Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to spend more time with my parents. Recently, because of my job as the culture editor of this website, spending time with them has involved watching TV with them.
When my father visited New York earlier this year, I suggested we watch the “Parents” episode of Master of None, in which Aziz Ansari‘s character and his Taiwanese American friend take their immigrant parents out to dinner. Like the characters on the show, I thought this might be a possible bonding experience, one generation of Asian Americans learning from the plights of another. My father, who was born in Nanjing, China, in 1939 and grew up in Taiwan, wasn’t so impressed, pointing out the inaccuracies of the regional accents.
“That’s a Cantonese accent,” he scoffed, about a scene supposedly set in rural Taiwan.
“So it’s not realistic?” I asked.
“Pssh,” he said.
After the show was over I asked what he thought about it.
“I don’t think many people will watch it.”
“Well, did you at least enjoy it?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said. “I usually like more realistic shows. I like Blue Blood and Madam President.”
Although a bit deflated, I still enjoyed our experience together, and was amused by his response. More than that, I felt I learned something I wouldn’t have otherwise known about him.
The author with his family in Montreal in the mid-1990s
It was with this in mind that, on my most recent trip home to South Carolina, I decided to make my parents watch Game of Thrones with me. GOT is possibly my favorite show on TV, and certainly the one I’ve spent the most time with. After ignoring it for years, this past April I became hooked, binge-watching five seasons in the span of weeks. Now I reference it constantly in social situations. It’s gotten to the point that VICE’s art editor Nick Gazin drew a portrait of me with the tagline “James of Thrones.” My approach to solving various life-conflicts has devolved to, essentially, asking myself what would Tyrion Lannister do? (Make a joke, then do something clever.)
Anyway, I wanted to share this interest with my parents—”For work,” I added, playing the dutiful Asian card—and they graciously agreed to help. Though my mother seemed to do it entirely out of maternal kindness, my father appeared mildly curious. He said he’d heard about the show. When I told him it was one of America’s most popular TV shows, he said, a bit huffily, “I know, I know.”
“How Come So Many Evil People?”
Warning: Light spoilers through season six, episode four.
I decided to start them off at the beginning of season six, because I didn’t want to drop them into the middle of the new season, and also because I didn’t think anyone would want to read about season one, regardless of who they’re watching it with.
I regretted starting so far into the series immediately. The first episode, “The Red Woman,” changes perspectives and settings every few minutes, as if to remind viewers that each remaining character still exists. Watching with my parents was going to require a lot more explaining then I had bargained for. I explained to them who Jon Snow was, who Sansa Stark was, who Theon Greyjoy was, who the men attacking them were, who Ramsay Bolton was, who Brienne of Tarth was, and who Podrick was.
Onscreen, the Waif from the temple of the Many-Faced God tossed a bo staff at Arya Stark, then began hitting her before she could defend herself.
“What is that,” my mother asked, of the scene. “Want her to fight?” With each blow my mother made a sound of disapproval and shook her head as my father watched silently.
“How come so many evil people?” my mother said, disturbed. “I don’t really like that. Who write this movie is bad. Very cruel. Very few kindness.”
“Stupid People Watch Stupid Movie”
Onscreen, the titular Red Woman Melisandre began to slowly disrobe, removing her amulet to reveal her true identity as an extremely old woman, and my father yawned.
“Ai yu, did you see that?” asked my mother, astonished. “The young beautiful lady become so old lady? In order to save that person life? She become a completely different person.”
“No, this is not a good movie, Jems,” my mother concluded, after the old-woman version of Melisandre climbed into bed, ending the episode. “Whoever write this, I don’t like it. Bad. Everything is violence.”
“Um-hmm,” I said.
“It promote the violence, is bad. Did you see, all the children is hitting each other?” she said, referring to my sister’s young kids, who were in the other room. “Even our little one. I saw hitting, kicking. I say, ‘No, don’t do that.’ And your sister is going to let them take the lesson in karate, so promote the hitting and kicking.”
“Can you understand why Americans like this TV show?” I asked.
“Many stupid,” posited my father.
“They reflect the meanness in the people,” said my mother. “Evil. See evil like nothing. No, it not my kind of movie.”
At this my father yawned extremely loudly.
“Stupid people watch stupid movie,” he mused. He turned the channel to the local news and yawned loudly again. After the local weather segment, he got up and went to bed. I asked my mother if she wanted to watch the second episode of season six.
“Well, I’ll stay with you, whatever you do,” she said, beaming though a little worried. “Mommy love you and your sister.”
“That’s His Father, and He Kill Him?”
“So who is this person?” my mother asked, as Ramsay Bolton stabbed his father in the gut.
“Remember the guy who I told you was the worst?” I said. “That’s him.”
“That’s his father, and he kill him? What kind of people are they?”
After watching Ramsay feed his mother-in-law Walda and his newborn baby brother to the dogs, my mother turned to me, appalled.
“Jem, this is a bad movie,” she said, shaking her head. “You shouldn’t watch. When we see people don’t have heart, our heart will harden too. We always get inferenced by the thing we see.”
She sighed and continued: “I think that America has problem, enjoy this kind of movie, really have problem. No wonder they vote for Trump. They crazy. I cannot believe this.”
Onscreen, in yellow- and orange-toned Dorne, Ellaria Sand stabbed Prince Doran in the stomach and one of the Sand Snakes stabbed his bodyguard in the back.
“So the guy who was stabbed?” I said, to give some context. “He was the prince of Dorne. And his son was killed by the same group of people. Does that make sense?”
My mother sighed wearily. “Just too many kingdom, too many princes.”
“Oh, this is the dwarf,” she said, upbeat, when earnest-faced Tyrion Lannister appeared in the dragons’ lair. Tyrion seemed to be one of the few characters she actually liked, perhaps because I had introduced him in an earlier scene as “smart” and “decent.”
“It interesting that monster can listen to him,” observed my mother, smiling at Tyrion’s ability with the dragons.
“Even Shakespeare Was Not This Violent, and They Have Lots of Good Conversations.”
After Jon Snow is revived and the credits rolled, my mother said, “OK, we have two episode. Don’t watch more. That’s enough. Whoever wrote this story, too violent, not good idea. You know when people watch too much violence, they become violent. They don’t see anything wrong with violence. Their heart become very hard. They have no sympathy. This is not for Mommy.”
“Do you see any redeeming qualities?” I ventured.
“Well, I don’t know,” said my mother. “People feel differently, but the way I see, it just too much violence for me. It’s not my kind of movie. Do you know what kind of movie I like better? Something like The Sound of Music. Something not violent. Or The Nun Story, Romeo and Juliet. Even Shakespeare was not this violent, and they have lots of good conversations. The sad thing is, I see lots of old classic movies when I’m growing up, and I think they’re beautiful. And now lots of movie are violence, and it’s really not good. People are different. I don’t like this kind of movie. Actually, I prefer movie that promote love and kindness, not just violence and illegal stuff. Really too many evil, and too many scam.”
“OK,” I said. “We’ll watch one or two more tomorrow.”
My mother laughed, and repeated, “OK,” without much enthusiasm.
When 9 PM rolled around the next night, my father had disappeared from the kitchen, but I was able to persuade my mother to watch the fourth and newest episode with me.
By Game of Thrones standards, “Book of the Stranger” is miraculously nonviolent, mostly showing scenes of happy-ish reunions and scheming, though it does end—spoiler—with a long segment in the Dothraki camp, where two of the Kalansar are killed in a dark alley and Dany burns the remaining patriarchs alive before victoriously emerging from the building’s flaming shell, unharmed (and unclothed).
After the episode, I asked my mother what she thought. “Did you like it better now? Same? Was it still too violent?”
“Still too much violence,” she said, shaking her head, then smiling: “And too nekkid.”
I was still thinking about the experience a few days later, back in Brooklyn. I had laughed at many of my parents’ responses, but there was something else that stuck with me, after the laughter. I occurred to me that, at some point, our roles had somehow reversed. Instead of their explaining things to me, the way it used to be, here I was explaining everything to them, elaborating the backstory, discerning what was important for them to know and what they could just pass over.
My new role extended beyond guiding them through Game of Thrones, this TV show neither of them had watched nor would ever likely watch again. It included things like having to teach my father how to send texts on their new iPhone (they share a single cell phone between them), having to set up my mother’s email account. Helping my father to carry a bookcase and my mother to wash the dishes. Invisible though irrevocable moves toward finality and what I imagined as a kind of darkness.
I thought of the future, of wanting to raise kids of my own some day, and remembered something the writer Alejandro Zambra had once said, how “the purpose of adults is to answer difficult questions for children,” and I knew I would need to improve, before it was too late.
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