It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment things shifted. Maybe it wasn’t one moment at all, but rather the accumulation of many small but significant moments: Mindy Kaling becoming a single mom of two (all while becoming somehow only more stylish and professionally successful); Michelle Yeoh accepting an Oscar for playing the part of a beleaguered immigrant mother; Constance Wu casually announcing that she’s expecting “Filipinese baby #2” after starring as a stripper in Hustlers (and of course, the iconic heroine in Crazy Rich Asians). Somewhere in there, a thought began to flicker in the back of mind:
Could it be that…are Asian moms actually…cool?
I mean, the answer is, obviously, yes. We don’t need pop culture to make that true. But there’s a difference between “cool to me” and “cool to the world.” And I think, finally, Asian moms may just have tipped into the latter category.
It’s Chrissy Tiegen telling her Twitter trolls to go fuck themselves, and making jokes about telling her husband she fantasizes about sleeping with multiple basketball players.
It’s Ali Wong talking about healing from a miscarriage by getting high, eating sushi, and watching lots of Studio Ghibli.
I have a vested interest in this question, being an Asian mom myself. Despite what my stained sweatpants might suggest, I do, unfortunately, want people to think I’m (at least somewhat) cool still. But it was not so long ago that the only perception of Asian motherhood in mainstream culture was the “Tiger Mother”—a relentless drill sergeant standing over her kids as they banged out scales on the piano. Before that, I think there was nothing. When I think back to my childhood, I cannot recall a single example of an Asian mom in the media, let alone one who would joke about farting on stage. (Maybe they existed, but the fact that I’d have to rack my brain or do research to confirm this says it all). Now, there are so many I can’t even cover them all here.
Beyond mainstream celebrities, there are numerous comedians on social media, like Alyce Chan, as well as widely popular lifestyle influencers like designer Joy Cho, chef Nadiya Hussain, and baking expert Molly Yeh—all leading trendsetters in their fields. There are subversive writers like Jessamine Chan, whose 2022 novel The School for Good Mothers raises questions about the unreasonable standards we place on women in our culture. I would argue that even Poorna Jagannathan’s character in Never Have I Ever is a boss bitch in her own way. Though she falls into some stereotypical tropes with her strict rules and fixation on success, she also takes no shit.
All of this occurs within a broader context of motherhood becoming less precious and more real, exemplified by Rihanna’s pregnant debut at this year’s Superbowl. Where American moms were once expected to mark their transition to parenthood by throwing out any clothing with a whiff of sex appeal while spending their evenings baking cookies, watching soaps, and shushing members of their household for swearing, the script is being rewritten. Even if some of the cool moms famous today hew towards the traditional ideals of motherhood, like Yeh with her mountains of cookies, they are making bank with their skills, not simply catering to their families.
That’s not to say “Asian mom” is some monolithic category of person—there are infinite cultural nuances that aren’t encompassed in a singular label. There are so many particularities to Asian motherhood that deserve to be discussed, dissected, made fun of, and celebrated. In her memoir, Crying in H Mart, Michelle Zauner recalls an incident from her childhood when she hurts herself playing outside and, rather than comfort her, her mom is pissed. Her mother wasn’t a “mommy mom,” she says, and I knew exactly what she meant. She wasn’t cuddly and effusive, but she didn’t have to be for her family to know how bottomless her commitment to them was. In a video only those with Asian elders would understand, Alyce Chan impersonates her own Asian mother. Chan tries to offer her “mom” (played by herself) a bouquet of flowers. Her mom waves her away in disgust, muttering about how she doesn’t want them and they’re too much money.
These little insights into the intimacies of family life are both hilarious and heartwarming to me. Even though my family’s background is different from theirs, there’s a familiar energy. It makes me proud of these women for telling their stories. Because Asian moms aren’t suddenly funny or sexy or interesting. They always have been—and now that we’re finally giving them space to show up as they are, the world can actually appreciate it.
Published on May 14, 2023
Words by Annie Midori Atherton
Annie Midori Atherton is a writer, editor, and parent living in Seattle, Washington. She covers a variety of topics including parenting, work, and entertainment, and is particularly interested in the way culture and media influence our understanding of ourselves and relationships.
Art by Ryan Quan
Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.