Why Some Asians Love Cute Toys. And Why Some Of Us Love Stuffed Animals

All around the world, a good number of us are obsessed with stuffed animals and toys. If you’re Asian or have been to Asia, chances are cute, kawaii-looking toys are something you might be familiar with. Maybe even love.

I love stuffed animals, especially stuffed monkeys. In my apartment I have a shelf full of them collected over the years. I’m particularly fond of this one that I call Mr Wobbles: knitted with light brown wool, long skinny arms and legs, fat belly, sans tail. One of the more odd-looking toys around.

A stuffed toy can mean the world to us. All the more reason for us to take good care of it | Weekly Photo Challenge: Careful.

A stuffed toy can mean the world to us. All the more reason for us to take good care of it | Weekly Photo Challenge: Careful.

We might be obsessed with teddy bears. Or obsessed with stuffed lions or penguins. Hello Kitty, Sanrio and Rilakkuma plushes are ever so popular in Asia. But no matter the toys we’re fond of, usually the stories of our past, and our desire to find our place in this world, play a part in why these inanimate objects often matter to us a great deal.

Some of us Asians like cute toys because cute has always been a big part of our culture. Cute in the sense being attractive in a delicate, dainty way, or slightly astutely shrewd in demeanour. The kawaii phenomenon has long flirted with the realms of Asian fashion, food and entertainment, with its popularity gaining traction in the 80s in Japan. These days, Chinese tourists fly thousands of miles to Australia to get their hands on lavender-stuffed fluffy purple teddy bears. Sometimes we are attracted to cute toys because they rub off on our style and personal taste – a natural accessory to the lives we live.

Mr Wobbles was a gift from someone. Meeting the second time a couple of days after my birthday earlier this year, she eagerly pushed the stuffed toy into my hand. I hesitated. Picked it up. Its head wobbled back to front, back to front. Don’t know if monkey-from-a-stranger and I will make a great pair…

Sometimes stuffed toys are a great companion wherever we go.

Sometimes stuffed toys are a great companion wherever we go.

Sometimes stuffed toys remind us of our younger days, times when we felt the world was at our feet. Times when we were kids playing ‘til our heart’s content. Growing up Asian often comes with burdened responsibilities: expectations to climb the career ladder, have a family, take care of the elderly parents, the list goes on. Sometimes holding onto a stuffed animal, symbolic of naïve childhood, is a silent means of escaping and rebelling against society expectations for a moment.

And so toys embody the notion of youth, a trait esteemed in Asian cultures. In line with sexist stereotypical perceptions, when someone of the female sex is seen with a stuffed toy in hand, the more innocent she may come across – which is probably why hardly anyone in patriarchal-structured Asian cities bats an eyelid at girls with a penchant for toys.

Perhaps we lust after toys because in our eyes they are prized possessions. Cute-looking toys, reminiscent of not only innocence but also purity, carry auspicious luck as some might reckon. Or perhaps claiming ownership of a toy is a pride thing. Every now and then it’s no surprise to see queues outside fast-food joints in Asia, queues for limited edition toys that come with fast-food meals. At one point in Singapore, my parents and I queued to collect the “Lucky 8” stuffed monkeys McDonalds gave away during the Chinese New Year season – and more than ten years on today, our collectible monkeys still sit in their plastic cases.

…a frustrating day at work. Finally, 5pm and time to go home. I picked up Mr Wobbles from my desk to put into my bag. Its smiling face looked up at me. Smiling like he means it the whole day…

Stuffed toys can open our eyes to the world around us.

Stuffed toys can open our eyes to the world around us.

Toys make us see the world in more ways than we think. There’s always some mystery about them. Though inanimate objects, toys make us dream, wonder and imagine what could be if they could move and talk. And when we imagine, we play – be spontaneous, feel carefree. The older we get, the more responsibilities we have, but with a toy in our hands, we can learn to dance with the simplicities of life once again. As psychologist Charles E. Schaefer said:

“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.”

Play is a form of art. Playing unleashes our creativity, and certain stereotypes we have about ourselves and the world fall away for a moment. When we play with toys, we are a bit more observant; we discover there’s always another perspective, another idea, another culture.

…“Where did you get Mr Wobbles?” I messaged the person who gave me Mr Wobbles over Twitter during one quiet afternoon at work. “I’m not gonna tell you,” she responded for the umpteenth time. I sighed. Gift is a gift. I’ll never find out. Wandering to my colleague’s desk, Mr Wobbles sat there right where I left him – with a scrawl of a giraffe on a yellow Post-It that wasn’t there before, pen lying beside his hand. Monkey had an art class and a great time…

A stuffed toy can bring us the simple joys in life.

A stuffed toy can bring us the simple joys in life.

Perhaps stuffed animals have souls: uncanny life-like resemblance to animals. And to our individual selves, too. Soft to the touch, like how our flesh and our skin are soft to the touch, reminiscent of the fact each and every one of us, every single thing on this planet, is vulnerable. And vulnerability is often what binds us together in this big bad world. More often than not, one stuffed toy has many a fan. We imagine toys as another being, and feel that we’re not alone but all in this together along with everyone else who connects with them, regardless of colour, background and where we’re from. As author J.K. Rowing said on the power of imagination:

“Imagination is…the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

She messaged me again later at work. “Everybody loves Wobbles. He makes the world happy. I knew you’d like him.” I looked at the monkey now on my desk. Knits fraying along his arms, bits of crumbs stuck between strands of wool on his belly. A bit worse for wear now, but still a smiling stuffed monkey against the odds. How can anyone not like that face… A wonderful gift from a wonderful friend. Everything is so simple once again when we pick up a toy.

One stuffed toy can change a person. One stuffed toy can change the world in more ways than we realise. Even if just for a moment.

Do you have a stuffed toy that you love?

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231 thoughts on “Why Some Asians Love Cute Toys. And Why Some Of Us Love Stuffed Animals

  1. A very sweet post this time around Mabel. I don’t think the stuffed animal phenomenon is more Asian than anything else. Heavens knows I’ve had many and some have been around forever. when I moved recently I took my favorites along with me – like Flapjack-a very flat puppy who lies on his belly and was gifted to me by my niece when I drove her around the southern US to look for colleges years ago. A fond memory and he is a fun reminder. I could go on and on but you get the idea. thanks as always for provoking some extra thought today!

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    • “A fond memory and he is a fun reminder.” I love how you think that way of your stuffed toy puppy. He sounds adorable and I hope he has many more years with you. Young or old, Asian or not, there is always a room for stuffed toys somewhere in our heart. They can certainly be bottled memories, and a reminder of where we’ve been and who we’ve met.

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  2. 🐒Lucky Mr Wobbles was not in danger of breaking anything if he fell out of that tree. I love every single picture of him here. Adorable. What a clever photo shoot.

    I am a huge fan of stuffed animals. but in the minimalist fashion I adopted as an adult (and the lack of room on a sailboat) I don’t have any now. I’ve satisfied my ‘stuffed animal jones’ buy giving them as gifts, and when I lived on land, by having cuddly dogs.

    But now you’ve got me thinking that I might just need to get a cuddly companion for those long sea passages to keep me company on and off watch 🐵

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    • If Mr Wobbles fell out of the tree, he would probably bounce on his big belly. These were spontaneous photos. I was out walking around killing time in the cooler months and thought I try some photography on the monkey 🐵

      You really should get a stuffed toy! Cuddly companion, I like that phrase. You could even prop him or her up near the sails or the tip of the boat – it would be a challenge but oh so much fun 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. At the outset I must admit Mabel, that you have touched on a very subtle but very substantial aspect of life and living. It is the relationship will build with things in life not just the relationship with friends and relatives we keep reflecting.

    Toys are one amongst the most intriguing and interesting facet of our life. It is not the stuff and look of the toy but the ethos and essence behind the toy, did we purchase it or was it a gift and who gifted and what was the occasion. All matters, there are wonderful stories behind these beautiful toys and stories makes a huge difference in our life when we keep the toys with us and when we keep looking at and keep playing with you. Yes, play is an important part of creativity, creativity fosters and flourishes with fun and with joy. Play way methods are encouraged to enhances the creativity among children, and toys does play important role.
    Imagination is biggest source for invention and innovation, toys keep teasing our imagination. Today with so much creativity in the design of toys, we love to explore the love with toys and mystery attached with soft toys, yes the childhood fables and the emotions with toys are beautiful idea to toy with…

    Soft toy but it did give me a hard thinking…love it.
    😀

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    • “the relationship will build with things in life not just the relationship with friends ” That is so well said, Nihar. I think we hold on to more physical things than we think, some more so than others, and one of these things can be stuffed toys. I’m sure when you were younger you had something that you cherished and it was very important to you. Don’t we all 😀

      Soft toy, hard thinking…I simply love your way with words. Stories are certainly behind play, what we play with and when we play. With toys, we can give life to them just by using our imagination. We create their background, their taste in things, the list goes on. It is so similar to creating characters for a fictional story that us writers write. I’m sure you can relate 😀

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  4. This is a post that takes me back to my childhood ~ I think stuff animals, and for me toys themselves are symbolic of naïve childhood as you mention above. It is a very good thing, as we are dealing with much more complexity as we grow older (and in life, doesn’t it just get more complex as we age…), so having something that can take us back to a more idyllic time is great. Especially, as you say there is someone (or something) that is “Smiling like he means it the whole day…” That is a feeling worth millions.

    I do see the Asian focus on the cuteness of toys very different from my idea, but I figure it is just culture. It seems every kid needs to have an imaginary toy/friend – something that fires not only creativity and the imagination but also to have that feeling that we’re not alone but all in this together – connecting with others. For me, I had Smokey the Bear who is still with me (or should I say at my parent’s home, safely tucked away somewhere) and when I do see him I do think of him as real 🙂 Great post Mabel ~

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    • So well said. Life certainly gets more complex as we get older; we come to learn how the world really works in all its constraints and the status quo. Often I wonder why some of us stop playing with toys as we get older. Perhaps we don’t have the time. Or we think it’s time to “grow up”.

      Smokey the Bear sounded like he was a great companion. I wonder how he got his name. Maybe he is good at cooking sausages on the grill, I don’t know. Interesting to see you point out the smiling phrase. I do have quite a number of shots where Mr Wobbles looks miserable…maybe I’ll share those in another post some day 🙂

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      • I think you are right…when we get older, we have no time to play and instead we just worry 🙂 Smokey was actually a real bear in the USA that survived a forest fire and has since become a symbol for forest fires. My Smokey…he is the best. I look forward to your future shots of Mr. Wobbles ~ enjoy your weekend!

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        • Your Smokey – noble and heroic for a good cause. Lovely and I’m sure as a kid you looked up to him. Mr Wobbles would be honoured to meet Smokey one day and they can trade stories about the wild. I’m sure they have things in common 🙂

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          • Noble and heroic, that is a good description of good ole Smokey, one of my oldest and best friends! It would be great for both Smokey and Mr. Wobbles to meet up some day I think they would get along great and have many tales to tell 🙂 Wishing you a great week ahead Mabel, take care.

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  5. Hey Mabel, I really enjoyed this post. However, I’ve got to be that pedantic guy. In most traditional Asian cultures, ie, all of the Confucian ones, youth is not prized, old age is.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Hi Mabel – lovely post! Very sweet 🙂
    I had some stuffed animal toys, however I enjoyed puzzles more. I still do and sometimes I have a hunger to solve one and then I loose track of time.
    – Ruta

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  7. Mr. Wobbles is really cute. i have a whole lot of little stuffed toys, mostly Teddy Bears, which I couldn’t bear to part with. They are somewhere amongst all the boxes of stuff which we sent over here from South Africa. They can’t be unpacked until the house is finished and we move in. I hope they forgive me for leaving them cooped up in a box for more than a year. At least they should have got to know one another pretty well by now. 😀

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    • I am sure your Teddy Bears are very glad that you kept them safe over the last year, and away from all the dusty renovation works. They are probably all used to living in the box now and love how cozy and warm it is.

      *Mr Wobbles takes a bow* He loves being called cute, the cheeky thing 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It appears that stuffed toys are not confined to humans as the following video shows.

    Arvo the long-haired dachshund can’t get to sleep without a teddy-bear to cuddle. A video posted by Finn Pia Taiminen captures this heroic struggle. “It seemed like the bear was too big to fit in the dog’s kennel, but because of Arvo’s unwavering determination, the bear managed to be stuffed inside

    boredpanda.com/dachshund-teddy-bear-kennel-dog-arvo/

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    • That is such an interesting video. And a very cute one too. Didn’t know animals felt the same way about stuffed toys. Or perhaps the dachshund thinks the teddy bear is a real-life living playmate.

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  9. I was not much into toys maybe because my parents did not have the means (nor the inclination) then to indulge our desires for them. I did wish I had Sanrio characters (which became quite popular during my youth) not only because they were pretty but because Sanrio seemed to be a way to be in.

    These days, I find a lot of stuffed toys lying around – gifts to my children. A few became toddler favorites (and beholding the fondness of little boys for a stuffed Dalmatian puppy and teddy bear was quite an experience) but most of the toys were neglected and left all over the place. I gathered the least liked ones intending to give them away and to minimize the dust gatherers at home. 🙂

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    • You know, you could always get a new stuffed toy and have loads of fun with it in the present day. Never too old to play with one 😉

      I remember having a stuffed Dalmatian dog at one point as a kid, and I loved playing with it. So I’m sure your children had a lot of fun with it. True that toys collect dust over time. Dusting and cleaning them can be hard work…and I try my best to clean my toys on my shelf once every few months 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This is a really interesting (and very sweet) post! I had a lot of wonderful (often handmade) toys as a child but my Chinese fiance had almost none. While he doesn’t have any soft toys now either he does have a penchant for soft things – he really wants a totoro beanbag bed!

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  11. My wife loves them more than me. It seems their cuteness is quite overwhelming.
    In fact, we just bought our 2nd one from Australia (Sydney airport) – a Kangaroo with a baby in its sack.

    We named the 2 as well – earlier one we call Hugsy; the latest one was just recently named Bugsy 🙂

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  12. You just have way with words. I never never fail not be amazed with everything you put out. 🙂

    You hit it a bullet when you said toys make us see the world in more ways than we think”. We all have that sense of reality or normal we go back to but having stuff toys can be a reminder that there’s so much to life than what we just normally face everyday. For instance, friends are surprised when they discover I love teddy bears despite my usual mature and gruff nature. I just find comfort in them. It’s as if they tell it’s okay to take a break from adult life and be childish.

    I also found this phrase very interesting: “Vulnerability is often what binds us together in this big bad world.” Vulnerability can also be beautiful, right? I actually admire people who can lay down their vulnerability because it shows how human we can be. 🙂

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    • I hope you treat your teddy bears well. It sounds like they are your treasured possessions and are there for yuo whenever you are up or down. Perhaps always smiling when you look at them too like Mr Wobbles. I am sure your friends secretly have their own stuffed toys behind their back that they never want to give away 😉

      Thanks for the nice words 🙂 This piece was easy to write…and I think it’s because I had to go back to being a kid again to put feeling into what I wanted to say.

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  13. I have a collection of Harrods Bears, Mabel. They are the bears that Harrods bring out every Christmas, the ones that have a date stamp on their paw. My partner has bought me one every year since our first Christmas back in 1993. Some of the bears are rare and can fetch hundreds of pounds on eBay. However, even though they are now taking over our house I can not bare to part with any of them. This year’s Christmas bear is already here. He’s currently locked away in a cupboard until Christmas Day.

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    • Those are very English bears, Hugh, if I’m not mistaken. I’ve heard of them and think they are cute. Poor teddy, monetised on eBay but I’m sure the buyers have good intentions. Your partner is certainly very kind and generous. I am sure if space runs out in your house, he will built an extension or something of the kind just for the bears. I’m sure this year’s bear is excited to meet you 🙂

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  14. Mr w is cute and poses so well for u! That final photo was a treat with all of the extras – the smile face and are those hearts in the track? And the shoe print looked grande next to him –
    U also raise good points about play, toys, and human affect!
    On one of my son’s bdays we drove a small group of his friends 3 hours away- and in the way we accidentally stopped at doe nature preserve – which turned to be a great place for an enriching bathroom break – anyhow – they had a sale on nature themed crocheted finger puppets – the teens loved them – and there was a little stuffing in most so they had a mini stuffed animal feel – and the ones folks selected really became a personal thing – and they added to the ride and beyond – at least in our van. The one I got was a pink flamingo but there were many colors and animals (something for everyone) and at the time we were mentoring a local student who was getting back on a good school track – and Mabel I really think this little finger puppet met some little side in him that had been buried. Really cool to see – and I only knew a little of his tough past – but enough to know this was significant for something deep inside that was tender – and reading your reflections and pondering in this post reminded me of this!

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    • Mr Wobbles is smiling even more widely now because you called him cute. He is cheeky. I believe those are shoe prints and not hearts in the sand. I’m pretty sure that grande shoe print was mine… 😀

      Those crocheted finger puppets sound very cute. I am sure they kept you all company in the van. The pink flamingo one you got sounded it like had a gregarious personality, and I hope you and it got along. It is great to hear that the local student found light in his finger puppet. That’s the beauty of toys – they make us shine once again when we let ourselves run wild with them.

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  15. What a lovely tribute to our furry, stuffed friends. You’ve really made me remember my childhood fondness of my furry friends. I used to arrange them and pretend to photograph them. My kids loved Beanie Babies when they were little and I can sure understand why now that I’ve read this post, Mabel. I don’t have a stuffed animal now. I sometimes snuggle my boyfriend as though her were a human teddy bear. Maybe I should get a teddy…?!

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    • “furry friends” I like how you describe stuffed toys. So cute, and so true. Pretty sure Beanie Babies are still popular these days – I still see them from time to time in shops, and especially at airports for some reason when I travel. They are very cuddly, and maybe that is why your kids liked them when they were younger 🙂

      Your human teddy sounds like a great companion. Maybe you should get a life-sized teddy…and then perhaps your boyfriend might get jealous 😀

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  16. Ah too bad, I have no stuffed animals — no wait! I have a Beanie Baby spider that a friend gave me a few years ago, possibly to feed my spider fetish. It’s on a bookshelf though, poor thing is not cuddled. You are a better toy-mother than I.

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    • Beanie Baby spider…I’ve never seen a plush spider before. Don’t know if I want one since I fear spiders. It sounds like your spider has got a good view of your room on your bookshelf. I have a bookshelf at home that I call the Royal Shelf, and some of my toys are very comfortable there. My favourite toys, though, like Mr Wobbles, get to sit on my bed.

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  17. Frankly speaking, I tries to keep away from Stuffed toys, not because I am a tough human being and hate toys but, I have a bad dust allergy 🙂

    But, reading this post was really fun, and your images are just perfect 🙂

    It’s so nice to see the variety of topics you are presenting here and giving us opportunity to discuss and debate….

    Hats off to your imagination 🙂

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    • Sorry to hear about your dust allergy. Stuffed toys can certainly pick up and accumulate dust – simply pat a stuffed toy that has been left on the shelf for a while and a poof of dust will spring up right in your face 😀

      Hats off to you for stopping by, Sreejith. I am humbled you take the time to read my posts. Looking forward to seeing more photography from you soon 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Hey there – hope you have a great new year M – and here is the picture of the little finger puppet.

    sending you big hugs – glad we are blog friends and 2016 is going to be great! peace out

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    • You found it! Thanks so much for this. He is so cute! And he doesn’t have a tail…so maybe he and Mr Wobbles are related. Hope this little finger puppet has a good home 🙂

      Very glad to have connected with you, and I will pop over to yours soon when I’m back to blogging full steam ❤

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  19. Mr. Wobbles is adorable, Mabel 🙂 I totally understand about the nostalgic connection between the item and the person, with it being a remembrance of the younger days of childhood. I have a few stuffed animals that are very dear to my heart, some because of the circumstances in which I acquired them and others for the cute way they look 😉 Wishing you a lovely weekend, Mabel!

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    • I hope you cherish and love your stuffed animals with all your heart, Christy. They sound like great companions and I am sure all of them love you right back 🙂 Mr Wobbles is flattered you called him adorable. He waves at you and says that you are beautiful with a beautiful smile 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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