A New Symbol for Asian America: Ni Hao Kai-Lan?

Once upon a time, Jeremy Lin made me cry.

No, he didn’t bully me when we were kids. (I’ve never actually met him, plus I was born in the Early Triassic.)

It happened when he hit a dramatic game-winning three against the Toronto Raptors on Valentine’s Day 2012. Far from being tears of sadness, mine were tears of elation. I wasn’t just happy for the dude. I was also moved because, as a symbol of Asian America, Jeremy’s success was our success. Literally and logically, of course, that wasn’t true. But symbolically and emotionally, it was a powerful truth.  

I have tons of respect for Jeremy and others who’ve embodied the sufferings and victories of Asian America. But I’d like to suggest an additional symbol for us, or at least for those of us who have struggled deeply with self-defeating behaviors. Her name is Kai-Lan Chow, a six-year-old girl who lives with her kind and nurturing Ye Ye, or Grandpa. Exactly where she lives is unclear, but it is clear that she’s a delightful, incredibly loving little girl. Oh, and her friends include a panda-loving koala, a turntable-spinning monkey, and a flying rhino.

Okay, so she’s a cartoon character on Nick Jr. But just because she’s fictional doesn’t mean she can’t be a symbol for us to rally around!

If you’ve never heard of her, imagine Dora the Explorer as a Chinese girl, teaching Mandarin instead of Spanish, and familiarizing viewers with cultural traditions like Chinese New Year and the Moon Festival. But what she teaches best is the healthy processing and handling of feelings. In every episode, she walks viewers through the process of identifying her friends’ feelings, usually more “negative” ones like anger, sadness, and feeling excluded. She and Ye Ye then show her friends how to talk about such emotions and express them in healthy ways.

It’s striking how Kai-Lan’s emotional world is so different from my childhood and that of most real-life Asian Americans. Relatively few of us ever experienced such an emotionally nurturing environment, especially in our families, which did not generally know what to do about feelings. I mean, how many times did our parents ask us how we felt about things in our lives, especially unpleasant things? Instead, our parents communicated to us that it wasn’t acceptable to express our feelings if they conflicted with parental opinions or decisions. Again, how many times did our parents answer us with emotionally invalidating phrases? Things like, “You shouldn’t feel that way” or shaming statements like “You show that I’m a failure as a parent” or the Confucian granddaddy of them all, “You ungrateful child, after all I’ve done for you.”

Because it wasn’t okay for us to have our feelings, many of us learned to stuff them away, hiding who we really are behind a façade our elders deemed more acceptable. As a consequence, we then developed emotional problems like depression or crippling anxiety as we got older. To survive, we learned to self-medicate, using self-destructive addictions and behaviors – like eating disorders – to numb our pain.

But here’s where Kai-Lan comes in. She can serve as a symbol of hope – hope that things will be different for the next generation of Asian Americans! According to NEDA, “A well-rounded sense of self and solid self-esteem are perhaps the best antidotes to dieting and disordered eating.” Kai-Lan, then, gives us hope because she models for us ways to cultivate that emotional health in Asian American children. She gives us a tool to talk about feelings with our kids, nieces, nephews, and any other Asian child for whom we’re an “auntie” or an “uncle.” They can learn from her (and us, as we watch with them) that it’s okay to have whatever feelings they have, including the “negative” ones. They can also begin to grasp how they can express and handle their emotions productively, instead of just stuffing them. Ni Hao Kai-Lan gives me hope that the next generation of Asian Americans can be more emotionally healthy, with a more “well-rounded sense of self,” and less likely to repeat our self-destructive behaviors. It’s a tool that’s easy to find, whether on the Nick Jr. website or on iTunes, and it’s easy to utilize.

Of course, I don’t for a moment think that just plopping kids down in front of the TV to watch Kai-Lan is going to give them that strong sense of self. The show, again, is just one tool for loving, nurturing grown-ups to use as they foster a safe, emotionally healthy environment for kids. But it’s clearly a tool of high quality. And a powerful symbol of hope.

To watch an episode of Ni Hao Kai-Lan, click here.

A one-time high school teacher and a long-time pastor, Eugene Hung is at the moment figuring out what shape his next vocation will take. In the meantime, he and his wife also stay busy in SoCal with their two girls, ages six and three. He tweets via @iaurmelloneug and blogs about nurturing a healthy body image in children at FINDINGbalance.com.