to be—necessarily political, fiercely truthful, fearless to act.
More on Asian American moms is coming this year and beyond. In books, I’m excited about Connie Wang’s Oh My Mother! A Memoir in Nine Adventures, Jane Wong’s Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, and Delia Cai’s Central Places; in film, there are rumblings of sequels to The Joy Luck Club and Crazy Rich Asians.
I hope they’re good. I hope these books and films hit best-seller lists and win critical acclaim. But above all, I hope that the return of the Asian American mom is more than just a moment; it’s a movement toward a new canon of stories about motherhood in all its diversity, all its failures and triumphs. Because all of us need to see our experiences reflected and to be reminded, once again, that we are enough.
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