An ode to immigrant mothers

Welcome to Thanks, I Love It, our series highlighting something onscreen we’re obsessed with this week.

Hulu’s excellent Pen15 gets a lot of praise for its rare and singularly authentic portrayal of ’90s girlhood. But in the final seven episodes, the show extended its radical sincerity and candid intimacy to another lived experience that TV often ignores or dehumanizes: The inner world of an immigrant mom living in America.

Protagonist Maya’s mom, Yuki (played by Pen15 co-creator and star Maya Erskine’s real-life mom, Mutsuko Erskine) has been central to many of the show’s most genuinely heartfelt moments. For two seasons, critics have noted how Mutsuko Erskine’s standout performance and Maya Erskine’s writing of her character flips the script on typical stereotypes of Asian tiger moms.

Episode 11 of Season 2 Pt. 2, “Yuki” gives us the beautiful gift of spending a full 31-minutes alone with Yuki Ishii-Peters. We get to know who she is outside not only the family dynamic but also her own daughter’s narrow point of view. The end result is an ode to the complexity of motherhood that straddles two (or more) cultures, in a character study that affords Yuki all the self-realized dignity, joy, and vulnerability that immigrant mothers rarely receive from their own families — let alone from their portrayals on TV.

Obviously, no two immigrant moms are the same. In fact, not even Erskine is the same mom IRL as the one she plays on her daughter’s show. For example, in a Vulture interview, she said she’d never have such a traditionally Japanese house, favoring more of a Cali aesthetic instead. But as the daughter of a Brazilian immigrant mother myself, I found Yuki’s episode captured some universalities in its specificity that hit very close to home. 

Most uncomfortably, I saw myself in how Maya inadvertently others her mother from participating in American culture, like poking fun at how she can’t pronounce McFlurry — all while rebuffing any aspect of her personality that’s “too Japanese” for her liking. The episode reads like the mea culpa of a daughter who feels sorry for the ways in which American assimilation urged her to treat her mom like a foreigner in their own home. But maybe that’s just my own guilty conscious projecting.

The episode reads like the mea culpa of a daughter who feels sorry for the ways in which American assimilation urged her to treat her mom like a foreigner in their own home.

Fascinatingly, our day in the life of Yuki — which spans from her hectic morning readying the family for their day, house cleaning, bathtub R&R while watching Japanese TV, running errands, then a flirty dalliance with her son’s all but absent biological father — is framed through the cinematic language of a noir film. The opening shot tracks the back of Yuki’s head through a restaurant, while a jazzy soundtrack plays.

This noir framing affords Yuki the kind of POV gravitas that is usually only granted to the white male protagonists of Hitchcock and Polanski films. Women — particularly Asian immigrant women — traditionally serve as objects for the Male Gaze to leer at in the noir films that Pen15 is parodying. But here, those signifiers are used instead to give Yuki’s domestic and romantic experience the same weight of a thrilling mystery, insisting we see the world through her eyes. This framing seems to ask: aren’t we all playing the brooding protagonist of our own self-directed noir film? 

But then the show’s comedy kicks in, and the drama of the beautiful tracking shot is cut short by a waiter who yells at Yuki to get out of their way. 

Humor is one of the best showcases of how Yuki’s depiction in Pen15 is such a radical shift from how immigrant mothers are usually represented in comedy shows. For example, in Modern Family, the writing more often laughs at Sofía Vergara’s Gloria rather than with her, using her accent as a way to flatten her into a clueless exotic parrot, who isn’t in on the joke herself. 

A scene from Hulu's Pen15 where co-creator and star Maya Erskine acts alongside her real mother Mutsuko Erskine in the role of Yuki.

In another telling Season 2 moment, Yuki explains the WWII Japanese internment camps to a disinterested Maya.
Credit: Hulu

Conversely, none of what makes Yuki funny (because she is hysterical) comes at the expense of her foreignness. It always serves to bring us closer to her, rather than keeping her at an othering distance. The hilarity of Yuki’s character in this episode stems largely from how she ingeniously navigates assimilation in America by taking what she wants from it when it’s convenient, then throwing it away if it’s not. 

In the best comedic exchange of the episode, Yuki takes a handicap parking spot at the grocery store. When a white woman chastises her for it, Yuki quietly whispers  “bitch” under her breath and gives a hidden middle before exiting the vehicle. Then, wordlessly, Yuki gets out and limps away, feigning not only a disability but also a language barrier in order to leave the now apologetic stranger to sit with only her white guilt for company in that parking lot.

The constant negotiation between these two sides of Yuki — of being both a Japanese woman in a foreign culture as well as a mother and wife to an American family — is at the heart of her standalone episode. 

Motherhood is already a role that expects women to sacrifice nearly every ounce of their sense of self to fulfill the role of whatever their children and husbands need of them. Immigrant mothers face added layers of pressure, as their dual nationalities demand they cut away even more of themselves to fit the box each culture has ascribed for them.

Immigrant mothers face added layers of pressure, as their dual nationalities demand they cut away even more of themselves to fit the box each culture has ascribed for them.

In this episode and throughout the series, Yuki remains defiantly human, refusing to conform to any one box or give up more parts of herself than she needs to in order to be a good wife and mother. She does not apologize for all-too-human mistakes, like snapping at Maya to shut up in her frustration at the breakfast table. She expresses no guilt for shirking away from her wifely and motherly duty to grocery shop and instead spends it flirting with infidelity.

A lesser show than Pen15 would have felt compelled to ascribe some sort of morality to Yuki’s near affair. But like Yuki herself, the show does not ask for permission or apologize when a mother acts like a person with independent desires. After a day of doing things for everyone but herself, Yuki allows herself the luxury of being lusted after for a little while. Instead of making her face negative consequences for this potential transgression, the show instead lets her simply return home to a loving husband, who has already finished up the housework and asks no questions of where she’s been all day. 

By giving herself something that was for her alone and no one else, Yuki returns to her home with a renewed capacity to be the patient mother that her kids want her to be. She finds the courage to give her husband the emotional intimacy of opening up to him about how dreadfully isolating it can be sometimes, as a mother of two cultures, neither of which she can no longer truly feel at home in anymore.


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Back at the hotel, Yuki leaves the former flame, who had left her to raise their son alone, drunk and nearly passed out on the bed. He notes that she’s stopped limping, and she finally drops the act. She didn’t need the limp anymore. As viewers, we understand that the limp had been a symbol for Yuki’s desperate need to catch one goddamn break and act selfishly for once. By allowing herself a full day of that “selfish” break, Yuki could go back to meeting her family’s exhausting expectations of her.

As my mother’s daughter, I can never really know who she is in those quiet moments when our family isn’t there to expect things from her. But by watching Yuki enjoy them, I realize that I don’t have to know. Those moments are for her, and her alone.

Pen15 is now streaming on Hulu.

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