Unavoidably, it can be difficult for parents and children to understand each other. They come from different times and places, and the relationship will always be strained by the weight of conflicting expectations. All these things are true no matter where each of you were born or raised, but they are perhaps exacerbated by a degree of cultural dislocation. Author Jian Ping, the subject of Susan Morgan Cooper’s documentary/drama hybrid inspired by Ping’s memoir Mulberry Child, attributes the distance between herself and her Westernised daughter Lisa to just this fact, worried that in bringing her to America for a better life she may have made a mistake. At once silently proud of everything she has achieved, she also fears that Lisa takes her easy life for granted and has “forgotten” the hardships her family once faced during China’s Cultural Revolution.
It’s telling in some ways that Jian asks Lisa to read her book rather talking to her directly, hoping that by learning about the brutalisation of the Mao years and the echo of its affects in her family alone might help to explain something to her about why she is the way she is. There’s no getting away from the fact the relationship between the two women is strained beyond the normal degree, Lisa keen to defend her Americanised way of life and apparently unable to understand her mother’s attitude to money which she sees merely as a means to an end rather than something to be accumulated for its own sake. That might in part be less culture than class, in that Lisa at least appears to have enjoyed a high standard of life and it’s difficult to appreciate the powerful desire for material security if you’ve never been without it, but also leads back to a conflict between the two women’s ideals of a “good” life and the disconnect in the their essential ideals.
Born in China but living in America since she was 4 1/2, Lisa claims not to feel resentful towards her mother for having temporarily left her behind in China with her grandparents while studying abroad. Nevertheless, she is very frank in voicing hostility, devastatingly stating that she feels like a guest in her mother’s home while later recalling a solitary childhood, leaving at 15 for boarding school. She feels as if she was raised to be self-sufficient and finds her mother’s “sudden” desire for closeness odd, declaring the 1.5 mile journey to her mother’s apartment too inconvenient to make with any regularity. Lisa also feels very little connection to her family in China whom she views as quasi-strangers, while Jian perhaps feels that the fact they are family is enough to bind them no matter what.
What Lisa comes to understand through her journey to China is less a grasp of cultural history than that there are different ways of showing love and some of them are easier to understand than others. Jian too wrestles with the same thing, recalling her childhood with her own mother whom she regarded as cold and distant, preferring her warm and kindly grandmother whose feet were bound, knowing that her grandmother too was shaped by the times in which she lived in that she was raised to be loving and affectionate but mainly in order to serve men. Jian’s mother came of age during turbulent times and saw freedom in Mao’s promises of an end to feudalism which also included an end to cruel traditions such as foot binding and the promise at least of sexual equality. But the Party demanded total loyalty, and in times such as these emotion was a liability. Jian internalised the lessons of her mother and grandmother and learned to bear her sorrow in silence with grace and fortitude. Her grandmother told her to be strong like the mulberry tree so as never to break, emotional repression as a tactic for survival. She made sacrifices for a better life for her daughter, but her daughter resents her for a perceived emotional absence and for always expecting “better” in her maternal pride which, ironically, only fuels her sense of inadequacy.
The film closes with an emotive moment of mother and daughter bonding over shared enthusiasm for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games with Lisa suddenly declaring that China is the future as she begins to embrace her dual heritage, but does not stop to ponder how Jian’s parents, apparently also excited about the Games, felt about the modern China as those who had been among the more fervent supporters of a now abandoned Maoism. Nevertheless, Mulberry Child proves that greater intimacy can be forged only through a process of mutual understanding. Still sounding unconvinced, Lisa closes with the affirmation that they are at least “starting the process” as mother and daughter reflect on the legacies of trauma national, historical, and personal.