Learning to swim, joining a book club, navigating Instagram– the modest reinvention of immigrant mothers is allowed to bloom in varied ways. Priya Minhas looks back on memories of her own family, and reflects on the process of reciprocal healing in line with Netflix dramedy Meditation Park.
Last summer, we bought my grandmother a motorised scooter. A few days later, after a heated argument with my grandfather, she fired it up by herself and drove off to the grocery store alone, fuelled by both the thrill of newfound mobility and the thought of leaving him in a guilt-ridden panic.
It always strikes me that the people who may have crossed paths with her that day, as she cruised along the sidewalk or waited at the traffic lights, will have been completely unaware that my grandmother was in fact, going rogue. The immense courage it took for her to venture outside the house alone for the first time in decades, and to operate a two-hundred-and something-pound machine, was completely concealed by the seemingly ordinary sight of an elderly Indian woman going about her business on a motorised scooter.
In recent years, I find my friends and I sensing the same tiny disruptions unfolding slowly in our mothers. It’s a modest reinvention that feels equally cautious as it does bold, and can often go unnoticed because of its deep interiority. Regardless of whether our mothers are widowed, married or divorced, stepping into the world of work or out of it, there is a shared sense of encouragement among us as we watch them learn to swim, join a book club, navigate Instagram or travel alone for the first time. It is a refocusing of sorts that propels them into a life and identity that doesn’t feel so tightly bound to being a wife or a mother.
Mina Shum’s dramedy Meditation Park on Netflix is a love letter to exactly this; a second “coming-of-age”. The film tells the story of 60-year-old Maria (Cheng Pei Pei) who begins her journey towards independence after stumbling upon the thong of another woman in her husband’s pocket. Although Maria’s story begins with the attempt to uncover the details of her husband’s infidelity, her quest is by no means the emotional crux of the story. Shum steers the film firmly away from any traditional revenge narrative. Where films such as The Other Woman and First Wives Club unite a wealthy white woman scorned with female friends to plot revenge, Meditation Park departs from such expectations, making it clear that seeking revenge of any kind requires power – and Maria has none.
The sinking realisation of how deeply Maria’s life in Vancouver is dependent on her husband, Bing, lingers throughout much of Mediation Park. Many of the things we first see Maria rely on him for, such as meeting her for lunch, practicing English and ensuring she has money, establish the blueprint for the cornerstone elements of the new life Maria builds, as she seeks ways to achieve these things without him. Ultimately, uncovering her husband’s secrets becomes little more than a catalyst, and this act is overshadowed by the uncovering of her own agency. Maria’s journey of self-discovery is imposed by pain, but not defined by it.
For me, the watershed moment of Meditation Park occurs when Maria stands in her living room and announces that she wants to get a job. Her declaration “I need a purpose” is as courageous and disruptive as any elaborate revenge plot. The film revels in moments like these, subtle psychological shifts that transcend the mundane to radical.
The scene serves as a reminder that to attain independence, sometimes the barriers you must overcome begin within the home. It is not Maria’s lack of fluency in English, her education or age that are exposed as obstacles, as much as it is the response she receives from Bing who immediately laughs off the suggestion that she find a job with “what’s a 60-year-old woman going to do?!”. This becomes the first of a series of revelations which make it increasingly clear that he wants her to learn only when he is the teacher. Later on, despite having nagged her to practice English, he is angered when she uses it to talk to a male neighbour.
Instead, Maria finds new teachers. Her friendship with three women in her neighbourhood who run an illegal parking business provide some of the most heartwarming scenes. Their support provides healing for Maria, but it is not built on conversation about family responsibilities as the common denominator. In fact, refreshingly so, none of this is ever discussed openly. Instead, we see these women gathered around the table teaching each other the tricks of the trade, or swapping giddy looks with one another as they clutch headphones to their ears and sway at a silent disco. It is friendship for friendship’s sake. Many of her experiences with these women deliver joy that feels youthful, because they are centred around leisure and an air of disobedience. “We obey ourselves”, they tell her, seated in the same restaurant we once saw Maria ask Bing for money in. For a woman who previously existed largely within her home, place and how she returns to it is crucial.
The afternoon we spent teaching my grandmother to use the scooter that summer was documented in our family group chat with various videos of her going up and down and round and round the cul-de-sac, interrupted only by her fits of laughter and accidental reversing. Similarly, Maria’s relationship with her daughter Ava, played by Sandra Oh, remind us of moments like these where teaching becomes reciprocal. “Now you teach me”, Maria says as she learns to ride a bike with Ava one afternoon. “All my life I want to try this. I can do more!”, she says. In Meditation Park the lessons may be ordinary, but learning feels revolutionary.
The moments shared between Maria and Ava offer an important dialogue, often serving as a mirror reflecting trauma that can be passed down from mother to daughter, but also echoing the suggestion that something heals in us when it heals in them first. Shortly after learning to ride a bike, we see Ava seated at her mother’s dressing table, gazing literally into this mirror. Ava is consumed by the same sense of responsibility towards her family and juggles the added demands of a career, both a gift and curse bestowed upon her generation, who are often riddled with a feeling of indebtedness to the ones who came before them. Maria lovingly helps her dress up for a night off, as Ava urges her to wrestle with tradition and challenge her husband’s decision to disown their son years prior. Mother and daughter meet each other’s gaze through the mirror, taking a moment to pull one another back into focus so that they do not dissolve entirely into caretakers.
Much of my twenties has been accompanied by the lingering realisation that I have absolutely no idea how to take care of myself. Seeing my own mother, now in her fifties, develop a more conscious and deliberate practice of self-care, has proved so important in giving myself permission to the same. Just as our teaching is reciprocal, our healing can be too.
When you are raised in an immigrant family, you learn very quickly that success is never just yours. At best, your progress feels like a giant exhale for the ones who came before you. It was worth it. They sacrificed for you. You succeeded for them. However, it can also mean that often the idea of who you should be was assigned to you long before you had a chance to figure it out for yourself. It’s an all too familiar dilemma for those raised as the children of immigrants, because nothing haunts you more than the idea of what you’re supposed to become. Meditation Park is so significant because it mutes this dilemma, looking back instead at the ones who came before us, and recognising that the idea of who you could have been can be equally as damaging.
“Are you having a midlife crisis?”, Ava asks in response to teaching her mother to ride a bike. Meditation Park and the stark contrast it exposes between Maria, who attempts to carve herself a new life, and Bing who tries to reclaim the youth he sacrificed for his family through his affair with a younger woman, leaves you questioning what exactly a midlife crisis looks like. If Maria’s journey is an attempt to alchemise her suffering into resilience and hope, her husband’s stands in contrast to remind us that loss and regret loom close by. “In the end, there’s only one direction we can go”, her husband says. “All we do is rot in the ground.” Meditation Park strips away romanticism to shed light on a chapter in the immigrant narrative that rarely gets considered. It asks a difficult question: was it all worth it?
Together, Maria and Bing create a portrait of growing older that disrupts the notion that ageing is a linear progression which promises closure and wisdom, by carving space for reconciliation and rancour to exist at the same time.Their story feels inconclusive, contradictory and youthful in the way the best coming-of-age stories are.
My grandmother never had the opportunity to learn to drive, and it is one of her greatest regrets.
Her decision to drive off alone on her scooter that afternoon is one that arrives bearing a history. It is a decision that stretches back to the first time the desire to hold the steering wheel set in and across all of the times she sat in the passenger seat instead. Just like Maria’s decision to put pencil to paper and write her first resume, these actions are the reclamation of choice, and the antidote to regret.
Priya Minhas (@pri_minhas) is a writer, director and producer from London. She has written for BuzzFeed, Gal-dem and Burnt Roti amongst others. She is a contributing writer to The Good Immigrant USA (Little, Brown 2019), an American edition of an award-winning best-selling anthology exploring race. Priya is currently based in New York where she produces original content for Vevo.