A Chinese Canadian mother was taken aback by her daughter’s tears after the two watched the live-action film Mulan together.
On Dec. 10, Leanne Lee, a mother of two who lives in Ontario, shared a TikTok in which she caresses her 5-year-old daughter Mikayla after the two watched the film.
The clip, which has been watched more than 10 million times, shows Mikayla begging her mother for Chinese lessons.
“Why are you sad?” Lee asks.
“Because I really wanna learn Chinese!” Mikayla sobs. “Why can’t I?’
When Lee presses her daughter as to why she wants to learn a second language, the young girl gives a thoughtful — but straightforward — answer.
“Because I’m Chinese,” Mikayla says. “And why am I Chinese if I don’t know how to learn Chinese. If po po (“maternal grandma” in Cantonese) and gong gong (“maternal grandpa” in Cantonese) speak Chinese and we don’t know how to speak Chinese … I really wanna speak Chinese because it’s fun. I wanna speak like po po and gong gong.”
The video has since struck a chord with many TikTok users.
“[She’s] so smart for realizing the importance of her culture so young,” one user wrote. “I wish I had more media that represented mine so i was like this too!!”
“It’s the intense desire to engage in her culture/heritage for me,” another added. “Precious.”
“It so difficult struggling with cultural identity,” a third wrote.
In an interview with In The Know, Lee said that she herself grew up in a Cantonese-speaking household but would often reply to her parents in English. Though she did speak Cantonese from time to time and even learned Mandarin during the weekends, she “chose to just speak English.”
“Growing up with mostly Caucasian friends, I noticed that I was different right away [from] having black hair, to my middle and last name, to all my Barbies having blue eyes and to even having to go to Chinese school on Saturdays and missing out on morning cartoons,” she recalled. “I, embarrassingly, resented being Chinese and desperately wanted to fit in with my Caucasian friends.”
As a second-generation Chinese Canadian, Lee said she didn’t learn to appreciate her Chinese heritage until college, where she took four semesters of Mandarin, joined the Chinese Student Association and made friends with other Chinese Canadian students.
“It was then that I started to truly appreciate my Chinese look, food, culture, and language,” she said. “I felt like I finally found myself and my belonging.”
Lee said that drawing from her own experience and witnessing her daughter react so strongly to Mulan made her reflect on the bicultural identity the two have, especially as people of color.
“My first reaction was in shock,” she said when she saw Mikayla cry. “Never before has she ever expressed a desire for something this badly. This devastation of the realization that she couldn’t speak Chinese floored me. Where did this come from? I didn’t think Mulan would have this big of an [effect] on her.”
Lee said that, while the actors and actresses in the film didn’t speak Chinese, she reminded her daughter throughout the course of the movie that they were Chinese just like Lee’s family.
“My second reaction was guilt,” Lee, who has since lost fluency in Chinese, said. “Guilt that I hadn’t placed her in Chinese school earlier or even spoke more Chinese to her.”
Fortunately, there is a happy ending to the family’s story. Lee eventually did enroll her daughter in Chinese school — furthermore, the mother herself is relearning Mandarin.
“Every day, I’m surprised at how eager she is to learn Chinese,” Lee said of her 5-year-old. “I’m still waiting to hear back from the school about placement, but, in the meantime, I’ve downloaded an app to help her get a head start. I’ve also pulled out some of my very poor Chinese, some words here and there, to help her ear get used to these sounds, and also to brush up on my own Mandarin.”
If you liked this story, check out this article on how a young girl’s reaction to an actress in Hamilton proves why Asian American representation matters.
More from In The Know: