8Questions with Barney Cheng, Director of “Baby Steps”

Back in September 2018, I did a review of a movie Baby Steps on 8Asians. The movie was written, directed and starred Barney Cheng. I was still so intrigued with the movie, that I got in contact with Barney and asked him to do this 8Questions segment for 8Asians.

Before we get to the questions, a little bit about Barney from his wikipedia page

Barney Cheng is a Taiwanese-American actor, director, writer and producer. Cheng was born in Taipei, Taiwan. His family emigrated to the United States when he was 12 years old and he grew up in Brea, California. He speaks Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese Hokkien fluently.

and from his own official site:

Barney Cheng landed on the Hollywood map as an actor in 2002 with his acclaimed performance in Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending.  The New York Times described Barney’s comedic timing as “surgically precise.” The Orange County Register raved that Barney “steals every scene he’s in.” Barney accompanied Woody Allen to promote the film and to open the 55th Cannes Film Festival. 

On to the questions:

1. How did you get the idea for the movie Baby Steps?

I came across a story about a gay couple from Israel. They wanted to have a baby, but since it was illegal for gay couples to hire surrogates in Israel, they flew to the U.S. to work with an American egg donor. They flew to India to transfer the embryos to an Indian surrogate. Nine months later, they traveled across the globe to pick up their baby. I was intrigued by the couple’s emotional and physical journey, and I could see that as a movie. Then I thought, “What if it were my life? What if I had a partner, and we decided to have kids?” Baby Steps was conceived.

2. You wrote, directed and starred in Baby Steps, how similar are you to the main character Danny?

Very different. The movie is fictional. I’m single and don’t have kids. However, the film is inspired by the relationship between my mother and me. She definitely evolved throughout the years. The more than 20 years of her evolution — coming to terms with my coming out to full acceptance — was captured in the 90-minute film!

3. What advice would you give a gay Asian American who wants to be a parent?

To be visible, open and out. It’s important to be proud of who you are and be a role model for your child. Being in the closet conveys a message of shame, and that would be detrimental to the child’s development.

4. I read that you showed Baby Steps in mainland China. What was that like?

The State Department under the Obama Administration hosted U.S. embassy screenings of the film in six cities in China. At the screenings, the staff at the American consulates handed out study guides to highlight American culture and LGBT marriage equality. After the screenings, I was surprised to learn that many Chinese audiences didn’t think that the story was plausible. It seemed like a fairy tale to many Chinese audiences. Many of them just couldn’t imagine coming out to their parents and getting the kind of acceptance that Danny received. They also couldn’t imagine living openly as gay people and having children as gay parents.

5. Who are your role models and influences on your work?

I don’t have specific role models for my work, but as a storyteller, I always aim to be authentic, real and truthful.

6. Compared with Danny, how supportive have your parents been in your career, life, and movies?

I remember when we were filming Baby Steps in Taipei, my mother would make me breakfast each morning to make sure that I was well-prepared for the long, hectic day ahead. We would have early 5 o’clock calls, and my mom would get up at 3:00 a.m. to make me breakfast. She didn’t have to say anything, but I felt that she cared. Taiwanese parents rarely say explicitly “I love you” or “I care about you.” They show through actions.

The movie was released theatrically in Taiwan. When we were promoting for the release, it was very important to me to be an openly out filmmaker and actor. One of the important themes of Baby Steps is being open and authentic, and our promotion campaign had to be consistent with that vision. My mom joined me on a TV talk show to promote the film. My mother openly shared her struggles of coming to terms with having a gay son. She invited all of her friends to see the film in theater. And my mother enrolled friends and relatives to join her at marriage equality rallies in Taiwan. Through Baby Steps, she “came out.”

7. Do you have any new projects in the works you can tell us about?

I’m developing a TV series called “Curated Lies,” and it centers around an Asian-American family in a wine country. I’ve recently finished filming a transgender love and acceptance video for the Asian-American LGBTQ community. It’s called A Love LetterPlease check it out: https://youtu.be/irjUBWxgSPY

8. Where can someone watch “Baby Steps” now?

All digital platforms. We recommend Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/yawje8ry

“Baby Steps” Review: A film about two gay dads, surrogacy and a tiger mom

Baby Steps” is a film released in 2015, written, directed and staring Barney Cheng.  He plays the lead character, Danny Lee, a Taiwanese-American living in Los Angeles with a Caucasian boyfriend, Tate.  They’ve decided to have a child, through surrogacy, although Tate is a little less invested in the idea than Danny.  Added to the mix is Danny’s mother, who’s convinced she’s never going to have a grandchild, while all her friends are celebrating the births of their “Sūnzi 孫子”(grandchildren).

I hadn’t heard of this movie prior to last week, when my sister sent me a link to it, thinking I’d be interested in watching it.  I have to admit that my first thought when reading the description was, “why did it take so long for a movie to come out about a gay mixed-race couple going on a surrogacy journey?”  You have to understand, my husband and I started our surrogacy journey back in late 2003, more than a decade earlier than the release of this film, and our daughter from surrogacy just turned 13.

It was fascinating to watch the various events around surrogacy unfold for Danny, as I had some similar experiences with surrogacy and with my own parents.  There was a large difference though, I was lucky by comparison in that I was older when I reached the point in my life when I was able to, and ready to, have a child.  In “Baby Steps,” when Danny’s mother finally finds out her son is planning to have a child via surrogacy, she inserts herself into the process in unexpected ways, producing funny and memorable scenes, ones that are crazy, yet believable if you have an Asian mom.

Given my experience with the surrogacy progress, some scenes did seem completely unbelievable (usually the egg donor is anonymous, so I was surprised to see them meeting various egg donors), and I was left wondering how they negotiated all the legal issues of having the birth in Taiwan.  But leaving the practical issues aside, the movie had funny, serious, and sad scenes, and many brought out plenty of empathy for Danny’s (and Tate’s) situation.  Perhaps even more believable was Danny’s Ma’s stance on her gay son, keeping his sexuality hidden from her friends, and eventually her determination to do everything possible to find the right surrogate to carry her grandchild.

One other side note, the movie did remind me a bit of “The Wedding Banquet“, the 1993 movie directed by Ang Lee.  It was the first movie I ever saw to feature a Asian-Caucasian mixed race gay couple.  While the films were created a generation apart, there’s definitely a similarity to them in style and content.  Both should be on your viewing list if you’re a gay Asian American and should probably make your list even if you’re not.

Comparing Chinese Death Beliefs with Disney/Pixar’s ‘Coco’

During opening weekend, I took my daughter to see the new Disney/Pixar movie, Coco.  It’s a movie she’s been looking forward to seeing for almost a year, since the trailers for the new movie came out quite some time ago.  I didn’t have much expectations for the movie, as I figured it would be similar to a previous animated film, Book of Lifeanother film centered around Día de los Muertosor the Day of the Dead.  But the movie is completely different, and definitely worth a viewing.  As I watched the film Coco with my 12 year old, I began to realize that many of the practices and beliefs that were being practiced by the Mexican families were similar if not identical to many practices that we performed for my deceased ancestors as a Chinese/Taiwanese immigrant family in the United States.

Before I make the comparisons, I’ll remind readers that discussing the dead, or customs and practices around death is generally considered taboo in Chinese culture.  But I have previously broken this taboo by writing about Chinese funerary customs, so I’ll wander again into dangerous waters.  If you’re from a Chinese family, you might want to refrain from talking about this topic with the elders in your family.  In fact ghosts and the supernatural are generally still considered forbidden topics in mainland China, and it was a surprise that Coco made it past Chinese censors without any edits.

One of the major Chinese holidays is also known as 盂蘭節 or Ghost Festival.  The holiday is sometimes called Chinese Halloween, and is very similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead.  I remember when I was growing up, that my mom would set up an altar on major Chinese holidays, like the Ghost Festival, and the center of the altar would have the photographs of the deceased ancestors.  We would burn incense, and joss paper and lay out food offerings, typically oranges and cooked rice with other dishes for the deceased, so they would have food and money in the afterlife.  We would eat the food it had been left out for a long time, long enough for the deceased to partake their portion of the food.  It’s common for Chinese to burn paper replicas of cars, boats, houses, etc. for the deceased to have these things in the afterlife.

Similarly on the Day of the Dead, in Coco, there’s a strong importance to having the photograph of the family ancestor placed in the family ofrenda.  The belief in Coco, is that if your photograph is not in the family ofrenda, you won’t be able to pass over on the Day of the Dead to visit your relatives.  You’re essentially forgotten.  In Coco, if you’re forgotten, your spirit will disappear from the afterlife and cease to exist when the last person who remembers you dies in the real world.

Similar to Chinese culture, the Mexicans lay out food for the deceased, so they’ll have food in the afterlife.  The amount of food the deceased have in the afterlife varies by how much they were remembered and offered food in the real world.  So a popular singer, like the character Ernesto de la Cruz in the movie Coco, had an abundance of food in the afterlife from all his devoted living fans, while Hector, who was forgotten had none.

By the end of the movie, these similarities between the two cultures got me wondering if they arose from the same source.  My guess is yes, since at the end of the movie Coco, there was a disclaimer saying the beliefs around the Day of the Dead, had roots in Mexican and indigenous peoples. And with the knowledge that indigenous peoples traveled from Asia to settle in the Americas, I think we’re fairly safe in assuming these beliefs have a common beginning.

In case you haven’t seen Coco yet, won’t spoil any more of the movie for you, but I will say it’s one of the best kids movies I’ve seen in a while, and well worth the price of admission.

 

 

 

8Books Review: The Discovery of Ramen

Instant ramen noodles have been one of my comfort foods since I was a kid.  I wrote about how I even ate them raw as a kid in a previous 8Asians post, and how I’m still searching for the elusive and probably relegated to history “Sun Lih Men” brand of instant ramen noodles.  When I was asked to review a new kid’s book, The Discovery of Ramen, I jumped on the chance, even though my daughter is probably a little too old (she’s twelve now) for the picture book format of this title.  The new book is from the same publisher and one of the authors and illustrators of the Chinese New Year kids books, Tales from the Chinese Zodiac including the most recent one, The Year of the Rooster, that I reviewed back in January of 2017.

While the book appeared to target a child younger than my daughter, I asked her if she’d be interested in reading it.  When she saw the title, she said yes, as ramen noodles are also her favorite (she takes after her dad in that respect!).  She sat and read the book completely engrossed in the contents.  After she finished I asked her what she thought of the book, and she agreed with my initial assessment that the title was better suited for a younger child (ages 2 to 10), but she did thoroughly enjoy reading about the history of ramen, and how it came to be a staple for many Japanese restaurants.

If ramen figures highly among your child’s favorite  foods, this will be a great addition to your reading library.  The new book will release on November 14, 2017.

Footnote: Unfortunately I never found a source for the elusive “Sun Lih Men”, but I know I’m not the only one looking.  It appears the factory that manufactured these instant noodles burned down, and none of the other brands seem to satisfy the taste buds of those who had the original “Sun Lih Men”.

Breast Cancer Rates Increasing Among Asian American Women

Scarlett Lin Gomez
Scarlett Lin Gomez

A new study from the Cancer Prevention Institute of California (CPIC), with Scarlett Lin Gomez as the lead researcher of the study, is showing an increase of breast cancer in Asian American women.  This is particularly troubling because the rate among other racial groups has stabilized.

The study looked at women in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, from 1988 to 2013, and included women from different Asian American backgrounds, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, South Asian, Vietnamese, and Southeast Asian and compared it with results from non-Hispanic white women.

The rate of cancer has been growing fastest in South Asian (Indian and Pakistani), Vietnamese, and Southeast Asian (Cambodian, Laotian, Hmong and Thai) women.  The common thread among these women seems to be that they are among the more newly immigrated to the U.S. (and those that are newly introduced to American diets/environment/etc).

A recent NBC News article on this topic talks about how one doctor told his patient that Asian American women didn’t get breast cancer.  But of course, Asian American women do get breast cancer and in ever increasing rates.  The woman’s sister Mai-Nhung Le, a professor at San Francisco State University, studied the needs of Asian American women and found that Asian American women reported more “unmet daily physical needs”, such as needing help with cooking, housework, and transportation. Le also noted the significance of the CPIC findings that indicated Vietnamese and Southeast Asian women are more likely to have breast cancer before age 50.

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer back when she was about 50 years old, but it almost didn’t happen.  She went in for a mammogram, which apparently the normal image would not have caught her breast cancer. Since her lump was so far off to the side, it presented as pain under her arm.  It was only because she mentioned her under arm pain to the mammography technician that he took a separate side image that caught the image of the lump in her breast tissue.

At the time she was lucky in that they diagnosed my mother as stage 1, and she received a double mastectomy along with many rounds of chemotherapy, and couple of years later was declared cancer free.  Fast forward 15 years later, and her cancer returned, metastasized and incurable.  She passed away a few years later.  I’m grateful for the many years we got to have my mom because of the early diagnosis, but I’m still mad that we don’t have a cure yet, and we had to lose her, too soon to see her own grandchildren grow up.

If you’re an Asian American woman, make sure you understand the warning signs and that you get your mammogram.  Don’t let a doctor tell you that Asian American women don’t get breast cancer.

8Books Review: “Adventures in Asian Art” by Susan DiCicco

I’ve been a member of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco since before their move to the old public library in SF.  It’s been a membership I’ve enjoyed greatly, and something that I happily share with my daughter.  She’s now 11, and getting to be a bit old for this latest book review, “Adventures in Asian Art: An Afternoon at the Museum” by Sue DiCicco.  This book is probably best suited for kids ages 3 to 10.

The book walks through 53 exhibits that a child might see in a visit of the Asian Art Museum (which houses over 18,000 artifacts) and would make a great companion piece for a child’s first visit.  The collection of art described by the book covers a wide range of countries, including China, Japan, Korea, India, and more.

The book also includes more a little more detail on each of the featured pieces of art at the beginning and end of the book, so the more curious children (or even adults) can find out the date, size (important because many of the pieces are not drawn to scale in the book), description, location and name of the actual piece.

The inclusion of the “Ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros” is a nice touch, since it ties in nicely with the Asian Art Museum’s own “Rhino Club“, an additional optional membership for members’ kids to get invited to special events and programs just for children.

Even if you’re not planning on visiting the Asian Art Museum in SF, and instead are planning a visit to say the Asian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, this book will give a first time child visitor a nice glimpse of what to expect and how to use their imagination when they see a piece of art at the museum.

8Books Review: “The Year of the Rooster” by Oliver Chin

roosterA number of years ago I stumbled upon a series of children’s books, subtitled “Tales from the Chinese Zodiac“. There was a book for the Chinese New Year, and I eagerly bought the one for the Year of the Snake, glad to find something to help my then 3 year old daughter appreciate the coming Chinese New Year.

Fast forward to 2017 and the last of the series has come out, to celebrate the Year of the Rooster, a full dozen years after my own daughter was born in the last year of the Rooster, 2005. With a complete set of 12 published, you can now find a children’s book for every year/sign in the Chinese Zodiac.

The latest book, The Year of the Roosteris written by Oliver Chin, who also authored the other 11 Tales from the Chinese Zodiac books. This book is illustrated by Juan Calle.

My daughter was excited to read the latest Year of the Rooster installment, even though at 12 she’s a little older than the target audience, which is probably anywhere from 3 to 9 years of age. As with the prior books in the series, the main character (the Rooster in this case), goes on an adventure with a human sidekick, Ying.

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Letting Go in the Wake of My 30th High School Reunion

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I’m writing this on the day of my 30th High School Reunion. No, I’m not traveling the 3000 miles it would take to go there and be at the party tonight. So let me start by saying this isn’t going to be some happy ending story where the main character (loser, gay, nerd) goes to his high school reunion and finds out he’s the successful, happy, and well-liked person he never was in high school. Hollywood happy endings like that don’t happen in real life. Well, there is a happy ending, but you’ll have to get to the end of the story to hear what it is.

First let’s go back 30 years and see who I was in high school and what being at my high school in the early 80s was like. My high school was similar to the ones in Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Pretty in Pink, (all 80s high school films) but only even more so if you can imagine it. Stereotypes on steroids. I say that because I attended at the time, the largest suburban high school in the United States (at least according to U.S. News and World Report). When you have almost 1500 students in your graduating class all under one roof, there’s going to be hyper-segregation. The jocks really only hung out with the jocks, the populars with the populars, etc.
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8Books: Learning Chinese Characters

tuttle_chineseIn my on-going quest to get my daughter fluent in Chinese, I came across the opportunity to review a book called “Learning Chinese Characters” published by Tuttle Publishing. In case you’re not familiar, I have a nine year old daughter, who started Chinese school when she was six. The uphill battle with Chinese school has already been well documented in this past 8Asians blog post. So I’m always on the look out for anything that can help make learning Chinese easier or more enjoyable.

When I was a kid, and taking Chinese school classes myself, I remember my dad explaining to his class of adult learners about the history of the characters themselves in his attempt to make the characters more meaningful to his students. He’d show how the character for “eye”, 目, was really a pictograph of an eye, if you turned it sideways. That’s part of the premise of this book, “Learning Chinese Characters”. The idea is they’ve picked some of the most common words and show how either the character is derived from a picture, or overlaid a picture on top of the character to make its meaning more memorable. In addition they, add a phrase or saying with each character to help remember its meaning and general pronunciation.

For example, they use a depiction overlay on the character that includes the picture of a “jeep” and a saying incorporating the word “jeep” to remind you that the word “several” in Chinese is pronounced like the “jee” in “jeep”.

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8Books: Free Kid’s E-book for Chinese New Year, ‘The Emperor Who Built the Great Wall’

91K3-EOSvXL._SL1500_If you’re an Asian American parent like me, you probably struggle to find books for your kids that have the right blend of age appropriateness and entertainment while still offering a glimpse into the history and culture of your ancestry. Just in time for Chinese New Year, a new children’s e-book is available on Amazon. While the topic isn’t Chinese New Year, it does tackle the topic of why the Great Wall exists in China. The book is titled “The Emperor Who Built the Great Wall” and is written by Jillian Lin. During the introductory period on February 19 and 20, 2015 you can get the book for free. After the 20th it will be priced at $2.99.

As a kid’s book, I really liked the historical story telling, but some of it may not be appropriate for the really young ones (especially the part about attempted murder of the emperor, and the many who died building the wall), but is a good early reader if your child already has a good grasp of morals and understanding around life and death.

I was especially appreciative of the end of the book which offered additional facts in a “Did you know?” section. The drawings were colorful, and well done.

My own daughter liked the book, but mostly because she’s already fascinated with the terracotta warriors after seeing the exhibit last year at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the book covers that history as well. The Great Wall isn’t something she has a particular interest in, but now that she’s read the book, I’m going to go back and show her the pictures I have of myself on the Great Wall, from when I visited back in 1995 and in 2002.

The only other thing I would have like to see in the book and didn’t would have been incorporation of some Chinese characters into the story. I’m always looking for kids books that help teach some of the simpler Chinese characters to reinforce my daughter’s Chinese school experience. Overall worth a download if you’re looking for something to share with your child for Chinese New Year.

No Surprise: Asian Americans More Likely to Care For Elders

elderly careA new AARP study tells us what all of us Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) already know. AAPIs are more likely than any other racial group to care for their elders. “Caregiving Among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders” is the title of the first of three reports by AARP about issues affecting AAPIs age 50 and older.

The study found that 73 percent of AAPIs age 45-55 are expecting to care for their aging parents and/or older relatives. This compares with just under half of the total population of the same age (49 percent). Along with caring for elders, AAPIs are more likely to talk to doctors on behalf of their elders, contribute financially, and handle paperwork and bills for their elders.

And of course, many more AAPIs, age 50 and above, live in multi-generational households compared with the total population of Americans (17 percent versus 7 percent).

Like most Asian Americans I was raised with the expectation that I’d be caring for my parents as they got older. I’ve written about some of my experience with caring for my aging parents in a previous 8Asians article that focused on which child got to take care of their parents as they got older.

The AARP report though focuses on a few other aspects of caring for an immigrant parent that many children of immigrants take for granted, and for those who’ve never had the experience, probably never even realized was part of the immigrant experience. Since my mother never spent the time to perfect her English, my siblings and I were always the one to translate at the doctor’s office, and just about everywhere else starting from the time we were small kids. We also filled out all the paperwork for our parents even though we were just small children.

Translating and taking care of paperwork and bills was just something that continued on into adulthood and into elder care. By the time my parents moved into my home as senior citizens, so that I could care for them more easily, I was again taking them to doctor’s appointments, and also translating, and filling out paperwork. And this time around, I was also the main financial support for the whole family. I tell this story to my own elementary school age daughter, but she doesn’t get it.

Every night my daughter expects us to answer questions for her about her homework and help her figure out problems she doesn’t understand. I tell her I never had help with my homework. I mean really I had no one who would have understood the English in my homework to help. I say this and my daughter looks at me blankly, and my husband, just tells me, he’s heard it already, and enough, we’re helping our daughter with her homework. At the same time, we don’t set any expectations that our daughter will care for us when we’re older. I guess we’re too American for that. Instead my husband has purchased long-term care insurance, and tells us to put him in a nursing home when it’s time.

But secretly, inside my mind, I wish my daughter will remember and will be the one to care for me when I get older.

The Racial Divide Between Elementary Schools


school
As a child, I attended public school. I didn’t have a choice, it was all my parents could afford, there was zero chance with my parent’s financial status that I’d ever get to go to private school. Even attending public school, I thrived as a student. We lived in a good school district in the state of New York, and public schools were well-funded in the 1970s. My public school was almost completely homogeneous. As someone else described it to me, my elementary school was “all-white, made up of Italians, Irish and Jewish kids”. My sisters and I were the only non-white kids in our elementary school. Generally there was no racial tension other than the occasional degrading remark about our lunches or our last name.

Fast forward almost forty years and then it was my turn to enroll my own daughter for elementary school, I was a big proponent of sending her to public school and I didn’t even give a second thought to the racial make-up of the school she would be attending.

We visited our local public elementary, and we enrolled her. First grade was promising, we loved her teachers and she seemed to thrive, even with the few problems we did encounter. Second grade was equally satisfying, but we could start to see the issues that did exist continue to fester.

Additional programs seemed to disappear each year with funding to public schools being cut year after year. Field trips for students seemed to get fewer and fewer each year. By the time third grade came around, there were no field trips that year. And it was third grade, where we encountered “the straw that broke the camel’s back“. By the time third grade was half over, we realized there was something seriously wrong.
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