Montreal·First Person

Watching Dune, I'm reminded of the young European explorers I envied — and resented — in my youth

Paul Atreides, the young protagonist portrayed by Timothée Chalamet, is royalty destined to continue the lofty legacy of his father by exploring the universe — a personification of all the things I felt I couldn't be, writes Diamond Yao.

Everyone should be able to see their future selves as strong and independent

Diamond Yao is seen on a trip to the southwestern United States when she was a teenager. (Submitted by Diamond Yao)

This First Person column is written by Diamond Yao, a journalist who lives in Montreal. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

A couple of weeks ago, I entered a packed movie theatre to watch Dune in IMAX. I am not ordinarily a fan of epic science fiction, but the hype surrounding the film reeled me in.

As I sat down in my front-row seat, I expected impeccable production values typical of Denis Villeneuve's works like Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. Instead, I left the movie theatre swimming in old childhood memories.

Paul Atreides, the young protagonist portrayed by Timothée Chalamet, reminded me of the heroes I used to be jealous of in my youth. He is royalty, destined to continue the lofty legacy of his father by exploring the universe — a personification of all the things I felt I couldn't be.

Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides in Denis Villeneuve's Dune. The Atreides family is tasked with harvesting fuel on the desert planet of Arrakis. (Warner Bros.)

Paul reminded me of the history classes I hated in high school. In the film, he resembles young European explorers from the Age of Discovery I learned about during lessons I spent staring at the wall — heroes charged with a royal mandate to explore the world and bring wealth to their people.

Intellectually, I knew that what the explorers did was extremely harmful to those who already lived there. But emotionally, I was envious that these young white men got to come of age with the promise of being able to shape the world they lived in and be celebrated as heroes. Why did they get to have a heroic adulthood filled with imperial intrigue, travel and adventures, when people like me — young, female, Asian — were told that life's greatest adventure was to bear children?

I knew since I was a child that I did not want any children of my own. I felt indifferent at the idea of marriage. And I couldn't imagine staying in the same place forever, when there was so much to explore. To me, this was my natural inclination. Unfortunately, I was the only one in my social circles who thought so.

Many of my friends at the time told me I was going to change my mind about children when I would be older. One friend went as far as insisting my future husband was going to force me to have children. She only stopped when I retorted that I just might never have a husband, ever.

Diamond Yao, seen here in Italy, knew from a young age that she wanted to be independent and travel the world. (Submitted by Diamond Yao)

Growing up, I did not feel like my ambitions were acceptable. The reporters I watched on TV every night took my family and me away to far off places, sharing the stories of people around the world. But people around me thought the only acceptable options for a young Asian woman like me were to be a wife and a mother who stayed put — all things I didn't want.

I learned very quickly to keep my goals for the future to myself. But when I was alone, I would secretly nurse my future plans. I flipped through world atlases and watched travel shows to learn about the world outside of my neighbourhood. I started planning where I would move to once I turned 18. And I searched for validation everywhere on the internet that I could successfully live a childless life.

It was very difficult to find anybody like me who managed to do any of these things. There were no models that could help me see that the future I wanted was indeed possible. I had limited access to different types of media — my family didn't own many books, movies or have many TV channels. The only thing I had were the European explorers — and I really resented that. These days, there has been a move to incorporate female fictional characters of colour who are interested in exploring and adventures — Disney's Mulan or Moana for example — but they remain the exception rather than the rule.

How could a young woman like me embark on an interesting child-free life of adventure and important missions without committing genocides in the process? I had no answers.

Today, as a journalist, I aspire to create for others the answers I didn't have when I was a teenager. I want to challenge the idea that a hero is a white man who embarks on an epic journey while committing oppressive acts and murders in the process.

Every day in my work, I try to give a platform to extraordinary heroes who ordinarily don't get any visibility in public, in the hope that they can become more visible to the teenagers of today.

By telling these stories, I hope to make young people believe that they can also be the protagonist of their own stories, and be celebrated for doing good in the world.

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Diamond Yao is an independent writer and journalist who focuses on contemporary social and environmental issues. She aims to bring underreported stories and perspectives into the open to add to important conversations.