Family. It ties people together. It is the foundation of our identity and shapes us into who we are. Some try to run away from their family. Others try to build a unique identity apart from their family. Other times, and often times, there is an awkwardness about family. It’s not clean, it’s a little messy, and a lot of times could be downright nasty. Yet, at the end of the day, family comes back together, supports each other and somehow finds a way to find their footing again, together.
Students who move away for university probably feel this messiness the most. Not quite fully-fledged adults, students go away for school growing, learning and experiencing new things. For their time away, life still continues on for those who remain at home. Their family goes about their days, growing, experiencing and living life. Students, most importantly, learn independence. Yet, students will often return home to visit for the summer to see family. They want to slip back into the routine of how things were before they left for school, into what was familiar. But because of the time passed, it takes some masterful maneuvering from the family and student before the family dynamic is found again.
In The Little Shrimp, Chilam Chen creates a simplistic yet meaningful story of exactly this. The main protagonist Cheng (Andy Choi), returns home to Guangzhou from Boston for the summer. He arrives home to a family seemingly disconnected and separate from the lives of each other. Cheng himself, is having a hard time adjusting with the time difference and jetlagged. The movie beings with disconnected moments: the father (James AU) would be coming home at late hours, or eating dinner apart from everyone else; the mother (Crystal Lee) goes about her day, cooking for her family, meeting with friends; and his sister, Yam, (Isabelle Chan) usually spends her time in her room, unemployed and isolated from everyone else. Learning news of the death of his maternal grandfather (gong gong) and seeing the unwillingness of his mother to talk about her feelings about this, Cheng quickly becomes dismayed, frustrated with the lack of knowing how his mother is feeling. Additionally, he learns of the family’s impending move to a new apartment. Cheng at times, just seem so lost and unsure of the home that he has returned to. Finally, the news of his aunt in the hospital with cancer hits Cheng with more shock. What he has known has changed so much.
The Little Shrimp is masterful in the story Chilam brings to light. He uses the motif of the meal to paint a picture of the progression of Cheng’s relationship with his family as he learns to navigate his summer at home. From the very first moments of the movie to the very last scene, Chilam stitches together moments leading back into what is means to be together with the family. In the Chinese culture, the meal is central to our family dynamic. The meal represents where we congregate together, it is how we show our love for one another, and demonstrates how we care for one another. When the movie starts, the family eats separately, at different intervals. There is an unsettling feeling that comes with this, something is not right. Eating separately means that we don’t make the effort to come together, that there are other priorities in life other than family.
Cheng and Yam share a lunch together when their father is out and their mother is seeing friends. This moment, to most just seems to be a necessity, their mother did not cook them lunch. Yet, it is the first time we see them alone together. It may seem black and white, but speaks volume of them willingly sharing a meal together.
At the hospital, when the family visits the aunt, the mother has brought congee for her. Congee is a comforting meal and is often the choice of food for those who are ill. The mother additionally, has placed the meal in a thermos to keep it warm.
Finally, the scene where the whole family congregates at the dinner table is a testament of Cheng and his family being whole and together again. Sitting at the table together brings us to the place of rightness. This final scene brings the movie full circle and is an echo of the opening of the film. While the film opens up with Cheng arrive home and everyone eating separately, the movie ends with the whole family in their new home eating together. At dinner, Cheng asks why his gong gong was called “Little Shrimp.” His mother opens up immediately to conversation, regaling the origins of the name (everyone is call little shrimp before their names are determined) and his father joins in as well. His father then mentions that his father (ye ye) has invited them to pick lychee with them. Cheng and Yam agrees and plans for a family outing to see ye ye is made.
The Little Shrimp is a story about family coming together and supporting each other. In Chinese culture, we are not vocal or showy about our love for one another, yet in something as simple as eating together, providing nourishment for each other, speaks volume for the care and love we feel for one another.