Sunday, February 21, 2021

Minari's Daring Hope

[Spoiler Alert]

Years ago, my Korean-American friend Bonnie told me she hates reading stories about Korean-Americans. "They're so depressing. They're always about loss. What are we supposed to do with all that sadness?" 

It's almost as if writer/director Lee Issac Chung were eavesdropping on our conversation when he made Minari, as if he came along years later to answer that question for us. 

In Minari, Jacob relocates his family from from LA's Korean community to rural Arkansas where he sets out to grow Korean produce on the side while he and his wife Monica work as chicken sexers during the day. It is, as they find out, where other Koreans have landed to escape the Korean church. They are exiled not only from Korea, but from the Korean-American community as well. They are outliers among outliers.

Jacob's move is not only a reverse gold rush, but a repudiation of the idea of luck itself, as he derides the water dowser. It was the pursuit of better fortune that landed the couple as chicken sexers for the past decade. This move to Arkansas is simultaneously more inspired, more cynical, and more defiant. For Jacob, the church and the community of others offer no possibilities. All we have are our own dogged determination and arduous labor - and our ability to reason, Jacob teaches his son. 

A pivotal, foreshadowing occurs near the beginning when Jacob, with a smokestack ominously blowing in the background, explains to his son David that all male chicks are killed. The males are useless, he tells him. We have to make ourselves useful.   

His is what Erving Goffman calls a spoiled identity. Such identities are deemed less worthy than the identities of others. Jacob (and by extension David) bear not one facet of spoiled identity, but three: immigrant-Asian-male. As emasculated Asian males, they are the most vulnerable. Even though Jacob is married, his wife is on the verge of leaving him. He spends his time looking at butts of baby chicks. His only son is a "pretty boy" with a damaged heart and a broken penis. Jacob's desperate need to prove himself is decoupled from his family's chances of survival. It is not as much a response to America, his community, or his family, but to his internalized view of himself. His current position in the social order is a drastic fall from the privileged status as the eldest Korean son. 

His desperation to de-spoil his identity is not understood by his family, where he still presides as the dominant member who disciplines the children, makes financial decisions, and determines their place on earth. The only way to maximize his chance of success is to protect himself from the judging gaze of others. Nothing can happen to us here, he tells his wife. No one is around. Shielded from the outside world, he need only rely on his own effort, without the complicating factors of society. Alone, he has a chance of prevailing, of finding a way to prove himself worthy.

Throughout the film, Lee Issac Chung questions the idea of utility. What does it mean to be useful? Growing up, we were guided by this principle. As green card holders, we in our family were acutely aware of our status as guests in this country, and as visible minorities, we lived at the mercy of the dominant communities who found us useful to keep around - or at least not useless enough to reject. Utility framed our understanding of our present, past, and future. It provided the raison d'etra for our immigration life; not to put our utmost human effort toward our future was to make a mockery of the painful decision to uproot our family. Achieving success would provide the redemption to validate our relocation. 

To not be useful was to fail each other when we had only each other to turn to, when the needs were so dire. In our family, we traded in needs; more effort by one meant the other could expend less. When our mother lost pound after pound and suffered from painful hemorrhoids from running our dry cleaning business, I picked up extra chores at home, cleaning, doing the laundry, cooking dinner, and picking up groceries. As teenagers, we helped out at the store on the weekends to try to reduce their workload. I was not the only Korean-American kid who vowed to get a good enough job to pay off my parents' mortgage. Being useful - in the service of each others' needs - became our only language of love. 

Chung litters the film with plenty of examples to help us explore this concept of utility. A grandmother who comes to take care of the kids, but spends her time gambling and watching wrestling. A neighbor who spends his weekends dragging a wooden cross for miles. A trailer house that may not be secure enough to provide shelter during a tornado. A dowser who offers the dubious service of finding a water source with a stick. Expensive Korean hanyak that has no curative connection to little David's heart murmur. A living made as an experienced and efficient chicken sexer. 

On the other side of the coin of utility is the question of value. What gives us value as human beings? What happens when we do not have the ability to be useful, like little David whose body does not even allow him to run? Or when the outcome does not match the intent, like the grandmother who only seeks to help when she burns the trash? What do we do when our utility depends on the performance of others who may fail us, like the Korean produce buyer who breaks the contract? Does our utility dictate our value? 

In college, I sat around with my Korean-American friends in a musty cafe pondering these questions with a cold coffee mug in my hand. Did Korean parents believe in unconditional love? Is there such a thing, or is all love conditional? These questions masked the internal personal questions we did not voice, like did we somehow fail to achieve all that we could have? Were we not useful enough, and therefore, not as lovable? We had been so steeped in the language of utility that once freed of our home environment, we wondered what else existed beyond it. We spoke without betraying any emotions, except for an occasional set of glistening eyes, as if we were speaking solely about philosophical matters that do not bear on our sense of self-worth or well-being. 

I never had satisfying answers to these questions until I watched Minari. It felt as if Lee Issac Chung had been sitting next to me in my college conversations, beset with the same questions, the same quandary. As the children grab the grandmother's hand to bring her back home and the couple reach for each other during the fire, I suddenly understood. During our moments of failures, we are forced to be seen. Stripped of our ambition, aspirations, bravado, and our array of defensive masks, we appear in our nakedness. When we fail, our humanity becomes manifest.

Like my friend Bonnie, I too felt trapped in the sorrows of our immigration stories. They felt like dead ends, suffocating emotions, with limited hope for reprieve. But in Chung's story, it is the very suffering that saves the family. When the crops are destroyed and Jacob's human effort laid to waste, they are suddenly exposed in their desperation, freed from the hamster wheel of Jacob's determination. This is where they meet each other. 

Growing up, I watched my father after he plunged from his role as a managing director of a Korean conglomerate to a dry cleaner, spot checking stains on other peoples’ three-piece suits and sequined party dresses. He never fully recovered from the sadness of losing his status. It had been his unabashed boast to escape a destitute childhood on a farm in the remote mountains of Sancheong. Having to revert to manual labor after reaching Seoul National University felt like an undoing, a negation of all that he had worked toward. Yet, it was also in this space where we came to understand the depth of his dreams, the expanse of his tenacity, and the human capacity to reach around painful adversity. It is also here that we came to appreciate the fragility of our lives, the uncertainty of the future, and the possibilities that await any of us. Previously, I always assumed we had missed out on a life that should have been, but now I wonder if we lived differently, more intensely, more humanly.

In the movie, minari is planted outside the perimeter of the area the parents consider safe. The older sister cautions little David not to go so far. But holding the grandmother's hand, he ventures further. Here, they find a creek and a snake. And it is here where minari thrive. It is delicious, nutritious, and medicinal, the grandmother promises. It is a resilient plant that grows with minimal effort. 

It is as if Chung is quietly comforting us. You will be ok. You can put down your exhaustion. Know your people will multiply. Trust that you too will reap the bounties of this Eden, if you allow yourself to traverse past the boundaries of your fears. The seeds have already been planted. 

Ironically, this film about immigrants grants me permission to transcend my own immigrant identity. I can imagine the director saying, You can put down the burdens of your immigration. Do not be defined by it any longer. You no longer need to prove yourself worthy.

I have been waiting all these years to hear these messages. 

Monday, February 8, 2021

The Making of Asian-American Identities

Jay Caspian Kang’s recent New York Times Magazine feature on Steven Yeun is not really a story about Steven Yeun. It is an exploration — through the medium of a famous body — of what it means to be an Asian-American in the United States. It is a slog through what Kang refers to as “prismatic neurosis”, a mild, yet controllable, disorder that he equates with our immigrant identity.

This slog feels apologetic, though nestled in the folds of the New York Times Magazine. Kang refers to his endeavor as “narcissistic self-exploration of an upwardly mobile immigrant”, something he believes no one else cares about, even as I scrutinized every word. He asks Yeun whether he wants to talk about “Korean stuff” and assume the risk of being seen as “some Korean guy”, as if that is somehow negative. It is a self-conscious, public conversation between two men discussing the intimate plight of identity and ambition under the gaze of unknown faces whose political existence may contribute to the construction (or destruction) of those identities.

On one hand, this exploration is a protest. It is a protest against the type of immigration story often associated with us. Of stories defined through the lens of others, where we play the good ones needing redemption, where we don’t exist on our own but only in relation to the white majority, where we are placed into cookie cutter narratives. There is a come on to his protest, like come on, really? I too carry those. Are we ever more than parables of acceptance and tolerance? Must we always be pitted in stories between Black-Korean struggles, as white adjacent? Must our parents be reduced to binaries between success and exploitation?

In Kang’s writing, I sense a fear: will we ever be more than middle-persons, in service of other identities? I wonder if he feels the unfair pressure of being put up as one of the few representing the rest of us, the way Joy Luck Club (incompletely) represents the Asian-American story, the way Steve Yeun represents all Korean Dads with his rendition of the immigrant accent. That would certainly give me a tinge of neurosis.

The article is also a protest against the perceived universalism of certain kinds of bodies, but not ours. The stories that emanate from our bodies are relegated to a niche, while others — like a man’s relationship with a dog or the chasing of a whale or the desperation of having to marry off a daughter — get elevated to universal truths. Out bodies and corresponding stories must be justified while others simply get to exist.

On the other hand, his article also reads like a plea, a plea to be seen in all the complexity that is our racial identity muddle, one constructed not by minoritized groups alone, but by the interplay among various groups. It is a plea for others to acknowledge their part in this, and not to pit the “neurosis” on us alone, the way Yeun’s father’s frustration at Murray’s Auto Shop was not an individual act but a response.

As Asian-Americans, we have been churning in post-structuralist waters, navigating differing and shifting perspectives, power dynamics, and the tyranny of self-evident truths, while waving desperately to be seen by those blithely sipping martinis on shore, tipsy with the blissful ignorance of modernity.

Kang, as a challenge, asks what is a typical immigrant story. The framing of this question already stakes a position. It is not a story about emigration, where one departs — but a story of coming to. To ask this question is to draw the arc of arrival — where we are to be delivered to a place of stasis, of elevation, of achievement. To pursue a typical immigrant story is to circumscribe the story, where all else fades except for factors relevant to the making of the journey.

To be an immigrant is to live aspirationally, to be in the process of becoming. This implies a wanting, a deficit. We are forever on a trajectory, yearning for some redemption, to become some rendition of the Great Asian Hope, whether it’s on behalf of our parents, our peers, or strangers who look like us. Implicit to the state of being an immigrant is the foregone: the life left behind, the losses, the sorrow. We can never escape the greener pastures of what could have been.

The story of immigration is framed from the perspective of those who came before us, as they watch us land as huddled masses. Imagine the story of colonialists told through the lens of native Americans. In the American imagination, the colonialists are not rendered as immigrants, but as settlers, as conquerors. As immigrants, we arrive, not to conquer or dominate, but to be accepted, to be assimilated. The power dynamic is implicit in the immigration status.

We should stop calling ourselves immigrants — or at least “only immigrants”. To be trapped in the immigrant story is to be trapped into an identity shaped by the gaze of others. We are othered when we are immigrants. We are the kids who did not fit in school, who sat inches away from the rest of the class. We are the kids who cried throughout school. We are the ones who cannot be as we wish except at Korean churches. All of these stories are book-ended by the rejecting gaze of those who already belong.

Like those beset with Stockholm syndrome, we are trapped in the perspective and language of the dominant majority. Like a giant slingshot flung from us through them and back to us, we see ourselves through their eyes, as the outsider, the minority, the misfit. We see ourselves in the reflection of their eyes, as their eyes glaze over. To be rendered invisible — even as we actively beckon — is an invitation to shame and rejection.

In this vacuum, we pit ourselves as the problems, the neuroses. We often perceive ourselves as outliers or aberrants, despite our tireless efforts. In this vacuum, we wonder if these conversations are worth having. Does it matter? Does anyone care? Kang’s so-called neurosis is a conundrum. His story may get relegated to the immigration shelf. But the dearth of our own stories traps us in the stories of others. How do we find ways to thrive when our stories are still largely untold, unknown, and unfamiliar? How do we make sense of our reality through our eyes? How do we begin to imagine different ways of relating, of understanding ourselves, or taking up space in this country if we are pigeon-holed, only told what we are to be?

In the language of narrative therapy, we have to dig for the details that have been rendered invisible. Research shows that we struggle to absorb details that do not conform to our preconceived notions. Why do we see Minari as an immigration story, and not a kin to Grapes of Wrath? Why do we think of Sandra Oh as Christina in Grey’s Anatomy but forget her role as Stephanie in Sideways? Why do we remember Margaret Cho’s failure in All American Girl and downplay her crude, hilarious social critiques?

We have to train ourselves anew, to see ourselves outside of the narrative of the dominant majority that makes sense of us solely through their perspectives. We have to fight the human tendency to miss the details that do not fit in the prescribed story of what it means to be Asian immigrants. Instead, we have to search actively for details that do not conform to the stories imposed on us. We have to learn to see ourselves through untrained eyes.

We have to show up with a slice of fuck you attitude. One that says I don’t give a fuck if you get my story. The attitude that says it is not my responsibility alone to bridge the gap between our lived experiences. It’s not solely my responsibility to make myself understood. We have to put aside the humiliation of the professor’s stale and untested assumptions and ask why that professor’s words are given universal truth status. Whose job is it to see the universality in a story: the writer or the reader — or both? We have to stop ceding power to others to construct our identities.

In the article, the two men talk about the therapeutic value of their conversation. We need not solely rely on so-called experts to tell us what we could be; we can talk to each other. To be seen by each other is enough. At its core, this article is the display of an intimate construction of an Asian-American identity, where one man sees his image reflected in another, which allows him to expand the possibilities of what he could be. The commonality and the differences between the interviewer and the interviewee is what allows each to examine his stories. This is how we make sense of our lives.

Would this conversation have been any less valuable if it had not been performed in front of the New York Times audience? What did the gaze of others do to the conversation? I wonder how the article would have differed if Kang had written it for a Korean-American audience.

Something in Kang’s writing feels like a silencing — of ourselves, an enactment of the invisibility Yeun notices of the Asian-American identity. It is as if in writing for a larger audience, Kang forgot that we — Korean-American readers — are here too, or did not deem us worth of mention. As if writing for people like us isn’t enough, even in the age of BTS, Psy, and Parasite. As if there is some implicit hierarchy between an actor like Yeun and other “identifiably Asian-American” actors. The way we are only talking to non-Koreans when we claim, “But we’re American too.”

But perhaps this is the plight of being American, a fictional identity created by paper, not history. As Richard Rodriguez writes in Hunger of Memory, we bring our private conversations into the public arena. Our intimate exchanges become public affairs. The stories of our parents become the birth of American identities. And in this making, there is also a parallel loss. In making ourselves comprehensible to others, we sacrifice some of what only we know.

Kang suggests we remove ourselves in the telling of our parents’ stories. It is a plea for everyone to own the subjectivity of their gaze, as Lee Issac Chung did in the making of Minari, even as Kang acknowledges the difficulty of doing so. There is a hope that stripped of personal agenda, our views of others avoid distortions, which in turn helps us see ourselves more clearly through them.

I wonder if extricating ourselves is the solution — or even possible. The idea of distortion exists only if we subscribe to the idea of objectivity, authenticity. We must abandon such ideas. Authenticity does not exist, and we have never had the luxury of living with such a notion. If anything, displaced people are by definition inauthentic. We arrive with a certain set of values and jettison them in lieu of others. Or invent a new hybrid.

We have something better than authenticity. We know the power of context, as we have always had to move from one context to another. We weave in and out, and with each context, we access a different story. There are multiple stories at our disposal — as there are multiple identities for each of us. In the words of Walt Whitman, we contain multitudes.