Scooby, Scooby-Doo, Can’t See You
When I was in the third grade, my mom gave me some devastating news:
Son, you are going back to Chinese School!
I was shocked. Incredulous, I asked if she was kidding. But she was totally serious. Our church, an ethnic Chinese Christian church, was launching its own Chinese School, and I was going to be a student.
I broke down crying, on the spot.
That’s because I had just escaped, months before, from my previous Chinese School, without any thought that I’d ever have to go back. Not literally escaped, of course; Chinese School wasn’t actually a prison, though to me as a suburban eight-year-old Chinese American boy, it felt as much like a sentence to hard labor as anything I’d known.
That’s because my Chinese School had meant a weekly hour-and-a-half to two hours reading, writing, and repeatedly drilling Chinese words and phonetics, using textbooks with pictures that seemed decades old and completely foreign. It meant additional homework and test prep on top of my daily regular school homework and piano practice time.
It also meant having to hear over and over again, ad nauseam, lectures from grown-ups on why it was important for me as an ethnic Chinese kid to know the language of my people, and that I’d appreciate it all when I got older. Worst of all, it meant that I had to miss Saturday morning cartoons, like new episodes of Scooby-Doo, in an era that predated VCRs (which my younger readers may not know stands for Video Cassette Recorders – and I hope I don’t have to explain to you what a cassette is).
And now, my parents were putting me back into dreaded Chinese School.
Girl in the Balance
An American Girl Story – Ivy and Julie 1976: A Happy Balance shows a similar struggle for its central character, Ivy Ling, a ten-year-old Chinese American girl living in San Francisco in the mid-1970s. Like me, and like almost every Chinese American kid I’ve ever known, she can’t stand Chinese School. The first time we see her in class, she’s sneaking peeks at a gymnastics magazine, because that’s where her heart really is, with her local gymnastics club preparing for an all-city competition. Her disdain for Chinese School grows only stronger as she misses the extra practice sessions she desperately needs before All-City; ironically, those are scheduled at exactly the same time as her Chinese School classes.
Early in Ivy and Julie, we also hear Ivy express her weariness at having to eat Chinese food every day, and we witness her quiet embarrassment when her mother speaks Cantonese to her in front of her gymnastics teammates. Watching the special, the adult in me felt like she was being kind of whiny up to that point, but simultaneously, I could absolutely see myself in her and empathize.
It’s been thirty-five years since I was her age, but I very clearly remember the intensity of those sorts of feelings. It’s surprising that those emotions feel quite near to me even now.
Ivy’s own angst becomes overwhelming when she realizes that the big gymnastics meet takes place at the exact same time as the mother-of-all-Ling-Family-Chinese-New-Year dinners, a banquet her parents definitely expect her to attend. As in the book on which the special is based, Lisa Yee’s AG novel Good Luck, Ivy, our heroine faces what, to her, seems an impossible choice – All-City or the family banquet.
Really, Ivy is dealing with more than just a decision between those two options. Even at a young age, she’s wrestling, albeit unconsciously, with the question, “What does it mean for me to be an American?”
It’s a struggle familiar to so many of us who are people of color and/or the descendants of recent immigrants. How much do we embrace good, ol’-fashioned American values and traditions, which we non-whites often identify with white American culture? And how much do we retain the beliefs and practices of our ancestors from distant lands?
This dynamic gives rise to the special’s subtitle: A Happy Balance. Yes, Ivy is working intensely to nail her routine on the balance beam. But on top of that, she’s trying very hard to reconcile, or to balance, her Western values (“All-City is really important to me”) and her Chinese, Confucian values (“the family takes precedence over the individual”).
Played winsomely and with a lot of range by Nina Lu (Bunk’d), Ivy deals with these existential questions with the help of her best bud Julie Albright, portrayed with calm confidence by Hannah Nordberg (Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors). Their on-screen BFF-ship captures the warm, easy bond that the characters share in the AG books depicting their adventures.
Yet Ivy finds a lot of added support in her mom, which is somewhat surprising given the conflicts they have. Gwendoline Yeo (Grey’s Anatomy, American Crime) hits all the right notes as mother Marilyn Ling. In fact, her character’s story is similar to Ivy’s in that Marilyn felt compelled to go to law school, which meant an end to her years of helping at her parents’ Chinese restaurant. Her own choice was not all that different from the one Ivy faces.
Notable encouragement also comes Ivy’s way from those restaurant-owning grandparents, whom she calls Po-Po and Gung-Gung. They’re played laugh-out-loud delightfully by veteran actors Elizabeth Sung (Pali Road, Front Cover) and Tzi Ma (Arrival, The Man in the High Castle).
It is very, very cool to me – “groovy” would be the word that Ivy and Julie use, perhaps while munching on Jiffy Pop popcorn, talking on their corded phones, or listening to records – that this AG special is the first one I’ve seen that really delves into what it means to be an American girl. I haven’t seen all of the AG specials or the lengthier films, but the several that I have seen don’t show their protagonists trying to make sense of how they can be both fully American and fully _____ (fill in the blank). Their identity as Americans is just assumed.
But that’s not the case with Ivy and Julie, which makes it a terrific conversation starter between parents and kids on issues of culture, ethnicity, and nationality. At 44 minutes in length, it even works well for elementary school teachers wanting to engage their students on such topics. And though the story is set in 1976, it can definitely spark discussions, quite timely given our current political scene, about immigrants, why they come to America, and what they contribute to our nation.
This special is a winner on several other fronts, too. For one thing, Ivy and Julie continues AG’s long tradition of excellence in storytelling. Yes, the dolls can be expensive. But the books and videos show us girl characters that are the empowered, resourceful, and compassionate heroines of their own stories. These materials are notable as well for their superb depictions of the historical backdrops against which the stories are set.
In addition, Ivy and Julie continues AG’s increased emphasis on diverse characters. It’s a shift that seems at least partly a response to the huge outcry raised by Asian American families and activists a few years ago, when the Ivy Ling doll was “archived,” or retired. (I traced some of that history last September in this blog post.)
This recent emphasis is most clearly seen among its dolls. I mentioned previously on this blog the new WellieWishers line of five smaller and more affordable dolls. Three of these are dolls of color, including the Asian character, Emerson. (She’s my younger daughter’s favorite.)
Last year, AG also added a second African American doll to its BeForever historical line. Melody Ellison’s story is set in Detroit during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement; it was produced with significant input from African American community leaders and educators, including the late Julian Bond. Subsequently, Amazon released the first of its AG specials, with Marsai Martin (Black-ish) as Melody.
AG’s new dolls for 2017 keep building on the trend. The current Girl of the Year is Gabriela McBride, the first African American doll to receive that honor. Later this year, AG will release a Korean American doll, Suzanne Yang, who’ll go by “Z” for short, as well as Nanea Mitchell, a Native Hawai’ian doll whose story will be set in World War 2-era Hawai’i Territory.
But not only do the newer dolls demonstrate how the iconic brand values diverse American girls, Ivy and Julie does, too! I really appreciate how AG went out of its way to make this program, and I have to think that it’s because AG’s execs truly heard the deep disappointment from Asian Americans at Ivy’s retirement.
Here’s why I believe that: This special is the only feature-length AG video production released when its main character was in the archives. Plus, it’s the first AG special or movie that is not centered on either a main historical doll (Ivy was always Julie’s sidekick) or a Girl of the Year character.
It’s even significant that Ivy gets top billing in the title. It’s Ivy and Julie, not Julie and Ivy, and not even just Julie, which is what I would have expected from an AG story that included the much-beloved Julie Albright character.
You might wonder why any of this is actually important, especially because it’s “just a movie” or “just entertainment.” Why fuss over all this stuff? If my girls liked it, which they very much did, and my wife and I were able to enjoy it with them, then that should be enough, right?
But it’s not enough! It’s vitally important that my daughters and all Asian American girls get to see and read stories that affirm both their Asian-ness and their American-ness. It fortifies their self-esteem and self-confidence to witness their uniquely Asian American struggles depicted as normal and common. And it boosts their resilience and ambition to identify with someone who looks like them, someone who is the heroine of her own adventure, and not simply the sidekick or supporting cast.
There’s a scene in Ivy and Julie where the two girls are looking through a teen magazine, imagining which hairstyle Ivy would want from among the celebrities pictured. After a few pages, after seeing only photos of white and Black folks, Ivy looks at Julie and sighs, “None of these people look like me.”
It’s a moment that just about every Asian American girl experiences at some point, and likely at many points, as she grows up. It really doesn’t have to be that way, and it really shouldn’t.
Dear American Girl, thank you so much for what you’re doing to ensure that it isn’t that way! This feminist Asian dad is extremely grateful.
And my dear readers, please see the special here; my family and I very much recommend it! You’ll need an Amazon Prime membership, but if you don’t have one, you can sign up for a free one-month trial.