When I interviewed Kelly Marie Tran for her new movie, Disney's Raya and The Last Dragon, the last thing I expected to come up is Asian-American rage. It’s probably because rage is not something that I associate with Disney’s animated movies. Usually I’m expecting a cute animal buddy, a plucky princess, and themes of friendship, love, and working together in the face of hatred—all that feel-good stuff. When I ask her about what message the movie sends out in our current climate of rising hatred against Asian Americans, I’m expecting to hear something like how we all need to remember to choose to see the good in people and to ultimately love each other. But she pauses, like she’s tasting the words in her mouth, and then proceeds to knock the wind out of me as she talks about how the movie is not just about putting faith in others, but also about embracing our rage. I nearly burst into tears on the spot—it felt so good to have your own emotions expressed by someone else so clearly.
I was born quite similar to young Raya—an excitable, pert, and opinionated Asian-American feminist. I was also born nursing an ever-burning furnace of rage in my lungs. I raged when my peers pulled their eyes in an ugly pantomime of my eyes, mocked girls for being prissy and insipid, and told me that I was an over-sensitive baby who needed to stop taking their “jokes” so seriously. Accordingly, my rage would be summoned straight from my lungs, expelled right out of my mouth like dragonfire.
Rage tasted good. It was bright and satisfying as it left my lips. But my white community quickly disabused my taste for rage. Ignore your bullies, my teachers said. Ignore their words, don’t give them a reaction. But their words made my skin burn. I felt it within me when a boy sneered about my anger issues after I confronted his cruel mockery of Mandarin. It barely held me back when a man chuckled self-importantly and called me "so aggressive" after I forcefully rebuffed him for repeatedly provoking me when we disagreed. I can still remember the distinctly turbulent roil of frustration, anger, hurt, and guilt within me. It was like the plague in Raya’s world was within me, churning and pulsating like an exposed muscle. I felt like I was going crazy, quartered amongst my emotions and being told to just pretend it wasn’t happening. Ignore the bully. Ignore what they say. Don’t say anything. Boys develop more slowly, so you have to be understanding and generous. But my white teachers never said anything about what to do with the taste that sat in my mouth and chest, turning to bitter smoke on my tongue every time I forced a smile, conceded, and apologized for being difficult.
If the white community condemned me as a rude and angry bitch, the Asian community condemned me for my emotions, denying me an outlet for the fire blistering me on the inside. A traditional Asian principle is preserving harmony—even at the cost of suppressing your emotions and invalidating your experiences. Don’t make things unpleasant for others. Don’t be loud, don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t make trouble for others or ask for help. Just be quiet. If you’re quiet and work hard, nothing bad will happen to you. Don’t get upset. Don’t complain. Just swallow your bitterness and move on. Don’t you dare cry. My parents punished tears, and lectured me about how cheap my tears were and how useless it was to ever cry—I learned that if I wanted to cry, I would have to do it in complete isolation, silence, and I couldn’t show any signs of it it (no puffiness, no sniffles, no wobbly voice), or else I would be further punished. My father mandated, verbatim, that I was not allowed to be upset or angry with him, because he was my father. I obeyed because I didn’t really have any other choice. Just as Raya withdrew from the world around her and distrusted it for its brokenness, I withdrew into myself, distrusting my communities as unsafe spaces. I repeated to myself the uselessness of my tears, until I didn’t even have to feel angry to know the worthlessness of my emotions. Meanwhile, the furnace in my lungs burned so hot, it could have consumed me from the inside out. Instead, it just punished me with a suffocating heat.
But there has never been a time when my rage has been so potent than in our current climate of anti-Asian sentiment. I am so angry to see women my age being harassed and verbally abused on the street, elders being assaulted and killed in broad daylight, and children being attacked. I am so angry that our stories and rage are not being acknowledged. I hate waking up every morning and dreading what stories I’ll find. One day, it’s the Chinese-American mother who was spat in the face while she was holding her baby. Another day, it’s an elder Asian-American who was assaulted on the street. I see pain and fear in my community go unacknowledged and downplayed, and I want to scream until the furnace in my lungs has no more fire left to give.
And that’s how Raya and the Last Dragon sets me free. It acknowledges this rage. It validates rage. The final battle in the film is a cathartic free for all—Raya, who has previously only sought to buy time or to protect herself, fights with the single-minded fury of taking her pound of flesh as the world falls down around her. When Raya slams her sword down, teeth bared, snarling, screaming with righteous fury, it’s impossible not to feel on her side. After all, the audience has spent the last hour and forty minutes tasting Raya’s grief, loneliness, and her budding hope. And then, when Raya is so close to success, it all slips from her fingers in an instant of treachery. Her despair and horror is beyond words. But the story doesn’t shame or punish Raya for her feelings—it simply acknowledges that Raya is experiencing terrible rage, and she has a right to it. Raya had repeatedly tried to put faith in someone who chose to screw everyone else over in the best interests of themselves, and she was sick of it. She was allowed to be angry.
In the end, Raya chooses to act as a hero. And that is the message that I have always wanted to hear. To have the broken world I live in acknowledged, and for my anger to go unjudged. To know that I can be angry, and still be a good person, not demonized or labeled as "aggressive." Because my anger is justified. As an Asian-American, I’m angry at the way the AAPI community is dismissed from talks of diversity and representation for being white-adjacent. I want to scream we’re here, we’re standing beside you, look at us! As a woman, I’m so sick of how hard it is for us to draw boundaries when we’re uncomfortable, to voice our discomfort, and how hard it is to have our experiences listened to with empathy and attention as opposed to outright dismissal. I was born with a furnace of rage in my chest. But the problem with the furnace in my lungs is not that it exists—rather, the world seeks to quiet it without understanding why it rages on.. Raya and The Last Dragon is a film about Southeast Asian culture, released in a time when the Asian America experience is on fire. When I finished watching it and the credits rolled, the names of the Asian-American cast presented proudly up on the TV. I sat back, an unusual looseness in my limbs. I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply into my lungs, and for the first time in weeks, I breathed.