March 25, 2021 | Arts and Culture
love in the korean diaspora
Idly scrolling through Instagram last December, I came across a post by the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen sharing an article he had written for the Washington Post. The title read, “‘Minari’ is about immigrants who speak Korean. That doesn’t make it ‘foreign.’” I rapidly scrolled past the post, already feeling a swell of anxiety blossoming in my chest cavity. A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions. A film about a Korean American family in the Ozarks in the 1980s? Even that felt much too close for comfort.
For the next few months, Minari floated about the edge of my consciousness. I would catch its scent in passing conversations with Asian American classmates and on social media, but I avoided following the news around the Golden Globes controversy or watching the trailer. As with other media created about and/or by Korean Americans, I had complicated feelings about this movie being pushed out into the world. People would have free reign to critique the troubled family dynamics, exoticize the “ethnic” food and customs, or worse, package the movie as a triumph of “representation” and a story of the “American dream,” upholding the US’s diversity fetish and erasing ongoing settler-colonialism and systemic racism. I didn’t want to be put in a position where I had to explain these tangled feelings to those who engaged with the movie as outsiders.
Even so, when my sister texted me on February 12 about virtual screening tickets, I immediately responded, “YES.” “BUY.” “WHERE.” Despite my nervousness about the film, the part of me that is always hungering for a home in the diaspora was drawn to Minari, as if on instinct. With only a hint of hesitation, I entered in my credit card information and prepared myself for emotional ruin.
Minari follows the story of a Korean American family in the 1980s after they move to Arkansas from California. Jacob, the father of the family, is determined to build a new life in the Ozarks starting a business farming Korean vegetables. Monica, the mother, is skeptical of her husband’s ambitions, but she does her best to support the family in their new environment, continuing her work as a chicken sexer (the job she and Jacob held in California for a decade) at the nearby poultry farm and flying her mother in from Korea to babysit the children.
The mounting tension between the parents breaks one night during a storm. As rain leaks into the kitchen and “tornado watch” appears on the cubical television, Monica urges the children to run to the car. But Jacob holds them back, refusing to leave. When the television flashes back on after a brief power outage, he sighs in relief. “Look? It’s tornado warning now, not watch. We worried for nothing,” he chuckles to his wife. With a look of horror, Monica moves from where she had been cradling the children and hits her husband with a couch pillow. “당신 지금 미쳤어?!” Jacob shouts. (“Are you mad?!”) “누가 누구더러 미쳤데?!” Monica screams back, her eyes glistening and her mouth hard. (“Who’s calling who crazy?!”)
The following scene felt eerily familiar. The children, older sister Anne and younger brother David, are shown folding paper airplanes, scrawling “Don’t fight” on them in shaky crayon letters while muffled sounds of their parents’ yelling bleed through the walls. Texting a fellow Korean American friend after watching the film, I told them, “The parents were exactly like my parents when they were fighting ashsidkfmd. Like Word. For. Word. Except u know in the 1980s…in Arkansas.” Their response: “Omfg hold up thats exactly what my sister said. She was like, I was able to tell exactly what all the korean was because apparently my korean vocab is just angry parents.”
Watching the fight between Monica and Jacob, their faces harsh under the dimly lit interior of the trailer home, was more painful than I’d like to admit. Some of my earliest memories of my parents are of them reenacting a similar scene in our apartment in Sunnyvale, our first home in America. I remember sitting with my uncle (it must have been summer, since he visited during his breaks from dental school) on our worn leather couch the color of beef marinade as the two of them went at it, screaming without caring that they had a guest and a three-year-old in the audience. I remember the soft but firm tone of my uncle’s voice beside me, murmuring, “누나, 형, 그만 해.” “Noona, hyung, stop.”
These side conversations I had about the film and the memories attached to them made me think of these lines from Minor Feelings, a collection of essays by the Korean American poet Cathy Park Hong. In a chapter titled, “Bad English,” Hong reflects on her complicated relationship to the English language as an Asian American writer: “I’ve always been so protective of making sure that my family’s inside sounds didn’t leak outside that I don’t know how to allow the outside in,” she writes. “I was raised by a kind of love that was so inextricable from pain that I fear that once I air that love, it will oxidize to betrayal, as if I’m turning English against my family.”
Even drafting this article now, I taste a tinge of guilt in the back of my mouth as I translate these experiences. It’s too easy, isn’t it? For my parents’ story to become “proof” of the backwardness of Asian families and the need for white liberalism to save us traumatized immigrant children. For this pain to be taken out of context and boxed up, isolated from love. For their stories to be extracted from the depth and complexity of their humanness. I want to protect my parents in this jagged landscape, but I’m just one person.
Toward the end of the film, the family makes the hour-long trip to the nearest hospital so the doctors can take a look at David’s heart condition. Watching the kids play together in the hallway, Jacob speaks quietly: “Life was so difficult in Korea. Remember what we said when we got married? That we’d go to America and save each other.” “I remember,” Monica replies, not looking at him. “Instead of saving each other, all we did was fight,” Jacob laments. “Is that why [David] was born sick?” The sadness they share in this moment makes it painfully intimate, even as you feel the rift growing between them.
I’m thinking about all of the reasons my parents ended up in what is currently known as Silicon Valley, growing Asian pears and persimmons in our backyard, raising a Maltese (the typical Korean family dog), sending their children to the remote corners of this continent in the hope that the English their tongues have wrapped around will take them places they themselves don’t know. I’m thinking about what my mother said about my dad eating all three meals at work in Korea, how they would barely see each other, how they were afraid he would be laid off when he was 40 and I hadn’t even gone to college. I’m thinking about how unfair it is that my mother was asked to give up everything she had known for the longevity of this nuclear family. I’m wondering, can love survive under these conditions? Under these circumstances that have been rolled up out of the sawdust of war and imperialism?
To be honest, I don’t know, and I’m scared the answer is no, or worse, affirmative. I’m afraid that, like Cathy Park Hong, I don’t know how to allow the outside in, how to let love blossom and fester like a wound. How can I, when the love I was shown was so laced with hurt? When that love feels like an aching hole, like regret and anger and wanting? Better not to find out, I sometimes convince myself. Better not to get hurt.
Calling my sister the weekend after the screening, I asked her about the experience of viewing the film with my parents. “Well, our dysfunctional Korean family was being dysfunctional before we watched the movie,” she chuckled. I laughed along with her, imagining the three of them sitting apart from one another on the couch while our dog Mimi napped contentedly on my mother’s thigh, the annoyed noises my mother probably made at my dad’s mansplaining comments, the anxiety my sister was probably feeling at the palpable tension. I can’t say that I would have liked to watch it with them, but I’m grateful that we could share this experience across disjointed time and space.
Minari is not about claiming a kind of problematic belonging that situates Korean diasporic peoples squarely within American-ness. Rather, it’s an interior-facing project, a kind of mirror meant to gently remind us of these intimate, painful moments of diasporic life—as the director Lee Isaac Chung says, exploring what family looks and feels like in Korean America. I’m wary of romanticizing the experiences of Monica and Jacob’s family, my own parents, and my fellow Korean American friends. Their/our stories are not and cannot be claimed by an America that wants us/them to be easily digestible, wants us to function as data points bolstering claims of equal opportunity and the model minority myth. We aren’t simply “overcoming” our Koreanness to locate love and safety in Western liberalism. And in trying to find these things in my own fucked up Asian American landscape, I’m not looking to reject the kind of love my parents gave me. Rather, I’m trying to let it be okay.
In memory of Soon Chung Park, Hyung Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun, & Paul Andre Michels. Rest in peace.