On Motherhood & Miyazaki's Daughters

Michelle on becoming a new mother; recommended reads, plus a tofu (yes, tofu) music video from Taiwan's great folk-rock musician, Lin Sheng Xiang.

Michelle on motherhood & Miyazaki’s daughters

Once, when I was about five months pregnant, my husband Albert walked into the room and stopped in his tracks.

“You’re reading… Medea?” he said. 

Pregnancy was a strange time. Already a fretful person, I experienced new heights of anxiety. I’d wake up at 4 a.m., make myself some tea, and read to soothe my nerves. Mothers, whom I’d never paid attention to as a literary category, now seemed to be everywhere. Rigoberta Menchú’s memoir, in which she talks to her baby while hoeing Guatemalan land. Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, which you should definitely never read while pregnant. And Medea. Did I pick up a Greek tragedy about a mother who kills her children to steel myself against sentimentality? Yes I did. Maybe learning about motherhood in an ambiguously proto-feminist mode was the only way I knew how to do it. At any rate, it was impossible to overstate my ignorance—of babies, of gestation, all of it.  

“Is this my uterus?” I asked the midwife, motioning to a random part of my belly.

She frowned.

“I guess I’m not really in touch with my body,” I said. 

During this time, Albert often joked that I was more anxious about my mother coming to stay with us than I was about having a baby. I even visited a pale, doleful French therapist in the 19th arrondissement, who more than anything else seemed aghast at the idea that my mother would live with me for three months. “But why?” she kept repeating, brow furrowed.

I explained to her the Chinese and Taiwanese ritual zuo yuezi, in which a mother travels to live with her daughter for a month following a grandchild’s birth, cooking soups rich with herbs. In olden times, marriage meant giving the daughter away to her in-laws—the “new” parents, whom the daughter must serve through cooking and cleaning. So zuo yuezi upends two norms, if only temporarily: it restores the original mother-daughter bond, and suspends the daughter’s position as a caretaker for her parents-in-law by treating her as a person in need of care. Feminists may be divided as to whether this ritual further entrenches the mother’s domestic role or gives her a central part to play; for my mom, though, and for many of her friends who are immigrant Taiwanese, zuo yuezi is not a drag but an honor and a duty.

 “But you don’t want it,” the therapist said in her thick French accent, in a tone that closed off the conversation.

You’re not very filial, I thought to myself. Maybe that was her point, that filiality is a symptom of mental illness.

Instead of seeing her again, I devoured a book by the therapist Philippa Perry, The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read, then passive-aggressively left it on the coffee table when my parents arrived. (They didn’t notice it; I lost my nerve and shelved it after a day.) Every other line seemed like a clue to my anxiety. A bond can be so much more than a filial tie: it can be one of real connection, of liking as well as love. Or: When we are soothed, and soothed again, by our parents, whatever our feelings, we are liable to feel more optimistic about those feelings, which makes us less susceptible to depression or anxiety later on in life.

Perry’s book revealed to me the common anxiety at the heart of my idiosyncratic bouts of insomnia: like some of my female friends, I feared that I would mother my child as I had been mothered myself. Turning to my mother for emotional support usually proves to be a mistake; she tends to panic or get angry whenever I manifest less than positive feelings. We’re not very good at listening to each other, unless we detect an insult.

I kept reading.

Begin to talk to your baby; they can fear you.

I paused. That didn’t seem right.

Ah, a misrecognized word. Begin to talk to your baby; they can hear you.

But what would I say? To the portion of my belly I believed to be my uterus, I said, “Please like me.” I said, “I hope you enjoy my womb!” I said, “Don’t become anxious like your mother.” I said, “Hi.”

*

When my baby was born, my parents came and stayed, as planned. To my surprise, the long visit didn’t feel so long. Before, it had frustrated me that our conversations, if they could be called that, primarily involved two things: whether I had slept enough, and what I’d eaten. Now the baby deprived me of sleep and food, and my mother provided me with both. She’d whisk the baby away in the middle of the night so I could get some rest; she cooked meal after meal. The baby slept on my father’s chest, then in my mother’s lap, then repeat.

My parents left in December, shortly before my birthday, and I missed them terribly. Not long after, the pandemic hit.

*

During lockdown, while the baby slept, Albert and I watched, in rapid succession, three films by the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I’d seen and loved his films before. But this time, after becoming a mother, I noticed that his work is full of girls who are not particularly damaged by their parents, children who carry neither injuries nor grudges.  

“Humans? How could you love such disgusting creatures?” says the father of a baby fish-girl named Ponyo in the film of the same name. Ponyo never gives us the father’s backstory, nor does it need to: the opening sequence—a sublimely Miyazakian sampler of mystical enchantments, fish turning into humans, waves turning into whales—says it all. As we watch the fish-girl swim in a sea of trash, we understand that the human father got fed up with his own world and retreated to the sea.

But Ponyo, being a baby, lacks her father’s capacity for disgust. When she gets trapped inside a bottle, a little boy discovers her and breaks her out, and they’re delighted to find each other. When she grows feet—we don’t know how—she’s delighted by this too. On land, she pounds and stomps, leaps and hops. She doesn’t walk; she springs. Perhaps because my own baby was six months old and had just discovered her feet, I especially loved these scenes. In another iconic Miyazaki moment, Ponyo sprints over the waterlike an Olympian, her little feet pop-pop-popping on the giant whale-wave. It’s glorious.

Kiki, the titular witch of Kiki’s Delivery Service, is a child coming of age. At the beginning of the movie her parents let her fly abroad—literally—and she adjusts quickly: she starts a business, fights off a flock of swallows, befriends a dog and a boy and a family of bakers. At one point, though, she mysteriously loses her gift of flight. She hops on her broom, only to stumble off. She has become ordinary. The story’s villain is not a monster or a malign spirit but the loss of magic, of the gifts that make us feel special. In turn, the film becomes an exploration of how it feels to lose your creativity, to feel your source has dried up. How do you get it back? It’s a story about creativity and self-doubt, and maybe for that reason it also feels like a film about being a woman.

The first time I saw Kiki’s Delivery Service, two years ago, I cried to see myself in Kiki. At the time I was feeling I had nothing to say, that by publishing a book I’d exposed the limits of my intelligence. But watching the film again as a new mother, I saw my daughter, a creature full of delights who might one day come to doubt her gifts too. This wasn’t so surprising, in retrospect. What startled me was that I saw my own mother in Kiki as well—or rather a potential younger version of my mother, when she had creative aspirations and the world was full of possibility.

Like so many in her generation, my mother was never able to say how much it crushed her to feel ordinary. She would take up painting or Japanese, only to stop suddenly for reasons that remain unclear to me. “Our parents are mysterious to us in ways that we can never quite be mysteries to them,” writes Daniel Mendelsohn. Kiki reminded me of my mother’s mystery, of the years prior to my birth—prior to the forty years of cooking and cleaning for her family, prior to a full-time job and taking care of her in-laws. Perhaps as a younger woman she had needed what the film gives Kiki: a kind female artist friend, a painter with a free spirit who lives on her own terms.

One night while my parents were here, I saw my mother through a cracked door. She was lying on the bed, gazing at my baby, who was falling asleep. My mother’s look—no language, just immense tenderness—has stayed with me. I saw an absence of disappointment or expectation. It made me wonder how much our tension, our disconnect, has to do with poor communication. Surely some of it was due to her basic English and my basic Mandarin. Some of it was likely about feeling locked out in the United States, an inarticulate experience of loneliness that I’ve felt myself in France. And some of it must have been due to the defensiveness that arises when you feel unrealized. She didn’t have the resources, I thought to myself. And something inside me began to heal.  

Since then, I’ve started thinking of the iconically spunky, androgynous girl characters in Miyazaki’s films as daughters: daughters who have access to magic, daughters who grow and learn and individuate. Daughters who, like Kiki, like Ponyo, possess an otherworldly, creaturely charm. Miyazaki’s films don’t bother with the sins of moms and dads who fuck you up, as Philip Larkin famously wrote. They don’t show the intensity of relations turned inward. They speak of a freedom and care that envelop us all: the animism of spirits, the humility inherent in ritual, the playful creation of different worlds.

In these movies the parents are mostly absent, and the children experience life for what life is—terror, loss, disaster, mystery. But the children are not alone. The trees are alive, the wind too. Waves can become whales. A giant camphor tree in My Neighbor Totoro houses a guardian spirit, and the father takes his daughters to the shrine to pay their respects. Later, in a whimsical night scene, the girls and the spirit bend and bow together, a kind of sun salutation to make the trees sprout and grow. Then the trees sprout and grow.

* With gratitude to Eunice Cho & Elizabeth Kinne for the conversations that helped spark this reflection.


What we’re listening to this week

Taiwan’s most influential contemporary folk-rock musician, Lin Sheng Xiang (林生祥), dropped a new album, 野蓮出庄 (Water Snowflake Goes to Market), this week. His music is rooted in the traditional songs of the Hakka, a minority ethnic group in Taiwan; as you’ll see in the video, he sings in Hakka, with subtitles in Mandarin.

Lin has been called Taiwan’s Woody Guthrie. He got his start in the late 1990s writing songs protesting the government’s plans to build a dam. He and the activists won; the government abandoned the project. Since then, Lin’s work has retained its focus on environmental and labor justice. In particular, his songs illuminate Taiwanese rural life and the dangers of industrialization. On this new album’s title track, he sings about Taiwan’s discrimination toward Vietnamese migrants, who grow “water lilies” or “water snowflakes,” a popular vegetable whose harvest requires standing waist-deep in water tanks or ponds for hours on end. The song is also a primer on the impact of climate change and globalization on agricultural practices; many farmers had used the ponds to grow shrimp, but the water got too hot and the shrimp died. Now, since Taiwanese farmers shun the labor-intensive practice of raising water snowflakes, Vietnamese migrants have started coming to do it. Lin criticizes immigration officers who “would lie in wait by the ponds” to arrest them.

And we really loved this song about tofu. Watch it get fried, sautéed, eaten raw; watch it squared, sliced, doused in soy sauce, submerged in syrup. Watch soybeans get harvested, planted, counted. The song has a political message: it celebrates the Taiwanese farmers who plant organic, non-GMO soybeans. Taiwan, where environmental consciousness is high—it has one of the world’s most comprehensive bans on plastic bags, for instance—banned GMOs in schools in 2015 because of soy’s high pesticide content. Stay for the adorable chorus at the end, where tofu producers and soybean farmers sing along with Lin.

P.S. Michelle’s dad likes to say that our baby’s little foot, square and squishy, looks like a piece of tofu. But that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with why we like the song so much.


Links for the week

  • Diego Maradona’s death this week at sixty has spawned a lot of excellent writing. A poignant tribute in The Guardian by Marcela Mora y Araujo reflects on Maradona’s universal appeal; at The Ringer, Brian Phillips beautifully captures how we feel:

    Many athletes bring joy to people, of course, and many athletes lead chaotic lives, and many athletes die too early, because many people do. But Diego was something else. I don’t know why anyone cares what a person can do with a ball; I only know that Maradona was able to do things with one that, when you saw them, made you feel like the universe was telling you a secret. The sight of him with the ball at his feet, this little guy with his hair streaming back, all chest and thighs and churning elbows, had a power that is given to very few people in any generation, the power to make a large part of the world hold its breath. Maybe that’s another reason it’s hard to believe he’s dead; where he’s concerned, we’re the ones who are used to being breathless.

    Brian’s tribute sent us down a Maradona YouTube rabbit hole. We had never seen this clip of Maradona warming up, making the ball come alive with his dancing as if it were a daemon from Philip Pullman’s universe:

And of course here’s his goal against England in 1986 with commentator Victor Hugo Morales’s legendary cries: Barrilete cósmico… ¿De que planeta viniste, Maradona?

  • In The Nation, the wonderful Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins talks to Pankaj Mishra about Mishra’s new collection of essays, Bland Fanatics. The interview is illuminating on a range of issues, from the American-centric nature of BLM to a critique of Cold War–era liberal internationalism.

    Like Mishra, we’ve always found it perplexing and infuriating that many of the liberals who led the drumbeat for the war in Iraq have retained their prestige within the pundit classes. We loved his rousing call to move away from an American-centric vision of the world:

    There was always something grotesquely tyrannical about wanting to reduce the incredible plurality of cultures and ways of life to a single model of an American-style society built around endless consumption. You didn’t need to spend time in Tibet or the Amazonian rain forests to realize the need for what James Scott calls “local knowledge.” We now confront everywhere the horrific environmental and political costs of this reckless project of Americanization. Where we go from here depends on how we conceive of the past and future. As I see it, the task has barely begun.

  • If Mishra doesn’t quench your thirst for centrist-liberal bashing, here’s Thomas Meaney in the New Statesman:

    In the future it should be possible to better appreciate the symbiosis of Trump and the Weimar-crying liberals, whose mutual antagonism boosted ratings on both sides…The trouble with Trump – his one basic consistency – is that he disappoints all who either feared or welcomed him as a threat to the US establishment and its elites. Rather than expose liberal weakness, he has produced the opposite: a show of liberal power, soaked in righteousness, along with a welcome distraction from having to think what a Biden administration actually means, as the Resistance makes way for Restoration.

  • Our friend Noam Osband helped produce a gripping story for the podcast “Love and Radio” about a young man in the Netherlands who falsely confesses to his sister’s killing. It deals with dislocation, doubt, and family reconciliation.

  • We’re disturbed by reports in France that classroom discussions on Samuel Paty’s killing have led to schoolchildren being arrested. Police in France have raided the homes of children and teenagers, dragging them to the station on charges of “defending terrorism.” One ten-year old wetted himself after the raid.

  • Our awesome students have planned a (virtual) conference on rethinking punishment next week, with guest panelists speaking on topics such as refugee justice, coalition-building around violence and poverty, and prison education. Come check it out!


As always, thanks for reading! We were really moved by your responses to our conversation with Victor about jazz last week. If you have any thoughts to share about your relationship to music (or anything else we write about!), please share and we’ll be sure to ask your permission before running them. Next week, Taiwanese-American jazz musician Peter Lin responds to Victor, and Albert remembers the inclusivity of the Taiwan jazz scene, thinking about how music can foster an egalitarian spirit, as well as foreclose it.