Illustration by JasuHu
At a stage that for most actresses signals the beginning of the end, it’s perhaps no accident that Michelle Yeoh is reaching even higher heights, 40 years into her career. There’s something about Yeoh as Mother that transcends, in every shading and variation: cool and elegant in Crazy Rich AsiansIntimidating and twisted Star Trek: DiscoveryYou are overwhelmed and harried. Everything at once. She is familiar in every version, especially to my generation. She is a mother, whether we have one or want to have one, the type we fear, crave or both.
Four years ago, after I got engaged initially without my parents’ blessing, I wrote about how Crazy Rich Asians My own struggle between family and romance brought me painful clarity. Much of my epiphany was fueled by Yeoh’s exquisite portrayal of Eleanor Young — her unyieldingly lofty standards for her child’s welfare, and the child’s realization that there could be no happy ending without her as part of it. Yeoh was my interviewee. THR‘s 2018 cover story on the film, she told me she only took the role once assured that it would not play into one-dimensional stereotypes. In less capable and intuitive hands, Eleanor would be the story’s easy villain. Instead, when I took my parents to see the film on opening weekend, my mom left the theater raving about the character’s wisdom and strength and (to my chagrin at the time) found validation in their shared perspective. EEAAO‘s downtrodden laundromat owner Evelyn Wang couldn’t be more different from one-percenter Eleanor, but in her tenacity and insistence on chasing her daughter to the ends of the multiverse — chasms of culture and generations and literal rocks be damned — I saw yet another dimension of my dynamic with my mother playing out onscreen.
Both my mom and Yeoh exude a formidable presence that belies their petite stature, and although I’ve never witnessed the former deliver a literal beatdown to anyone, she has always been fearless in a confrontation and wields words as skillfully as a swordswoman does her saber. Her fortitude, both physical and mental, is superhuman, a 90-pound septuagenarian devoting her retirement years to caregiving for my father, who has Parkinson’s. Despite that work’s punishing demands, she has not sacrificed her style and qi zhi — a refined, graceful temperament — a quality that Yeoh, even as frumpy Evelyn, also radiates. One woman was never caught dead in a curly Asian momperm.
In Yeoh’s portrayals, exacting expectations — whether a devastatingly deployed “You will never be enough” or a clumsily blurted “You are getting fat” — are contextualized as springing forth from a deep, nearly inexpressible reservoir of love and concern for one’s child. She does justice to real Asian mothers, portraying characters who serve as reparations for the racist, maligning damage that Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom trope has implanted in the American imagination.
Last year, I took the opportunity to pitch a feature that had been on my bucket list for years: a Yeoh cover profile. This would have explored the woman behind this legend. She’d long been a fixture in Asian news media, but at the time I had read little of her personal life in Western articles. Particularly, I was interested in her ability to convey, with such uncanny precision, authenticity, the complex, sometimes paradoxical, qualities of real-life mothers. I was able to confirm that she does not have biological or adopted children. A deeper search of old clips revealed that it was a matter fate and not choice.
Another reason for my fixation with the motherhood angle is that I’d learned last January that I was pregnant. Although it was good news for my husband and I, the sudden reality of a new identity brought with it new anxieties. “I don’t know how to be a mom! I barely know how to take care of myself,” I wailed one night, huddled next to my mother in her bed during a visit home one weekend. As she wrapped her tiny body around mys, she assured that I, like all women would rise to the occasion.
My first ultrasound appointment took place the day before Yeoh interviewed me. A technician swept me with a probe as an image of my uterus — silent and still as a tomb — popped up on the monitor. “There’s a lot of blood,” she said, pointing to the cloudiness onscreen. My OB suggested that I would need to wait a week to decide if I wanted to go surgical or medical. This was in February 2022, four years before I truly realized the blessing of California’s existence, which offers such life-saving options. I felt the need to apologize to everyone at the clinic for my failures on our way out.
With my decision, I never made it back there. A few days later, my brother called at 2:30 in the morning: “Mom had an accident.” She had spoken of increased dizziness over the past week, which we all chalked up to the strain of solo caregiving. She had apparently fallen asleep in the middle of the night and lost her balance, hitting her head on a piece of furniture. Her second call to 911 was her second. The first was to my brother, to tell him to come over and stay with my dad so that he wouldn’t wake up in the morning frightened and alone.
Mike, my husband and I arrived at Orange County at four o’clock in the morning. My mother was already there, there were a few drops blood on the doorway that left a trace of her being taken by the paramedics. For the next week, Mike lived mostly in the kitchen, prepping, serving and cleaning up after my father’s meals, while I was on nurse duty, getting him out of bed, showered, dressed and shuttled around the house. At night, I lay in my mother’s bed soundlessly mouthing a desperate prayer to the heavens: “Not like this, God. Don’t take her like this.”
I experienced cramping from time to time that felt almost like my body was trying to make itself whole again. One afternoon, my embryo was passed in the toilet. Mike and me stared at the bowl in silence, wondering if all was well. The mass was too large to flush so I removed it, wrapped it in a bag, and put it on the garage floor near the recycling. Mike came back later to check on laundry and they clung to one another, their hopes fading in bloody tissue on concrete just a few feet away. We shared a few moments of private grief before the domestic duties called again. I wondered if this was how it felt to be a parent: to subliminally serve others and find strength to do what is necessary.
My mother was discharged from the hospital with six staples in her brain. The challenge was to stop her from returning to her household chores immediately. Mike returned to L.A. for work, and I attempted to multitask remotely, ostensibly reporting the Yeoh story from my parents’ kitchen table but in reality spending my days managing health care and researching long-term caregiving options. (Daniels, EEAAO‘s directors, graciously rescheduled after I ghosted them during our originally slated interview.)
Over the next couple of weeks, my feature story slowly came together, mostly at night as I typed away on the futon in my parents’ study. Revisiting Yeoh’s stunt-work-inflicted close call with permanent injury and death in the late ’90s, I thought about my mother in the next room, determined to heal her body and live another day. For me, the most surprising thing was how I related to Yeoh. For the first-time, I could see Yeoh not only as a mother figure, but also as someone who had to reconcile reality with her hopes, who wanted to be mother, and who fully pursued every opportunity to achieve that dream. In her I found comfort and solidarity, and alongside my friends’ and other women’s courageous disclosures of their fertility journeys, I could grieve my failed pregnancy without entertaining thoughts of shame.
“I love kids. I really wanted to have a family, but unfortunately that did not smile upon me,” Yeoh told me during our interview. “It’s tough when every month … this is the one thing I want. All those were our activities. [fertility treatments]. It is possible for women to do this up until a certain age. Then, you have to at some point accept reality.”
I couldn’t help but feel grateful yet apologetic that this particular universe, in denying Yeoh her personal desire, transformed her into a conduit of motherhood not only to those directly touched by her maternal nature — she is “Mama Michelle” or “Popo Michelle” to her goddaughter’s child, friends, family and colleagues — but also to generations of strangers who have found comfort and resonance in her portrayals of motherhood. “She has a very familial energy,” EEAAO Daniel Kwan, co-writer and director, told me. “She’s very nurturing and can transplant herself in any situation and she’s suddenly the auntie or the mom taking care of everyone.”
It felt unfair to ask any woman, not even a movie star, to share such an intimate and personal pain. So I told Yeoh briefly about my experience to make the exchange feel more like an interaction between humans.
“But you are still …?” asked Michelle Yeoh, ever the nurturer.
I smiled. “We’re still trying.”
“That’s good. I think you have to try until you can’t.”
And so I did. Mike and I moved to Orange County again for a few more weeks after my parents received COVID around Thanksgiving. The end of the year was almost a mirror, but there were some significant differences. This time, we were more practiced at working together as care providers — and I was accompanied by a new presence, one with a strong heartbeat and an equally strong kick. Yeoh’s Oscar nomination makes history EEAAOI am now in my third month. The future is uncertain, and I know this firsthand. But if I’ve learned nothing else this past year from the strong women in my life — the sorority of infertility and pregnancy loss, our communal mother Michelle Yeoh, my own mom — it’s that you keep trying while you can. Even if you are limited by time and your physical capabilities, being a mom is more than just a biological ability. It’s a posture — one of persevering, generous love.
This story appeared first in The Hollywood Reporter magazine’s March 8 issue. Subscribe here.
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