I am Moana

I was not prepared to see “Moana.”

You will see in a minute what I mean. In hindsight, I should have worn waterproof mascara. I could not have known how much it would affect me to see a beautiful Disney heroine, with my features, portrayed as such a strong, fearless, and dauntless character who did not need a prince to save the day.

That is me and you can guess who is on the right

It. Was. Everything.

“For years, we have been swallowed by your culture. May this movie make you swallowed by ours.” – Tahiti Elder

I don’t even think I understood why I wept throughout the movie the first time I watched it.

While I am a notorious softie who cries over movies, commercials, and don’t leave out social media posts–Moana affected me in a way that I have not even attempted to describe until now.  Watching Moana, I was overwhelmed by feelings of recognition, pride, and gratitude.

I cannot recall how many times during the movie I felt like I was seeing myself. Filipinos are not considered a part of the Polynesian culture, but Moana had my brown skin, my flat nose, my full lips, my almond-shaped brown eyes, and my long black hair. Although I had been compared to Pocahontas for years, who was actually partially modeled after the Filipina model Dyna Taylor, she did not resonate with me because Pocahontas was a Native American character rather than an “islander”… like me.

It was not just physical characteristics I recognized with Moana, but cultural characteristics as well—her intense loyalty to her family, her sense of duty and obligation to her people are values I live with everyday.I felt both proud and humbled that Moana did not just showcase and highlight these cultural features, but that they honored them.

I distinctly remember praying as a young child that I would wake up with blonde hair, white skin, and blue eyes, like my favorite Disney princess, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, and feeling horribly disappointed in the morning that my prayers went unanswered. My family immigrated to California from the Philippines when I was three years old, and I wanted so desperately to be American. As I got older, I rejected my culture—answering my parents and grandparents in English when they spoke to me in Tagalog, turning my nose at Filipino foods and anything that made me feel “different”. I was mortified every first day of school when teachers inevitably mispronounced my name, Reinalyn. I longed for a more “American name” like Britney, Tiffany or Crystal.

As I grew older, I could not help but notice that female Asian roles in popular media seemed to fall under the stereotypes of either:

  1. Newscaster
  2. Prostitute (“me love you long long time”)
  3. Nanny
  4. Nurse
  5. Nerdy and awkward student
  6. Mail order bride
  7. A person who spoke broken English
  8. A combination of some or all of the above

But Moana, with her courage in the face of adversity, her boundless optimism despite many setbacks made her she more beautiful, inside and out. I cannot count how many times I thought with pride, “She’s so amazing and beautiful, and she’s just like me!” I am profoundly grateful that my daughter will grow up with a heroine like Moana to show her that she can be a warrior and is capable of achieving her goals even if the journey is difficult and she doubts herself along the way.

As we approach May, the first Asian Pacific American Heritage Month where I have a child old enough to learn about and celebrate her cultural heritage (a Kindergartener), I find that times have changed dramatically from when I was growing up—Asian Americans and culture are becoming more mainstream. I was floored when I went to eat at Bad Saint, a Filipino restaurant in DC voted Zagat’s #2 Best New Restaurant in 2016, and found a line had formed 1.5 hours prior to opening, and no one in the line was Filipino.

November 2016, line outside Bad Saint on a Friday night, 1.5 hours prior to opening. Photo Credit: Reinalyn Twellman

I still remember the first time I watched the show “Fresh Off the Boat,” about a Chinese American family that relocates from DC to Orlando, Florida, and the culture shocks they experience. When Eddie opens up his lunch, and his classmates scatter, complaining of how much his food stinks, I cried laughing, recalling a similar experience in elementary school. I went home and demanded my mother make me “white people food” for lunch so that people wouldn’t think I was weird for bringing rice and fish in a cooler.

“What is ‘white people food?’” my mother inquired.

“I don’t know, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or something,” I snapped. Now that I live on the opposite side of the country and unable to replicate my mother’s cooking, I want to slap my younger self for being so ungrateful.

The Thanksgiving episode of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” also brought me to tears, but not from laughter—Amy Hill’s depiction of a Filipino mother was so on point that she made me homesick for my own mom, whom I have not seen in almost four years. These are only a few examples of Asian Americans, and Asian culture becoming more mainstream. Glenn from The Walking Dead and the Harold and Kumar movies stand out in particular for me, because all three are wildly popular characters whose ethnicity is just a part of what makes up these characters. While their ethnicity may contribute to a plot point in a storyline, it is far from them playing a caricature of an Asian character such as Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong.

CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s “My First Thanksgiving with Josh” featured Thanksgiving dinner with a Filipino Family

Ultimately, THAT is how I want to teach my children about their cultural heritage—while it is a piece of the puzzle of who they are, it does not define them, and they are free to be whoever they want to be. I am glad they are growing up in a time where it is not uncommon for a Miss Philippines to win Miss Universe, or to see Asian American characters on television as regular Americans and not the butt of the jokes. I would never want them to feel alienated the way I did, or teased mercilessly for being a FOB (fresh off the boat) for daring to be fluent in Tagalog. I want them to know and understand their cultural history and values, both the American and Filipino sides, and be able to pass that knowledge on to their children someday.

I will carry you here in my heart

You’ll remind me

That come what may, I know the way

I am Moana!”

Practicing hula with Adrianna, 5.