I didn’t get to see The Incredibles 2 this summer for a variety of reasons, most of them being “I have twin babies and no money.” I was a little bummed about that and also a little bummed about not getting to see the new Pixar short “Bao” that aired before the movie (though less so about the short, because as much as I like Pixar shorts, I’m not committed to them as a Thing). This week, Disney released the short for free viewing, so I finally caught it, after a Slate article showed up on my Facebook feed. I’d read a couple of articles about it, most talking about how deeply it spoke to the Chinese immigrant experience, and one talking about how people laughing at a certain point towards the end didn’t get it at all. Without having seen the short, I had no idea what these articles were talking about, and assumed that because my heritage is a mixed bag of various shades of white, I wouldn’t really get the short either.
And then I watched it.
(shown: me watching “Bao”)
I’ve got a link for it right here, but it’s only going to be up for a week, so what follows is a summary of the short (though even if you read the summary, you should watch it for yourself, because it’s truly well done).
A Chinese woman stands making bao buns for herself and her husband in her San Francisco kitchen. Her husband eats his buns before rushing off to work; the woman takes her time and, as she’s biting into the third one, is surprised to hear it cry out like a baby. She drops the bun into its steamer, where it proceeds to sprout a face, arms, legs, and a body. Though at first horrified, the woman takes an immediate liking to her new child and cuddles it up to her cheek.
The bao boy begins to grow up. At first, he toddles around his mother’s legs while she works around the house, gleefully helps her choose produce at the open air market, and does tai chi with her in the park. She dotes on him, helping him maintain his plump shape with delicious pork and measuring his growth on the door outside of his bedroom. But as he grows older, the bao boy begins to balk at his mother’s affection and attention. One day, he sees other boys playing soccer and longs to join him, but his mother pulls him away. When they reach the park for tai chi, he sneaks away to play soccer and ends up denting his dumpling head in the process. As he and his mother head home, she tries to clean the dirt from his face and share a pastry with him, as they had on every ride before; but he chafes at her attention and, when they get home, closes himself in his room, and does so regularly from then on, only emerging to eat out of the fridge.
After being shut out of her son’s room when he’s on the phone, the mother thinks she knows how to reach him. She works hard in the kitchen to cook him a grand feast and invites him to join her when he finally emerges. He rejects her offer, however, and breezes out the door to join his friends on a nighttime drive. While he’s gone, the mother stress eats the whole feast herself; when he returns, it’s alongside a blonde woman, a woman who’s sporting an engagement ring. She’s thrilled to meet the bao boy’s mother and gives her an effusive hug, while the bao boy goes to gather his things. He gives his mother a sweet hug and begins to head for the door, but she slams it shut before he can leave. She pleads with him to stay, to choose her over his fiancee, and when he doesn’t, she eats him.
(this was the point of confusion for a lot of people)
Instantly regretting her actions, she drops to the floor and sobs. Later, she remains heartbroken and sobbing on her bed. Her husband moves to comfort her but pauses as he hears their door open. A moment later, the bao boy appears in the door; she blinks a few times, and her vision clears to reveal her very human adult son.
(dear reader, at this point, my tears went from a trickle to a full-on sob)
She refuses to acknowledge him, at first, but he sets down a box of their favorite pastries beside her; she eventually sits up and begins to share with him, and they both cry and hug each other. In the final scene, the woman tries to teach her son and his fiancee to make bao buns of their own; he’s abominable, but his fiancee has an apparent natural talent for it.
As Pixar has an apparent natural talent for making me sob hysterically.
(I’m looking at you, Up)
Parenting is, above all, a long exercise in the art of letting go. For whatever else you do in the years you’re a parent, you’re ultimately working your way to the points where you trust in your ability to parent and let your child go, in a multitude of ways. You send them to school for the first time. You bring them to college. You help them move out after college. You give them your blessing for their wedding.
You give them last words of wisdom before you pass away.
Or worse: you hold onto their hand and tell them not to be afraid as they pass away.
And you let go.
And it’s a dreadful and wonderful thing. The wonderful part makes itself apparent on the hard days, like yesterday was for me, the days when it’s all bodily fluids and no rest. When your four-year-old comes staggering downstairs in tears because he wanted to wear his favorite zip-up pajamas but couldn’t unzip them in time to get to the toilet, and then when you remove his pajamas and undies, a huge ol’ turd falls out on your living room floor, and no sooner have you cleaned that up than the baby starts screaming hysterically, and when you pick the baby up to soothe him, he vomits untold quantities of partially digested formula down your back.
And in those moments, you think, “Oh man, I cannot wait until the four-year-old doesn’t need any help with the toilet and all the kids can run themselves to the bathroom if they need to puke. And when they’re all in school for the day and I don’t have to pretend to be interested in whatever inane programming they’ve found in the bowels of Netflix. And when everyone can feed themselves so I don’t have to try and wrangle the babies with their bottles or break my back leaning over to feed them with a spoon.”
It’s also dreadful.
Sam, for example, wants to be an astronaut. I don’t expect this ambition to be permanent, though it’d be cool if it was permanent. Anyway, he wants to be an astronaut, and more specifically, he wants to go to the moon. He adores the moon, has a glowing one to hang in his room, and dreams of being there someday. And gosh, I want him to be able to go to the moon someday. I want him to reach for that dream and hold it tangibly and never let it go.
But then I imagine saying good-bye as he boards a rocket ship and blasts off, my heart choking me as I know that statistically, nothing will likely go wrong, but images of the Challenger clouding my vision anyway. And I imagine looking up at the sky every night and knowing that my son is as far from me as one human has ever been from another.
And it hurts.
I remember the big “let go” when I transitioned from a child in the house to an adult in my own house. I was 25 years old and moving from my childhood home in Massachusetts to an apartment in Texas in order to pursue my graduate degree (and what a mistake that was, though I’ll talk about that some other time). Not only that, but my parents had just sold my childhood home and were moving to a new house, not far away but still not my childhood home. As Kyle and I wandered around the house, packing up my life in my little green car, I remember freezing in the basement and starting to cry. I knew I was making the right move. I knew that it was time to let go and be let go of.
But it hurt.
The other night, we had Finding Nemo on while everyone got ready for bed. In a quiet moment, as I fed one of the babies on my lap, I overheard one scene where Dory says to Marlon (entirely unrelated to his personal conflict), “It’s time to let go!” Later, Marlon has to trust his son to perform a big task and literally let go of him, and although he does so, you can still hear the pain in his voice as he acquiesces.
Because it hurts.
So if I had one piece of advice to give to any new parent, I’d say to start practicing letting go as soon as you’re holding them. You won’t want to do it, because your hearts are already knitted together, but you need to not just acknowledge that you’ll have to let go eventually but actually practice it and remember that it won’t destroy you utterly to do so.
Because right now, she’s small (though bigger than ever, at nearly nine pounds!) and tries to lift herself up into your arms, but soon enough, you’ll be watching her run for the school bus. Right now, he’s small (though tipping the scales at nearly twenty pounds!) and stops crying when you hold him against your shoulder, but soon enough, he’ll be shrugging off your hugs as he runs to greet his friends. Right now, he’s small (though so tall and lanky that he almost looks like he’s eight) and curls himself up on your lap and promises that he’ll never leave you, but soon enough, he’ll be on the moon (hopefully).
And you need to practice letting go so that, even though it hurts, you won’t ever hold them back from learning to fly.