Release the Red Panda
Note: spoilers for the Pixar film Turning Red
“Hi – Dr. Shapiro, it’s Sandy. I’m calling because my parents want me to delay the operation by a month. My mom said it would bring bad luck if I were in the hospital during the Lunar New Year.” I said quietly. The night before I had decided to call my orthopedic surgeon from the school nurse’s office, far out of earshot from my parents. I remember twisting the phone’s spiral cord around my finger until it was taut with the tension I felt inside. I was a senior in high school and as a minor, I could not make decisions about my own medical care. But with my voice shaking and timid, I proceeded to tell my doctor why I wanted to risk all the lessons my parents had instilled in me and disrupt this ancient Chinese superstitious lore.
“Their reason to delay makes no sense! There is no scientific evidence to support their reasoning and I need you to tell them that,” I continued. I laid out my argument point-by-point including the average time it would take for me to complete post-op rehab, “I am about to leave for college. I need to be at 100% by the time I move into my dorm. The earlier I have this operation the more independent I can be once I get to campus.” The more I spoke, the bolder and clearer in my convictions I became until eventually, Dr. Shapiro agreed to talk with my parents to see if they would reconsider the date of the surgery.
This was one of the many moments I flashed back to while reflecting on Pixar’s animation film Turning Red. The star of Domee Shi’s directorial debut is Meilin Lee – a thirteen year-old Chinese Canadian who morphs into a giant fluffy red panda whenever she experiences outsized emotions. Poofing into a red panda could have easily just been a silly super power that Meilin wields without the thoughtful and intentional storytelling that shaped the red panda’s connection to her past, present, and even hints at the future Meilin will have. The Lee family maintains a temple that worships Sun Yee and her mystical connection to the red panda, a responsibility that Meilin as Assistant Temple Keeper takes very seriously and routinely sacrifices social time with her friends to fulfill her role as a dutiful daughter. Generations ago, Meilin Lee’s ancestor Sun Yee was bestowed the power to transform into a red panda and this magical skill was passed down through generations of women in her family – grandmother, aunties, her mother, and now Meilin, who wakes up one day to find that her body had inexplicably changed into “a gross red monster.” Meilin’s mom, Ming Lee who is voiced by Sandra Oh, believed that her careful and overbearing parenting would allow her to have the conversation with her daughter before she’d experience her own red panda. But as it often goes with family secrets, no one was prepared for the reveal and even less so for the decisions Meilin would make on her own.
My grandpa lives in Roxbury Crossing, in that same triple decker house that my older brother and I grew-up in during the mid-80s and is walking distance from one of the best medical institutes and teaching-hospitals in the country. The orthopedic doctor I called that day from school was the same physician who had diagnosed me at birth who had been treating me for at least sixteen years, became a trusted family friend, and would later write my older brother a letter of recommendation to medical school. At every appointment up until that point I had shown up with my parents and followed through with his every medical advice. We never questioned because there was a silent implication that we should not question an orthopedic expert whose patients came from as far away as Maine and Florida to see him. My parents watched me as closely as they could, writing careful instructions for teachers at the start of every school year, forbade me from sleepovers and other social gatherings where an adult was not constantly within three feet of me. Still, that moment I made the call to Dr. Shapiro was more than just defying and questioning years of accepting that this is how things are done – I was also claiming a different fate for a story that I was just beginning to write for myself. My red panda began to emerge.
Over the years, I have also become more comfortable and politicized about my identity as a disabled queer Asian American woman. Still, when it comes to my independence in the present and future, there are moments when amassing all the research, the plans, the back-up plans, and the back-up to those back-up plans gets overwhelming. I sometimes wonder if I am doing all of this preparation and research for my own peace of mind, or to quell the anxieties of parents who still fret every time I cross the street on Mass Ave. “Mom, I’m thirty-five – I am well practiced in the art of crossing the street and being careful. You don’t need to call every time a pedestrian or bicyclist gets hit and you hear about it on the news. I only cross when the crosswalk signal says go. Yes, I’ve already eaten today.”
Meilin’s life is bursting at the seams with an abundance of thoughts and inner-most-thoughts – the kind that we all told our parents to appease them while manifesting other aspirations that we entrusted with our friends. We sealed these desires and dreams with the power of secret handshakes and the binding contract of friendship bracelets. I remember telling a friend that I wasn’t allowed to host sleepovers or attend them, “Not even if my parents are medical professionals? What if they promised your mom and dad that nothing would ever happen to you?” she pleaded.
“It doesn’t matter, my parents will worry anyway and it’ll just be a weird thing for all of us. Let’s just say we have a group project and hang-out at the library instead.” We shook on it and as we got older, we explored beyond the library and learned how long it would take us to walk to the park and back – she pushing my wheelchair, and me balancing on my footrest our blue raspberry slushies and Sour Patch Kids that we’d buy from the corner store a few blocks away.
Although their parents have forbidden them from attending the 4*Town concert, Meilin and her loyal dork squad devise an all-consuming scheme called Operation 4*Town Shake Down to secretly raise funds to buy tickets for the concert by transforming Mei’s red panda into a source of capital rather than an inconvenient and shameful burden. Attending a pop concert is a fangirl’s rite of passage, and while Meilin stays focused on this immediate goal she is also facing down another rite of passage to forever lock away her red panda side. Her grandmother warns Meilin that the more she lets the red panda out, the more difficult it is to control it will be. On the one hand her friends are expressing their delight and newfound radicalization of Meilin who has always been expected to be a compliant and filial daughter, “I never ask for anything – my whole life I’ve been her perfect Little Mei-Mei.” They celebrate their fearless leader whose plan will allow them to attend the concert, marking a clear line in the sand for Mei and her friends: “We are walking into that concert girls, and walking out women.”
Later on in high school, only a few close friends and their parents knew to say they were picking me up to go work on a “group project” when in fact we were slinking away to go be teenagers at the movies, the mall, getting ice cream or, or just at someone’s house for a few hours.
Eventually, I figured out that my social life could be further extended outside of school hours by signing up for every extracurricular activity I possibly could: the student newspaper, literary magazine, mock trial, and the debate team. I was the student who did well academically and also had a snarky come-back reply for everyone and everything – it didn’t matter if you were a friend, a teacher, my guidance counselor, or the vice principal. I was swift and cutting with my sarcasm and also knew I could get away with it. I’d often intentionally speed away in my power wheelchair with a friend riding on the back, purposefully zig zagging between the bulky backpacks of other students in the halls – away from my classroom aids who could never keep up. We’d rush into the elevator and slam on the “Door Close” button, giggling as the elevator doors shut on the adult who was huffing and puffing behind us. At school and among my friends I was often The Ideas Person who was bold about wanting her independence, proving herself to teachers and school aides around her, and unafraid to act on my own curiosity of bending the rules just to identify their breaking point. Maybe my teachers were amused and even proud of how I asserted myself, to them I was probably living out the goals listed on my Individualized Education Plan having to do with “being an advocate” for myself and “developing skills that would support independence.” Now I understand that my behavior at school was overlooked in part because there are privileges I had that were not given to other students of color whose disabilities were non-apparent, and those who did not conform to expectations and meet academic measures of “success.”
But at home it was always a different situation. My brothers and I were reminded constantly of the sacrifices my parents made to pursue a life in the U.S. How lucky we were, the choices and educational opportunities we had available to us “but only if you work hard! If you’re not going to do something well, then you might as well not do it at all.” It is this oft-repeated line that has enforced the idea that everything is precious, shouldn’t be taken for granted, and carries the weight of family expectations.
On the other hand, it has also meant that the things I have been unsure about and lacked the confidence in myself, I have had to quietly plot with other friends and my closest confidantes of disabled co-schemers. Somewhere in my childhood bedroom is a blue file cabinet and in the bottom drawer is a rainbow unicorn headband, its neon yellow wig probably knotted by now – that I wore to my first NYC Pride Parade in 2015. Tangled in that headband are the sparkly fishnet tights, and denim shorts that I also wore with it, along with a mesh shirt and denim vest. I hurried from my internship that day, got changed in the bathroom at South Station, and boarded the train headed to New York City. Everywhere I turned was news of the Supreme Court decision on Obergefell v Hodges in favor of upholding gay marriage as law of the land.
“So what did you tell your parents?” My friend Thomas asked me when I arrived at Penn Station. I remember he had a small rainbow flag fluttering from the back pocket of his shorts, a Bud Light in his other hand.
“I just told them I was visiting you in Connecticut for the weekend.” I shrugged.
“Sandy, like when you eventually tell them is it going to be something like world war three?” I shrugged again and waved off the conversation, already hailing a cab to get us to Henrietta Hudson’s.
The truth was that at the time I really didn’t know then how my parents would have responded to my coming out as queer. There was no family lore, legacy, or expectation about my sexual identity which seemed strange because at that time of my life those were the biggest feelings that preoccupied my thoughts. I wondered often what my younger self would have done, the kid who had a pointed clapback for every teacher. The brazen teen who frightened the teachers into thinking she had been kidnapped because I ditched my wheelchair in the bushes. At a time when I wanted to be bold and loudest, I realized I was afraid this would be the thing that would disappoint my parents the most. I remember returning home from pride that weekend, the lights were off in our house and my parents were already asleep upstairs. I let myself in and hurriedly stuffed the duffel bag with my clothes and what felt like a quarter of the glitter from Manhattan into the bottom of a nondescript file cabinet. I grew-up not having access to see myself in relationships beyond family, services, and school. I was constantly told that unlike my non-disabled brothers, I could only ever count on “family and the government to support you for your life. Your brothers will have their own families eventually. But mom and dad will always be here.”
In the movie, Meilin discovers that one way she is able to ‘control’ her red panda from emerging uncontrollably, she thinks of her ride-or-die squad of friends and imagines them in her mind. Being in the community of her friends gives space for Meilin’s red panda to transform into a presence that is exuberantly joyful, bold in her leadership, and freely gyrating her furry booty. When she shows up at the 4*Town concert Meilin acknowledges “I’ve been, like, obsessed with my mom’s approval my whole life. I couldn’t take losing it, but losing you guys feels even worse.” This moment reminded me of the messiness and the journey I’ve had to arrive at a place where I’m finally beginning to rewrite the ending I’ve been told.
It has taken trusting more than a few drag queens and leather daddies to hoist my wheelchair into and out of gay bars. There have been several introductions of “friends” who were only ever “friends” at family gatherings. I have built relationships with queer elders, including adopted Dyke Moms who always let me crash in their guest room and couch at a moments notice “Can I come over? The family is being too family and I need Family Escape.”
There have been a lot of sunburns in all the best and wrong places every summer in Provincetown. I’ve learned the magic of crip queer access intimacy when other disabled friends block the wheelchair stall with crip gay fierceness: “Unless you’re a crip homo don’t even think about coming in here! Find another place to get it on!” So many dates at protests followed by gay brunches, those bottomless mimosas spilling over into politicized teas. The tea dances where I screamed lyrics with friends under the disco ball, and then later have a gay elder explain the meaning behind Janet Jackson’s Together Again. Putting myself out there has meant having unconditional trust in LGBTQ+ community, and realizing that the love I know I deserve and choose to have reflected back to me might not be found in my immediate family. On some days this can be hard but on most days it feels liberatory, and even joyous.
Far from being depicted as timid, fragile, infantilized and “wise beyond her years,” like so many Chinese girl animation characters, Meilin Lee embraces teen fangirldom including gyrating dance moves with an inexhaustible joie de vivre. In the opening scene Meilin introduces herself by strutting through Toronto’s Chinatown with all the swagger that is always readily gifted to every other white animation character that has graced Pixar’s vault: “I know, it’s a lot, but I don’t got time to mess around,’‘ she says directly to her audience. From the outset, Meilin doesn’t ask permission from an elder to follow magical spells or to restore justice to assuage a jilted family spirit – it’s clear that we are in Meilin’s world and on her timeline, so it’s in our best interest we take a seat and keep up. On the rare occasions I see myself reflected in popular culture, I can’t help but think about what’s next for Meilin, what’s next for me, and all the stories out there with endings to be retold.
Sandy Ho is guided by the light of the closest disco ball. Born in the year of the tiger, her boldness has shown up in her community organizing and activism as the founder of the Disability & Intersectionality Summit. She is also one-third of the team behind the “Access is Love” campaign in partnership with Alice Wong and Mia Mingus. Her essay “Canfei to Canji: The Freedom of Being Loud” is included in Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century edited by Alice Wong. She produced the discussion guide for Year of the Tiger: An Activist’s Life by Alice Wong (September 2022). In 2022 Sandy received the Disability Futures Fellowship. Currently she is the director of the Disability Inclusion Fund at Borealis Philanthropy. Sandy spends her time reading, cheering for the Red Sox, and daydreaming while drinking tea. She identifies as a queer disabled Asian American woman.
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