My Mother’s Jade (2013) is a short film written and directed by Irene Young. The film tells the story of a second-generation Chinese American teenage girl, her 19-year-old white boyfriend, and her mother. It has been screened at several film festivals, and has received numerous awards and honors. In this film, Young explores the themes of gendering Asian American women and the complexities of interracial dating in order to provide a candid representation of Asian American female struggles in hopes of helping to dismantle these hegemonic norms.
One issue Young brings to light through her film is the gendering of Asian American women at home. An example of this socialization is the scene in which the mother tells her daughter how she wants to buy her her own piece of jade jewelry. She explains how jade is worn for protection, saying that if she should ever fall, the jade will break so she herself will not be hurt. The daughter is surprised to learn this, asking, “Really?” The mother replies, “Yes really. Every Chinese woman knows this.” In this scene, the mother presents a totalized image of a Chinese woman to her daughter, implying that a woman of Chinese descent is not actually Chinese unless she possesses certain gendered and racialized knowledge.
Later in the film, when the mother is berating her daughter upon discovering her with her white boyfriend, the mother further polices her daughter’s gender and sexual expression (Chou). In an effort to defend herself against her fuming mother, the daughter says,”Everyone I know is allowed to have boys in their room. It’s not China, okay?” In reply, the mother says, “This is not China, but you are Chinese,” expressing her home-culture frame by affirming that cultural heritage should still dictate the actions of an individual, especially a woman, even if that individual has been physically displaced from their “motherland.” The mother further delineates how a Chinese woman should behave, ridiculing her daughter’s “revealing” tank tops and telling her that “no Chinese man [would] want a girl…so cheap.” Through this quotation, the mother reinforces hegemonic gender norms, linking her daughter’s worth as a proper Chinese woman to her marketability to Chinese men (Chou). Although the mother says all of these problematic things, the film is from an Asian American perspective, and Young clearly wants her audience to read these actions as problematic.
However, one shortcoming of Young’s film is the absence of a father in this narrative. Although the girl is known to have a father, he is at work and does not play any direct role in the events that unfold. This absence of a father mirrors Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and furthers the stereotype of the domestic, motherly Asian woman. Although the father works and the mother stays at home in many American households, he still plays a huge role in parenting. However, My Mother’s Jade erases the father’s role as, well, a father, and instead clearly prescribes the public sphere as male and the private sphere as female.
My Mother’s Jade also tackles the issue of interracial dating, an issue relevant to many Asian American households. However, Young offers a refreshing perspective on this topic. While many stories geared for white audiences portray partners of other races as perfectly fine people who are unfortunately subjected to illogical racism from Asian families, this film offers a much more nuanced take, one that is much more relatable to Asian Americans, especially Asian American women.
At the beginning of the film, the boyfriend is presented as a perfect, all-American boy, the peak of white hegemonic masculinity. He’s a musician, he’s older, he has a car, and he smokes. However, as the film progresses and the boyfriend is given more dialogue, Young reveals the deep, troubling dynamics of the relationship. For example, when he is inviting his girlfriend to the party, he refuses to take no for an answer, refusing to stop pestering her until she agrees to sneak out of her house. Later, he tells his girlfriend that he’ll forgive her for ditching the party as long as she lets him come into her room. A few moments later, he calls her his “little wonton” and expresses how she’s “just so cute when [she’s] pissy.”
These lines reveal the troubling undercurrents of racial exotification in the relationship. His refusal to take no for an answer combined with his amusement at her frustration illustrate that he does not actually have any regard for her needs and desires, and makes the viewer question whether he actually cares for her as a person, or only appreciates her for the pre-conceived notions in his head of what a perfect, Asian girlfriend is. This depiction of the boyfriend is important, because it underscores the problematic racial dynamics in many white man-Asian woman relationships. Young’s film also challenges the dominant narratives surrounding the troubles of interracial dating, placing some responsibility on those within the relationship itself rather than solely on outside agents.
Young also rationalizes the aversion of Asian families to interracial relationships. In My Mother’s Jade, the mother’s disapproval of her daughter’s white boyfriend is mostly due to her desire to protect her home culture from American influence. For example, when the mother is throwing her daughter’s clothes on the floor in anger, she tells her daughter to get out and “look for [her] American friend.” However, it should be noted that this rationalization is applicable only to cases in which the partner is white, as white racial framing affects the ways in which Asian Americans view other people of color (Chou).
The mother (Ying Yuen) tells her daughter (Julie Zhan) to get out of her house.
While mainstream depictions of Asian American families remain two-dimensional and based entirely on stereotypes, Young’s My Mother’s Jade very candidly represents an Asian American family and the difficulties of being a diasporic subject trying to navigate the realms of race and gender. Although this film may not have a huge reach and is intended for an Asian American female audience, I would still argue that accurate and nuanced representation always carries significance. Personally, I know My Mother’s Jade helped me a lot when I first viewed it high school.
Chou, Rosalind S. “Asian American Sexual Politics: Love and Relationships.” Asian American Sexual Politics: The Construction of Race, Gender, and Sexuality. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012. N. pag. Print.
Chou, Rosalind S. “The Making of Good Sons and Daughters.” Asian American Sexual Politics: The Construction of Race, Gender, and Sexuality. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012. N. pag. Print.