“Minari” is Personal

I rented “Minari” last week and watched it a couple of times. I’m still thinking about it. I love books and films that linger and don’t vanish like cotton candy. The film focuses on a Korean-American family settling in the American south in the 1980s. I grew up in that region, and I have been an immigrant in Korea for almost two decades. I saw a lot in that film, and I need to punch it out on the keyboard. So bear with me.

Many have commented that they were tense, thinking that a film of immigrants in the “South” would reach for that trope of the racist confrontations between the protagonists and the locals. Yet we didn’t get that. Rather than portraying rural Arakansans as weirdo racists, it just portrayed them as weirdos.

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There were some micro-agressions. The church lunch crammed a bunch of them. From the white boy staring at David and asking why is face was flat as a conversation opener to the girl going “ching ching chong” to try to guess a word in Korean to the church ladies telling Monica she was “so cute.” It was ignorance that meant well. They weren’t mean spirited. They were noting the Kim family’s otherness to make connections.

And I cringed.

Director Lee Isaac Chung has said that the film was a tribute to his friends in Arkansas. You could tell that even though the Americans were treated as oddballs, it was done with affection. But I did like seeing Americans through Korean eyes. I think American viewers should get more opportunities to see how foreign they come across.

We’ve come a long way from the “I love America! What a country!” immigrant/foreigner tropes portrayed in “Coming to America,” “Perfect Strangers,” and the entire oeuvre of Yakov Smirnoff. It’s refreshing to see that people are in America for a better life, but they don’t fall for the illusion that the streets are paved with gold. It seemed for the Kims that they were leaving to get away rather than coming to get something.

This was during the mass migrations of Koreans to the U.S. in the ’80s. Right-wing Dictator Chun Doo-hwan had just replaced assassinated right-wing dictator Park Chung-hee. It was a turning point in the economy, in politics, and in social structures themselves.

Maybe it’s self-absorption, but I found a lot of myself and my immigrant experience in this film. I have no illusions that I’ve generally had the gentler white collar version, but the themes rhymed. I came to Korea as both a fan of the culture and out of financial necessity at the time.

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Like Jacob, I chased a dream that I thought would be the future. For him, he wanted to grow Korean vegetables in anticipation that the large Korean migration would create demand for Korean produce. I myself produced this blog, podcasts, and tours in anticipation that Korean food was about to hit the big time. And I was making blogs and podcasts back before either of those media exploded in popularity.

Like Jacob, I put my wife through hell as I chased the dream she didn’t understand. She had no interest in my work and only reluctantly went along with my windmill chases. Like Monica, she’d push me to go return to my fallback job and to give up on my dreams. For Jacob at that time, it was chicken sexing. For university graduates in South Korea, it’s ESL teaching. In fact, it’s extremely hard to completely get out of the ESL teaching gig. Even those who own bars or do voice acting for a living still teach some English. You don’t find many foreigners in Korea owning convenience stores. They aren’t running large supermarket chains like Koreans are in Atlanta and other American cities. The best foreigners in Korea can do is hustle–if they don’t want to fall back on ESL teaching. And that gig generally doesn’t make more than $36,000/year.

Just pointing out that Jacob’s desire to get out of chicken sexing and to become successful doing his own thing reminded me of my desire to get out of ESL–to become one of the few English speaking foreigners to do something different.

I connected when Jacob looked at that smokestack at the hatchery, where they toss the male chicks. I’ve been reminded by society that I’m useless if I can’t succeed.

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And I’ve been burned while chasing my dream. My restaurant ventures in 2016 crashed, the stress of which brought on a seizure which cracked my vertebra. Like the storeowner in Dallas, I was cheated by people I’d made deals with and worked very hard for.

Also, like Jacob, I started out looking down at local customs. I’d made friends with Koreans that other Koreans would have suggested were not good–maybe similar to how Jacob made friends with Paul, who was a pariah in the community. At the beginning, he thought the locals were ignorant hicks for using divining rods to find water. Then his character grew to accept even that odd local custom in the end.

I’ve done the same. “Why would you open all the windows in the middle of winter?”

But now I have done just that. I open the windows to air out our house, even in winter. I back into parking spaces. I refuse twice before accepting a gift the third time (like Monica does when her mother gives her money). I’ve been rightly called out for condescending towards local customs and beliefs. These days, I don’t think I’ve totally converted and been baptized in all Korean customs, but I find more comfort in them.

I see Anne and David in my child Jian. She mostly speaks Korean in the household while I mostly speak English, though we both switch up. In the film, David wears cowboy boots. Jian dances K-Pop. They both relate more to the countries they were born into, and they both get a bit of the outsider treatment. Jian hasn’t as much, thankfully. She did get it more when she was a baby. But we were conscious that she may be singled out for her–genetic diversity–so we prepared her for years to fit in and to stand up for herself.

Minari is the plant that symbolizes Chung’s version of the Korean immigrant experience. It’s hearty and grows well wherever it’s planted. This is indicated later when the Oklahoma City storeowner says that Korean communities are growing in Oklahoma and other locations closer to Jacob’s farm than way off in Dallas, where that untrustworthy store was. Koreans are placing more roots around the U.S.

Like Monica, my wife has had conversations with me about whether I cared more about my dreams or about my family. In fact, she literally said, “That’s you and me,” when they were having that hard conversation at the end.

But I’m American. I think in Korea, Americans aren’t minari. We’re tumbleweeds. Most hardly last two years in Korea. Because of this, we don’t form much of a supportive community. The networks to help newcomers are threadbare. There aren’t support centers, like churches. Though I did get a laugh when the Korean worker said that many Koreans fled to Arkansas to get away from “Korean church.” There was a lot of subtext in that.

My daughter visited her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in Alabama last year. She loved it. Though my family lives in an area that doesn’t fit the podunk Alabama hicktown stereotype. It’s a pretty cool waterfront town. BUT–in my previous life I was married into a farming family in the Alabama countryside, and I witnessed the culture portrayed in “Minari’s” rural Arkansas. I connected with that side as well.

The extreme cult-like forms of religion practiced there, honestly, was not much different to how much religion is practiced in South Korea. The extreme fundamentalism, the xenophobia mixed with warm generosity, the commitment to tradition for the sake of tradition–I’ve noted so many similarities between Alabama and Korea over the years.

Sorry.

I’m being really personal and confessional.

“Minari” hit me in an unexpected place. Last year, I wrote about “Parasite,” and it reminded me again of how much I love Seoul, down to the gritty parts. “Minari” reminds me of my life in Korea. It’s been tough to plant roots here. I’m the consummate outsider. I’m well aware that I’m more privileged than others–and I still can’t get a Korean credit card or qualify for a housing loan.

For the past year, I’ve been considering becoming a naturalized Korean citizen. My largest obstacle is my constant struggle with the Korean language Balrog. Lee Isaac Chung’s film has helped re-energize me to work towards becoming a true American immigrant in Korea.

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