Superfan Ravi Chandra sat down with director Hao Wu during CAAMFest37 to talk about his short documentary, ALL IN MY FAMILY, now streaming on Netflix. Wu’s film is a deep look at his family, particularly his mother’s, difficulty accepting his gay identity, and their discomfort about him starting a family through surrogacy, with his Chinese American husband. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the interview, which can also be heard on the Pacific Heart podcast on SoundCloud, Stitcher and iTunes.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I started doing films on the side in 2005, 2006, and then end of 2011…
What was your main profession beforehand?
I was working in the internet industry before, and I had a full-time job. And then, end of 2011, I started making films on the full-time basis. (Then) I directed two (feature-length) documentary films. The first one is called The Road to Fame, and the second one was called People’s Republic of Desire.
Yes. I loved both of those!
And I also produced a feature documentary called Nowhere to Call Home, and All in My Family is my latest documentary short.
Congratulations about this latest documentary. It’s screening now on Netflix. And congratulations on your family!
Thank you. I have two young children, and that’s great.
Why did you decide to make a documentary about this process?
So, I think when my partner and I first started doing this surrogacy process to have kids, a lot of friends, both straight and gay, they started asking us questions: How did you guys do it? What’s it like to go through the process? And, you know, at that time I just figure, “Oh, there’s so many people curious about LGBT couples.”
Those were friends here in the United States or in China?
In the U.S. So I just went, “Okay, I could make a film out of this process, and maybe a lot of people would be interested in watching it.” But then, as I was making the film, during the process, as I’m going through the process of telling my family in China about making this film, my mom was at the beginning, was adamantly objecting to that. And, gradually, you know, her attitude had changed around, so I gradually shifted the focus of the film from talking about the process of surrogacy itself to about my relationship with my traditional family back in China.
I just loved the honesty in all of that. And I think, you know, particularly at this time, your family is just at such odds with your identity, and the decision to start a family. I mean, you have such conflict about that, and you portray that all so honestly, and yet you stay connected, which I think is really a powerful message at this time. So, yeah, you want to talk about that –
Yeah. I mean, what’s funny is that, at first I thought my parents, or my mom was pretty unique in the sense that she was really now very opinionated and she likes to be in control…So, I thought that she was pretty unique. But, you know, since Netflix launched the film in 190 countries and regions, I’ve received a lot of messages on social media from people in Brazil, in Mexico, in France, in Germany, Italy, they wrote to me and said, “Oh, my family is just like that, you know. My parents really object me, you know, to either being gay or do something different from what they had expected me to do.”[It is] surprising to me that I feel like my family somehow touched on the really universal story, which is how you assert your individuality when your family or this community at large expect you to be something different. It’s not necessarily just sexuality per se, but, you know, every older generation has expectation for the younger ones, especially maybe more traditional cultures.
I’m happy that during this film, the viewers could start a conversation somehow after watching this film with their parents or relatives about generational differences.
Certainly you talk about and show trying to preserve your family’s feelings through all of this. And, I guess your grandfather never formally acknowledged [things]. It sounds like tacitly he got it. “Preserving your family’s feelings,” … I knew that as particularly Asian thing, but do you find people who are saying this is more universal?
No. I don’t think it’s Asian. I think there’s a lot of times when…you know, at least for people here in the U.S., we view certain issues, we tend to use our own perspective and project our views, you know, onto the issue. So I think that’s true, but everywhere you could see this. You know, based on the audience feedback so far, I feel, in majority of the countries in this world, you know, where things are happening fast, the process of modernization is happening fast, there’s always gonna be a conflict between the tradition and the new things.
So, these kinds of conflicts exist in many more places, not just in China, not just in Asia. You know, even, like, what we typically would like to think as Asian, like Confucian in terms of the respect for your elders, I think Latin American culture traditional family, they respect their families, and their older generation has a lot of … criticism, or control of the younger people’s lives, and also in some European countries as well. So, yeah, I don’t think it’s particularly Asian, even though this story is about a Chinese family.
I think I’ve heard a lot of similar tensions and conflicts to the extreme of people disowning their family members when they come out, and being physically abusive… So, in your family, what provides the glue? What kind of, you know, holds all these people, you know, around you, and there’s some kind of truce about all of this?
I think, for every LGBTQ youth to come out, they always face some kind of pressure or obstacles. And, for my family, I don’t think…for a lot of families who ended up embracing their young kids as LGBTQ, the older generation, if they had never known or suspected it, they always have to go through some kind of process of adapting to the “new reality.” It’s always gotta be love that holds family together. I think that happened in my family. That happens in a lot of families I hear about in the U.S. and a lot of young people coming out in the U.S.
I think it is love, regardless of cultures. But, obviously, in different cultures, the way parents or the relatives express their love, how vocal they are, how proactive and expressive, there are differences. But at end of the day, I think it’s basically love and some kind of compromise, because, you know, family is more important, or the relationship is more important, and love is more important. That, kind of, trumps it all.
Obviously, we all want our parents or, you know, our older relative to embrace us for who we are, but I think that kind of embracing comes…in different culture, in different family, even within the same culture, you know, it happens slightly differently. I mean, even though, you know, in this culture we know a lot family embrace their kids when they come out, there’s also a lot of families who disown their kids. In China, or in Mexico, in Brazil, it all happens. There’s a whole range of family reaction, but other family, that, kind of, survives because they have strong access to the group.
That’s lovely, you have that scene of you and your mom walking arm-in-arm. So, that was very touching. After all this conflict, you’re still together.
Even though she still disagrees, and she still didn’t feel completely comfortable with the way I’m living my life, and even though I still wish she could just completely come around, even though we still have these differences, but we stay together as a family because we love each other.
I think, in the U.S. where I see the determinants of this resistance, there’s… religious fundamentalism, and …a hide-bound culture. But, in China what’s the factors in terms of … official governmental (policy)? Is there bias built into the governmental system? And what about the culture…
Hao: I mean, here, obviously, religion plays a big factor in some people’s rejection of LGBTQ youth. In China, none of the traditional religions like Taoism or Buddhism expressively forbids same-gender relationships. So a lot of times the resistance come from the traditional culture. Basically, in China, LGBTQ issue is not being talked about in the media. So, a lot of people don’t have exposure to the fact that it’s actually a sizable portion of the population who are LGBTQ. So, most people…first of all, this is such a novel concept to my parents. They had never heard about this when we were born, you know, in their lifetime.
There’s been no Will & Grace.
There’s no Will & Grace, no media. Obviously, there’s a tightening about any mention of LGBTQ issues in the media space, but I think that’s a smaller factor as compared to the lack of awareness of it in the society. And, secondly, you know, this being a very traditional culture, that procreation, family, marriage…are very important to the older generation. And also, the Asian culture is very focused on face. The concept of face is that you don’t want to lose face. You want to be like everybody else. You want to be even better than everybody else in areas of society…
You don’t want anyone to look “down” on you in any way.
Yeah. Exactly. So, having a LGBTQ person in your family can “bring shame to the family,” because your family are different, or that person is not going to have a marriage and have kids. So, these are all, like, the concerns for Chinese family where they’re faced with LGBTQ issues.
I know Saving Face, from 2006, won a Golden Horse Award in Taiwan, I’m sure it’s bootlegged all over China. And your last documentary (People’s Republic of Desire) also was about this generational change with the internet, with internet celebrities, and all that. I mean, do those kinds of things provide… voices speaking up about these cultural issues, or…owning that space around [LGBTQ issues]?
Yeah, definitely. And I think, a lot of times in this country, when we think about China, we think about China as this monolithic entity. “Everybody in China, 1.3 billion people, all behave the same.” But it’s obviously not true. It’s a huge country. There’s huge regional differences. In the coastal big cities, young people in most big cities, they are pretty liberal because they grew up watching Friends, some of them watching Will & Grace, they watch a lot of American TV shows where LGBTQ characters have been increasingly visible. So, those young people, they are more willing to embrace the Western notions of LGBTQ rights, but the other areas, definitely less so, much more conservative. So, All in My Family has been pirated in China, so I believe…You know, like, there have been 2,000 reviews on one of the movie review sites. I’ve been reading the reviews, and most of them…arguably because it’s LGBTQ people will be more proactive in seeking out this pirated copy, but, you know, most of the young people are very supportive in their comments in the reviews about this film.
So, again, it’s a big generational gap?
Yeah. And then, in big cities, a lot of young people can come out to their close friends, some even to their colleagues, depends on the industry. But, obviously coming out to family is still a big thing. It’s still big hurdle.
So, given this generational change, what do you…I mean, it’s hard to make predictions, but what do you expect? I mean, we had gay marriage here in San Francisco in 2003. So, when do you expect that to happen [in China]?
I’m very optimistic about the future. It’s definitely going to get better and better, but I don’t know how long it’s going to take. Think about this country. There were, you know, LGBTQ neighborhoods in New York, in San Francisco since a hundred years ago, but then, when gay rights first started, you know, really, like, picking up after Stonewall. And then, when did the mainstream culture started shifting? That’s almost like 20 years ago, after “Will & Grace,” after Ellen came out on TV. So, it’s going to take a long time. And, China being such a huge country, God knows what kind of course it’s going to take for the LGBTQ rights movement. But, yeah, I’m optimistic because young people, more and more so in the big cities, at least, they are finding each other with the help of the internet, they have formed some kind of communities, you know, they’re working through these issues, how to be more comfortable with who they are, and also, ultimately be able to be truthful to themselves in front of the society, and also in front of their friends.
Well, thank you so much. I think your film provides a great example of how far we still have to go, but ultimately with a lot of hope.
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Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won a 2017 Nautilus Silver Award. You can find out more about him at www.RaviChandraMD.com, where you can read his latest outburst of poetry called 36 Views of San Francisco, and sign up for an occasional newsletter. Read more MOSF blogposts here.