Article provided by Wincie Wong
The other week, I was delighted to discover a new animated feature by director Domee Shi (and an all female leadership group – woohoo!) about a 13 year old Chinese Canadian turning into a giant cute fluffy red panda when upset or distressed called “Turning Red”.
There were so many delights and so many things it made me reminisce about. The movie was entirely unapologetic about everything I grew up doing every day – blessings at the temple with joss sticks and big bottles of vegetable oil, watching TVB Chinese dramas with my mom, eating congee for breakfast. But then going to school and hanging out with friends from different backgrounds and religions and just enjoying each other’s company.
Don’t get me wrong – I had plenty of angst, awkwardness, and gawky big glasses too.
And the crushes – oh I had loads of crushes on “older” boys at my school and had many a fangirl moment with New Kids on the Block of US 90s fame and the renowned HK Cantopop group Grasshopper (vs. 4Town in the movie). As an avid doodler – I remember drawing loads of pictures of a boy and girl going on dates and sharing ice cream floats and literally snorted out loud when I saw the main character Mei Lee drawing her dreamboy merman. I loved how the creators were completely unapologetic about the cringyness of teenage years. Cringe it might have been but watching the movie was very much like wrapping myself up in a comfy old blanket.
And then the twittersphere exploded with backlash when Sean O’Connell, managing director at Cinemablend, wrote a now-deleted tweet “By rooting Turning Red very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for [director] Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members. Which is fine–but also a tad limiting in its scope. Some Pixar films are made for a universal audience. The target audience for this one feels very specific, and very narrow. If you are in it, this might work well for you. I am not in it. This was exhausting.”
I won’t get into it too much but there was loads of outrage calling him a racist but also many others defending his point of view that if he couldn’t relate, well…he couldn’t relate. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with feeling that way? And let’s not even start with how reaching puberty and starting menstruation is apparently an “exhausting” topic.
It touched a nerve.
I realised that I was the fluffy red panda in corporate life.
I bounced into the UK working at RBS, a very old traditional British bank about 13 years ago. Although I sat in board rooms with many execs (primarily middle aged white males – a large percentage Oxbridge educated), I was constantly given feedback about how I was too direct or too loud or too much which basically came down to – Too In Your Face American. I was different. I was a woman of colour who grew up in a non English speaking household in the difficult streets of New York (before it became Disneyland) and had to push hard to rise in a cutthroat world of finance and investment management. I thought very much that the O’Connells in the boardrooms around me must have thought of me as “very exhausting” too.
So with that feedback, I reigned my natural self in. Like Mei Lee, I tried to hide my inner panda when I went to work. To calm myself and try harder to be more British. But I failed miserably. Every so often some fluffy ears or a tail would pop out. So I decided, “You know what? Forget it. I’m big, I’m fluffy, and I’m darned cute. I can’t help it if I fill the room. I’m me.” I threw caution to the wind, went full panda and chased my dreams.
Doors started opening, networks started growing, and job opportunities started coming my way. I started NatWest Girls Can Code, I embraced my new jobs in Digital, I started the charity Tech She Can, I got featured on BBC. And I realised that all along, I was good enough as myself. By trying to reign it in, I was never my best or most authentic self. When I went full furry – I released all that teenage cringey angst – and was able to shine and do my best work.
I went from someone you wouldn’t talk to or notice in the corner into the bright fluffy panda you couldn’t help but see.
And more importantly, I started mentoring and coaching many other ladies to help find their own inner pandas and be a lot more unapologetic about their authentic selves. Other ladies who looked like me or felt the same way sought me out to find their own voice. My happiest days are when I hear about their successes.
So if you’re one of those trying to hide your bright red furriness from your colleagues or professional network, forget about the O’Connells in your world who “can’t relate” or get “exhausted” by you. Let go and embrace that happy cute fluffy red Panda inside and you might find a lot more success than you expected.