We Bare Bears, Its Asian American Identity, and Its Movie’s Themes of Racial Discrimination

Daniel Chong’s award winning cartoon We Bare Bears has always been a symbol for the Asian American identity. The show follows the adventures of three talking bear brothers (Grizz, Panda, and Ice Bear) as they try to fit into human society, make new friends and live happily in their San Francisco home. The show began airing in July of 2015 on the Cartoon Network channel, and after four seasons and a movie, the show has finally come to an end this year– with a spin-off series already in the works. The show has garnered huge popularity over the years, especially in global Asian markets, with millions of dollars being earned from merchandise such as toys, clothing and cosmetics sold– even a brand deal with Kpop group, “MONSTA X.” The show also won the 2016 BAFTA Children’s Awards, Best Animated Series and Writing from the 17th Kidscreen Awards and has won/has been nominated for many other awards.

Illustration by Angie Xie

The creator, Daniel Chong, was born in Fargo, North Dakota to Singaporean immigrant parents. After graduating from the California Institute of the Arts, he went on to work as a storyboard artist for Pixar and Illumination. His work has won awards such as, the 2014 Annie awards and 2016 BAFTA Children’s Awards. Chong has also been nominated for a Primetime Emmy award. The idea for We Bare Bears first came in the form of a webcomic from 2010, and was later picked up by Cartoon Network.

In the cartoon, the three bears often get run into many conflicts— either because they look different from the humans in the cartoon or because they have troubles fitting into human culture. This is linked to Asian identity, as many people in the community have trouble fitting into Western society due to their looks or the differences from Western culture from their native ones.

In a tweet from November 11th, 2016 by Daniel Chong, he states, “I received some questions and criticism about why the Bears were treated so poorly by some humans, and their treatment often felt unmotivated.” Chong continues by saying “my response is that it has always been evident to me, as an Asian American, that sometimes individuals are treated unfairly for no other reason than looking different. And although the premise of three Bears trying to fit into human society is largely comic one, it is to me an allegory for what it feels like to be a minority in America.” So at its core, We Bare Bears is a representation of Daniel Chong’s life growing up as an Asian American in California and America.

The cartoon itself does a good job representing Asian identity, besides from its core themes and as well as the main characters not being humans. Episode stories range from helping out a young ramen chef in Japan, to facing negative stereotype casting in TV shows, to a special Kpop-centered crossover episode with MONSTA X, and many more. The bears are also often seen chowing down on Asian foods like wasabi chips, steamed dumplings, boba tea, and more. A recurring character is Chloe Park, a sweet, bright South Korean-American girl who is close friends with the bears and often tags on adventures with them. She has her own storylines that include having trouble making friends at school, being a 12 year old child prodigy already in university, and her own shyness. She lives with her Korean immigrant parents in a conjoined family house (with her Aunt’s family)– a real-life phenomenon often seen with Asian families. One thing that is relieving to see is that Chloe’s parents are not strict about her academics and social life. This therefore shows a positive deviation from the common negative stereotype of Asian parents being toxic and controlling of their kids.

The We Bare Bears movie was released early on digital streaming platforms on June 20th, 2020. The plot revolves around the bears unfortunately being involved in an incident that inconvenients the people of San Francisco. An elderly, white wildlife control officer named “Agent Trout” proposes that the bear brothers should be captured, put into cages, shipped back to their native lands and separated from each other. Agent Trout and his armed forces run out the bears from the city, and the bears themselves plan to seek refuge and a new home in Canada. Moments in the movie show Agent Trount aiming to put the main characters in concentration camps with other bears.

The We Bare Bears movie has themes of immigrant family separation, racial discrimination, and the history of Japanese internment camps. In an interview with Animation Magazine, Daniel Chong stated, “We wrote the movie when we were seeing all the news about ICE separating all these immigrant families. We’ve gone through a pandemic, witnessed the Black Lives Matter protests, and we know that racism is not going away. This is an ongoing battle that we have to fight. We wrote the script two years ago, but unfortunately, the themes are even more relevant now.”

And in another interview with Denofgeek.com he quotes, “This movie had to do with my experiences being a minority in America and what that feels like to try and fit in and feel out of place. [To] sometimes worry that people will say this isn’t your home.” 

There’s a moment in the movie where the bears are locked up in tight cages in a concentration camp owned by Agent Trout, one that is very reminiscent of the Japanese Internment camps. A writer for the show, Kris Mukai (a Japanese-American) talked about the theme of Japanese internment camps in the movie, his grandparents themselves being taken to internment camps and about the current problem of America’s Imigration and Customs enforcement (ICE). “We would all wake up and we would look at the news, and we would say, ‘This isn’t right.’ It would feel sort of disingenuous to not acknowledge it.” Mukai continues to say “I hate to think about my grandparents being bused away and no one stopping it, so I want to do right by them now. These feelings definitely came out while writing the movie,” says Kris Mukai in an interview with Datebook.com. 

So the movie has its themes based on the Asian minority experience of having immigrant families being torn apart, having living difficulties due to discrimination and reflects upon American’s ugly history of Japanese internment camps. Other more subtle moments of the Asian experiences was when Grizz the bear wasn’t able to understand or speak “native bear language.” Another moment was when the Panda character was going to be shipped to China, despite him saying that he’s never been to the country before– a nod to the struggles many Asian DREAMers feel when they are forced out of the country by I.C.E. 

In an interview with the Entertainment Inquirer, Daniel Chong says, “I hope it makes [the viewers] think about standing up for people that might not look like them or might be being treated differently from them,” and Kris Mukai was quoted as saying, “I hope it empowers kids to feel like they can do something.”

Daniel also says in another interview with Denofgeek.com, “This is not a matter of politics.” Chong also says “We all have this primal urge to be understood and accepted. If we just understand that we’re all in the same boat, regardless, then my hope is that it will help people understand the idea that we shouldn’t be putting up these walls.”
We Bare Bears has always been an allegory for the Asian American experience, with its creator having based it off of his own experiences. The cartoon is great for its ability to connect with third culture children, and its movie does a great job exploring themes and history of racial discrimination for young audiences. Not only that, but the cartoon is fun, friendly and entertaining for people of all ages. You can watch We Bear Bares and its movies on streaming platforms such as HBOMax, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Google Play, and on cable as well.

Written by Jonon Gansukh

Edited by Minh Anh Vu

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