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When I was growing up in the ’90s, the only Asian-American writer I knew was Amy Tan. Her thick paperbacks, “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” were on everyone’s bookshelves. I, of course, hated Amy Tan because I considered myself a hard-edged thinker. Her books, which were mostly about industrious, dignified immigrants, embodied a type of minstrelsy in which the Asian-American writer gives the white audience bits of tossed-off Oriental wisdom — “Isn’t hate merely the result of wounded love?” — or a few parables about gold and black tigers or what have you. If I had been asked back then what I planned to write about, I might have gestured toward the Beatniks or cutting down trees in the woods or heroin or jazz, but the only concrete pledge I could have given you was, “I will not write ‘The Joy Luck Club.’”
In graduate school, while in an M.F.A. program, I would walk to the bookstore and wander among the fiction shelves, wondering where my novel would fit. This was embarrassing and vain, and although I was certainly both those things, I stage-managed my reverie with some measure of self-aware detachment, performing at being a broke, unpublished author fantasizing about his bright future. In a similar spirit, I would look around for Asian authors who were not Amy Tan. There were also Maxine Hong Kingston and Chang-Rae Lee, but I saw few others. I knew I was supposed to have some feelings about the dearth of published Asian authors, but nothing really came to me. Maybe there just weren’t many Asian people trying to write novels, or maybe they were bad at it. The tug-of-war between my intellect, which was telling me that I might be in for some rough times in publishing, and my American ambition, which was feeding me some version of a sneaker ad — Just Do It — was never much of a contest. The world would yield to me.
I was 23 and typing out a novel about a young Korean man who had a brother with Down syndrome whom he cast in various public-service announcements about tolerance. There were parts that were supposed to be a direct parody of “Life Goes On,” the ABC drama that starred Chris Burke as Corky Thatcher. I thought this was very edgy and funny, but I also mixed in occasional ruminations about Koreanness and the burdens of an immigrant childhood. My workshop professor at the time was known as a leader in the field of experimental fiction. One day, he said something about my work that has stuck with me. “This novel will almost certainly be published because it’s about a life we don’t hear about too often,” I recall him saying. “But what we need to do is figure out a way to elevate it so that it’s not just a telling of the way things are for a certain type of person.”
Declarations like these were quite common in the workshop. Delivered with great gravity, they drew a line between those of us who had serious literary ambitions and those who just wanted to tell our life stories to the world for a six-figure advance and readings at the 92nd Street Y.
I took this professor’s class because I wanted to write difficult, literary fiction. I also considered myself a tough student who could handle criticism. But this particular comment collapsed a barrier in my brain, one that had held back conflicting, shameful thoughts about identity. On a pragmatic level, I was happy to hear that my novel would be published. (It wasn’t.) But his dismissal derailed my confidence that I would break free from Chang-Rae Lee, Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan. If this bizarre book I had written could be regarded only as an “immigrant narrative,” would I ever be anything other than a race writer? Did I have any control over how the world would see me and my work?
I felt humiliated, of course, but he raised some issues that I have spent the last 20 years thinking about. What, exactly, is a typical immigrant story? And is the transcription of a person’s traumas and “truth” — which in literary terms usually means explaining all the nuances of the immigrant struggle to a presumed white, upper-middle-class audience — the only thing that qualifies as “literature”? And if not, what then clears the bar? And if you consciously try to write the exact sort of work that might appeal to serious literary types, aren’t you just tap dancing for those who never wanted you around in the first place? I never bothered asking this professor, because I was too embarrassed. He means nothing to me now, but since that class, I have never really been able to put these spiraling questions to rest.
Please believe me. I am not trying to identify some incident of bias or racism that took place in my creative-writing program. This professor didn’t mean to be cruel with his comment, and his intentions, I’m sure, were to try to better my writing. Nor do I wish to make a point about white privilege and access to Mount Parnassus. I only want to chart the neuroses that result from realizing that your work will almost certainly be read as an outgrowth of your identity, along with the rage, doubt and ambition this brings on.
The problem is that the anxieties never go away. Every capitulation to the “white gaze” comes with shame; every stand you take for authenticity triggers its own questions about what constitutes authenticity. And once you feel comfortable with the integrity of your work, someone says something that flips everything around, and you’re right back staring at your own lying face.
Credit…Emily Shur for The New York Times
Steven Yeun has a beautiful Zoom face. His laptop camera points slightly up toward his chin, which accents his sharp cheekbones and delicate nose. My face, by comparison, looks like a russet potato with eye slits scooped out with a spoon. By a visual code most Koreans know, Yeun’s pale skin and delicate features connote cosmopolitanism, while my dark, mushier features evoke the rural peasantry. This isn’t a problem, but I did catch myself staring disapprovingly at my image for an embarrassing amount of time during our calls.
This was early December, and we were supposed to talk about Yeun’s latest starring role, in “Minari,” a film written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung about a Korean immigrant family that takes up farming in rural Arkansas. Yeun lives in Los Angeles, and the county had just issued a blanket stay-at-home order. We talked about the usual things: his early moves, from Seoul to Saskatchewan to suburban Michigan; his parents, who were shopkeepers in Detroit; his American childhood, which was mostly spent in the Korean church; his acting career, which now includes a seven-year run on “The Walking Dead” — one of the most popular shows in the history of TV — and starring roles in a pair of films by Korean directors, “Okja” and the critically lauded “Burning.”
But our conversations kept circling back to this prismatic neurosis, in which you worry about every version of how other people see you. Yeun had been deep in it, especially for this particular role. One of his concerns was the Korean accent he had put on for the film.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Yeun said. “I’m still justifying the accent in my own head. I’m sure I’m going to get a lot of people giving me [expletive] about it, saying, ‘That’s not what a Korean dad accent sounds like.’ But the accent I did is how I remember my dad talking. It’s nuanced; it’s a little different, and it has its own twang and inflections. At the start, I kept trying to mimic the standard Korean ahjussi accent, and it felt fraudulent. And I’m OK with it, because this was the accent I chose for this character as opposed to servicing this collective understanding of what a Korean accent is traditionally supposed to sound like.”
There’s something I’ve realized over the past decade of writing about race and Asian immigrants. Not everybody cares about our obsessing over belonging and not-belonging and displacement. That presents a problem for writers, artists and filmmakers: Do you take what is in some ways the easiest path and simply cast Asian actors in traditional roles without talking about that choice — a form of colorblindness that merely puts Asian faces on white archetypes? Or do you try your best to document the neuroses because you feel them within yourself — and while you understand that there are certainly worse forms of oppression in this country, there’s some personal or, perhaps, therapeutic value in expressing yourself in front of an audience? But who is the audience? And is there any real value to the narcissistic self-expression of an upwardly mobile immigrant who has nothing else to worry about?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but I don’t see them as the invented problems of the immigrant figure who ascends to international stardom, or even to a regular gig writing about Asian-Americans. Should we ignore them because nobody else really cares about them?
“Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you,” Yeun said.
And so we talked through that. To start, there’s the whole setup behind the article you’re reading right now, which involves me, a Korean-American writer, assigned to profile a Korean-American actor with the idea that I may be able to excavate some deep, epigenetic code we share and present it to the audience of The New York Times Magazine.
“Weird question, but do you even want to talk about all this Korean stuff?” I asked Yeun.
“What do you mean?” he replied earnestly. There’s a practiced calm in Yeun’s voice when he speaks, but underlying it is a manic, yet ultimately charming, energy. Almost like a lid trying its very best to stay on top of a bubbling pot.
“There must be some part of you that saw a Korean writer was going to be writing a profile of you and knew where all this was going. That we’d be talking about Korean stuff. Isn’t there some part of you that wants to not just be seen as some Korean guy? Like maybe you’d rather just talk about the craft of acting or something?”
“Well, as long as we can talk about this stuff on a real level, I don’t mind it,” he said, providing a neat answer to an annoying question. “I get what you’re worried about, though. There’s been some times when an Asian person comes to talk to me or photographs me and I can just tell that all they’re trying to do is fit into some conception of what they think white audiences want out of an Asian-on-Asian thing.” He added: “And that’s even more offensive!”
“Horrible,” I said. “I don’t even know if I want to ask you about this stuff. Not because it’s too sensitive, but I also feel compelled to ask you to do it because of the implied nature of the assignment: Hey, Korean, tell us about another Korean.”
“I think it’ll be OK,” Yeun said. “Or at least it’ll be therapeutic in some way.”
Our talks, I admit, were therapeutic, at least for me. Yeun and I are both immigrants, born in Seoul and then raised in mostly white neighborhoods. But Yeun, in many ways, is much more Korean than I. His father, the second of five sons, worked as an architect in Seoul. During a business trip to Minnesota, he fell in love with the natural beauty of the area and the idea of owning land there, after which he began making preparations to move to that part of the world. At the time, the mayor of Regina, Saskatchewan, had started a program to recruit Korean immigrants. Yeun’s father sold his house in Seoul — homeownership was an uncommon luxury back then — gathered up his family and eventually got on a plane.
“I got to show you this photo from back then,” Yeun told me at the start of one of our talks. It’s a kindergarten class picture from the Ruth M. Buck School in Regina. Yeun, his hair in a bowl cut, is seated at the end of the front row, wearing fresh white shoes and a decidedly immigrant-kid sweatshirt. All the other kids line up shoulder to shoulder. Yeun sits a few inches away from his classmates.
“You look miserable,” I said.
“Totally!” he said. We had been discussing his family’s moves. After a year in Regina, Yeun’s family relocated to Taylor, Mich., where an uncle had opened a clothing store. This uncle started out in America as a runner for cargo ships — when they docked in New York City, he ran on board and offered to fetch things offshore for the crew. At some point, he began selling jeans out of his car on the side. One day, he said to his wife, while holding a map of the United States in front of them, “Wherever my spit goes is where we’ll move.”
The spit landed on Michigan, and that’s where the uncle started his small business. The Yeun family followed him there. Young Steven was placed in a new school. He spoke no English and had to be dragged into the classroom. “My parents say that I came home one day and asked them what does ‘don’t cry’ mean,” Yeun said. “So they think those were the first English words I learned because I was hearing it at school all the time.”
Yeun remembers being a happy kid in Korea who wandered around shopping centers and stole away from home to play video games in a nearby arcade. “The family put me on this pedestal,” Yeun said. “I was a cute kid with pale skin and light brown hair, and everyone was proud of that. Then we moved to Regina, and I went from feeling that attention to all of a sudden coming to the middle of nowhere and being pulled kicking and screaming into kindergarten.
“I’ve looked at this photo so many times,” Yeun said. “If you look at photos of me in Korea, I’m like joyful, man. So happy, like flipping my yellow bucket hat upside down.” Or hanging out with a friend, he added. “And then you see this photo, and I look so terrified.”
The family eventually moved up the river to Troy, a Detroit suburb, when Yeun was in fifth grade. His parents opened a beauty-supply store for Black customers in the city and joined one of the several Korean churches in the area. That’s where Yeun spent most of his time — playing sports with kids from church and attending Sunday school.
“When I was in school, I was playing within a persona,” Yeun said. “I’m going to be quieter, nicer, friendlier. But when I’m at church, I’m going to be me. When I’m at home, I’m going to be me. And sometimes I think I was putting up such a mask and a wall when I was at school that I had no patience for anything when I was at home.” He let his emotions “build up into this constant anger.”
In Detroit at the time, there were just enough Koreans to fill a few church congregations and run a handful of Asian grocery stores. But it wasn’t like Los Angeles or Queens, where the enclave can contain your entire life — where you grow up around your kind, you go to school with your kind, you play youth sports with your kind, you end up dating and marrying your kind. “I remember when I first went to L.A. and saw these totally free Korean dudes,” Yeun said. “They weren’t weighted down with all that same self-consciousness. They even walked differently.”
Those were the divisions in his life: quiet and unassuming Steven at school; confident Steven at church, playing in the band and holding his own on the sports fields. And for most of his childhood and his young adulthood, Yeun didn’t overthink these divisions. He existed in both spaces at once.
“My perception of race was pretty stunted,” Yeun said. “I was shielded from really understanding what was happening.” He knew, for example, that his parents ran a store that sold beauty products to Black customers in what at the time was a high-crime area in downtown Detroit, but his parents said little about their experience. Today Yeun knows all about the history of the Korean middleman class in Black neighborhoods, but the aphasia of his youth speaks to a difficult, oftentimes obscured reality of immigrant life in America. The first-generation parents start selling beauty products because they met someone at church who runs the supply chains. They then get a loan from an intra-Korean lending group and open up shop. Three decades pass, and nobody’s given much reflection to anything beyond raising the kids and paying the bills. The kids will eventually be able to process their American career through whatever idiom they pick up, whether patriotic pride in entrepreneurship or learned shame for the exploitation they determine took place. Most likely, they will feel both at the same time.
After graduating from Kalamazoo College, where he performed in an improv group, Yeun hedged his bets. When he expressed interest in acting, his extended family and friends would suggest he consider moving to Korea, following the path of dozens of gyopos — the Korean word for Koreans who grow up abroad — in film and music who saw no opportunity for themselves in America. But he also applied for a job at Teach for America and prepared to take the LSAT and MCAT. When the teaching job didn’t come through, Yeun moved to Chicago to make the rounds on the comedy/improv circuits for a few years. He moved to Los Angeles when he was 25. Two church friends from Michigan had rented out a condo in Koreatown. Yeun moved in with them and set out on the audition circuit.
Five months after arriving in Hollywood, he tried out for the role of Glenn Rhee on “The Walking Dead.” He had just been turned down for a sitcom role — for what he calls a “plucky assistant” — and wasn’t expecting much. To his shock, he got the job.
The success of “The Walking Dead” catapulted Yeun into an odd place. Now he was one of the most recognizable Asian-American actors in the country, perhaps even the world, but the speed of his success and his relatively short time in Hollywood meant that he skipped over the crises of identity, authenticity and frustration that are the birthright of the Asian-American actor.
He also took on a strange new role as an inspirational sex symbol for young Asian men, not for his own exploits but for Glenn’s ongoing relationship with a white woman named Maggie, played by Lauren Cohan. An Asian man dating a white woman on the most popular show on TV was seen as not only a marker of progress but also a permission slip for white women to maybe start dating more of us. Yeun understood the excitement but wasn’t sure what to make of the fuss. Should he be proud? Or did he even want that sort of attention at all? “I went through the same journey that I’m sure most Asian-American men go through,” Yeun said, referring to the typical rejections and emasculations that befall so many of us. “It’s just so paper-thin — you’re asking Asian men to be validated by whiteness, and you’re basically saying that I can only feel like a man if I’m with a white woman, which is just a terrible thing to think.”
Fair or not, Glenn Rhee, and by extension Yeun, was touted as the Great Asian Hope, the Jeremy Lin of dating white women on TV. “I still get emails from Asian dudes to this day,” Yeun said. “And they’ll say something like, ‘Thank you so much, you’re the first one of us to ever do this.’”
Watching his career from afar, especially after “The Walking Dead,” when he branched out into auteur films like Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja” (2017), Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” (2018) and, most notably, Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” (2018), it seemed as if Yeun was on a different track than other established actors like John Cho, Daniel Dae Kim, Margaret Cho or Sandra Oh. They were all identifiably Asian-American — their roles required the acknowledgment that people who looked like them might also be heading to White Castle or working in a Seattle hospital. Yeun, by contrast, felt as if he came out of some new mold of race and representation, an immigrant actor who could simply just be a success, both in Hollywood and abroad. There was an effortlessness to his career that seemed unencumbered by lengthy conversations about the importance of seeing Asian faces on the screen or the never-ending squabbles about casting white actors in Asian roles.
“Do you think some of your success came from the fact that you kind of stumbled into this life-changing role after five months in L.A. and didn’t have to really dwell on all the limitations?” I asked Yeun.
He said he had also felt this self-doubt during his career — the feeling of helplessness that comes with realizing that nobody who looks like you has done the things you want to do. “It’s painful to feel that aware,” he said. But he also said he thought there were ways in which that hypersensitivity could become its own prison. “You can lock yourself into those patterns, and then all of a sudden you can’t even see outside of it,” he said. “You don’t see how you might be able to break through the system.” Then he added: “If I see a door is cracked open, I just want to see what’s behind that thing. And I just go through it. And I get burned a lot, too, but whatever.”
In late September of 2017, Yeun flew to Korea to film “Burning,” a psychological thriller about a young, struggling writer named Lee Jongsu who falls in love with Shin Haemi, a woman from the same rural village. At the start of the film, Haemi asks Jongsu to look after her cat before she travels to Africa. When she returns, she’s accompanied by Yeun’s character, a shifty playboy named Ben. Lee Chang-dong, the film’s director, doesn’t reveal much about Ben, but we know that he’s rich, doesn’t really have a job that he can explain and seems to exist in a cosmopolitan, aggressively Western layer of the Korean elite. But Ben, despite his Americanized name, is not a gyopo. He is a full-blooded Korean sociopath. “I think Lee Chang-dong thought my body will do one type of acting while my words did another type of acting,” Yeun said. “And that disconnect would create this strange, unimaginable character.”
Unlike many Asian immigrants his age, who respond to their parents in English when they talk in their native language, Yeun had always spoken Korean in the home. He was already fluent enough, but Lee wanted that dissonance — the Korean character flowing through a famous American body — to be fully actualized. The five months Yeun spent shooting the film in Seoul allowed him to imagine what life would be like if his parents had never immigrated to North America, or perhaps if he had decided to pull up stakes and pursue a career in Korean film. He certainly wouldn’t have been the first do this — Korean dramas, movies and K-pop have their fair share of gyopos.
But his time in Seoul convinced him that America was his home. Early during his stay there, he saw a director friend’s childhood photo on Instagram. He was dressed in a karate costume and wore a shirt emblazoned with the Japanese Rising Sun flag, which in Korea is comparable to the Confederate flag in the United States. Impulsively, Yeun liked the photo, which set off a maelstrom of outrage. In the end, he was forced to issue an apology. This was unpleasant, but Yeun also realized that a life and career in Korea wouldn’t actually break him out of the prismatic neurosis.
“When I’m here in America, I can feel this constant protest, like, I’m not just a Korean person, I’m an American person. And then you go over to Korea and they only look at you as an American, or, if you’re lucky, like a Korean person that might have lost their way or is disconnected from their whole thing. That’s true, but I’m also a version of a Korean person. You know what I mean? Like, I can’t change my DNA. I have the same epigenetic information passed down through the blood we share. Do I know all the same things as Koreans who grew up in Korea? No, because I don’t live there and because I’m not indoctrinated by that society.”
Yeun paused. I told him this was more or less what my father said when I told him I wanted to move to Korea during the early days of the pandemic. The people he and my mother left in 1979 would never accept me, my daughter or my wife. Yeun and I talked about it for a bit, and he conceded that perhaps being a famous movie star might intensify these dynamics. We were both sure that most Korean people would not have the time or the bandwidth to care deeply about the gyopos in their midst, but we also agreed that we, the gyopos, would always be questioning what people were thinking.
I told Yeun that I had been struck by what he said about how being Asian-American meant that you were constantly thinking about everyone else, but nobody was ever thinking about you. But maybe his kids might be able to grow up without this debilitating awareness?
“I don’t want to eliminate all of that questioning for them,” Yeun said. “But I hope they’ll be more unlocked than me and less traumatized. But for me, the [expletive] nature of that statement is that it implies a lack of agency about it, like our brains are just hard-wired to consider others. I think that’s probably still true of me and our generation, but I don’t think it’s, like, fate.”
I’m familiar with what he’s talking about. It feels like a light but constant tinnitus; you’re aware that it’s there, but you also figure out ways to tune it out and just kind of get on with your life. I know, for example, that being a “race writer” comes with assumptions about the true literary value of your work, which then makes you want to write about anything else, which then raises those recurring questions about who is steering the ship. All that is exhausting and counterproductive. Better to just be Amy Tan and accept the country and your role in it for what they are. Today I write almost entirely about race and identity, although not exactly by choice. My job — even what you’re reading now — is part of my career of explaining Asian-Americans to white people. It’s fine. But even if it weren’t, what am I going to do about it?
When the trailer for “Minari” appeared online this past fall, I texted the link to a Korean friend. She said she wasn’t sure she could watch the film because those two minutes seemed almost too accurate, too close to some memories she had left interred. When I went online to read others’ reactions, I saw similar responses, not only from Asian-Americans but also from Latino and Black immigrants as well. I understood where they were coming from. The trailer suggested an intimacy that made me deeply uncomfortable. Yeun plays a struggling young father who reminded me of a version of my own father that I had shelved away. What was life like for him as a young immigrant with two children? I witnessed his frustrations, of course, but I can only see them today through an inoculating hindsight that tells me that while our situation might have presented us with difficulties, our struggles matter less than other struggles. This might be a sensible tack for me to take — I speak perfect English and live comfortably — but it has wiped away the memories of my father when we arrived stateside. What was he thinking?
At its core, “Minari” is a straightforward and exceedingly honest movie about a Korean-American immigrant family that moves from Los Angeles to Arkansas. Jacob Yi, the patriarch played by Yeun, grows tired of his work as a chicken sexer, a job that mostly entails taking baskets of newborn chicks and sorting them by gender. He wants to start a big farm that will supply produce to the thousands of Koreans who are immigrating to the United States. Jacob’s wife, Monica, played by Yeri Han, has reservations about her husband’s ambitions, but she goes along as he sows, irrigates and plows a cursed plot of land.
Yeun’s character is a departure from any of his previous roles. But Yeun also sees it as the culminating point in his career to date. If he never had to hone his Korean for “Burning,” for example, he might not have been able to passably play a native Korean speaker struggling with his English. It also presented Yeun with an opportunity to reflect on his own father.
“My dad had a tough time, I think.” Yeun said. “As the patriarch, I’m sure he had to go out and touch the world a little bit more, which made him very distrusting of people. As a Korean man, it had to be hard to come from a collectivist country that, you know, predicates your worth on who you are and what position you hold, to a place that also has those types of hierarchies but you just don’t know what they are.”
Yeun continued: “He got really frustrated. He couldn’t trust the system to acknowledge him. I remember we were at a Murray’s auto shop, and he tried to return a hose that didn’t work for his car. And they wouldn’t let him return it.” The people at the store told him they didn’t sell that product, and Yeun’s father was sure they were lying. “And he couldn’t speak the language so well. So, he made a huge scene, instead, and threw the hose on the ground. And then I just remember as a kid being like, Well, my dad freaked out in this Murray’s auto shop.”
Jacob Yi spends much of “Minari” in a state of quiet rage. He doesn’t understand why his crops aren’t growing; he doesn’t understand why Monica wants to move back to Los Angeles or why she might want to be around more Korean people. He doesn’t understand why his family doesn’t fully and enthusiastically support his farm dreams.
“Minari” premiered at Sundance and took home the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and an audience award. Yeun’s father sat next to him during the screening, which unnerved Yeun. “There’s such a rift between generations because of the communication barrier, and because of a cultural barrier,” he said. But with this film, what he and the director were trying to tell their parents was: “I’m a father. And now I understand what you had to go through.”
Yeun began to tear up as he told this to me. “Every time I talk about it, I’m just, like, crying about it, you know? Because I think my dad felt seen.” And, Yeun added, his father “was able to communicate that back to me through a look.” They started to close the gap. “That took 36 years to bridge.”
“We, the second generation, are pretty indoctrinated,” Yeun told me. “The American gaze is also part of us, where we remember our parents, and collectively talk about our parents in the ways that we saw them from our vantage point.” He went on: “Most families are stymied from ever even touching those deep emotional things together.”
“Minari” is loosely autobiographical, as most quiet immigrant films are. The director, Lee Isaac Chung, grew up in Arkansas, where his parents worked as chicken sexers. But Chung wanted to avoid projecting the child’s gaze onto his parents. While the film stars a young boy named David, played by Alan Kim and presumably modeled on Chung, his film mostly seems unconcerned with his childhood perspective and how he feels about his place in the rural South. This was intentional. “I felt like I needed to get it away from the memoir and autobiography space,” Chung told me. “I didn’t want to bring attention to myself in the directing. I didn’t want to work out my daddy issues in the script.” Jacob and Monica, Chung said, are just familiar movie characters, not embodiments of how he feels about Asian-American identity. We don’t get an impassioned speech from Jacob about race and dignity and shared humanity.
I don’t think it’s possible to get to this unvarnished, honest place without first untangling everything that might make you lie about your parents. “Minari,” in other words, is not what I call dignity porn, the type of story that takes the life of a seemingly oppressed person, excavates all the differences compared with the dominant culture and then seeks to hold these up in a soft, humanizing light. Look, the dignity porno will say: Kimchi isn’t weird. Ergo, we are as human as you. “I didn’t want it to feel like a story that makes us feel bad for Jacob or impressed with his life,” Chung said. “I was aware of what the expectations for a film like this might be, and my only hope was to subvert them a bit.”
Chung continued: “Explaining myself to white people isn’t something I want to do.” He wanted to make something that would show his daughter their family’s American roots. “Something that got at spiritual matters and what it means to be a human being. What it means to be a man. What it feels like to be a failure.”
Most dignity porn centers on some racist episode that shatters the lives of the protagonists. Chung’s movie does include white people and some scenes of racial discomfort, but he does not vilify anyone, nor does he try to make some statement about how racism or xenophobia or any other form of oppression weigh down the lives of these striving people. The white boy who stares at David in church ultimately becomes his friend. There’s no scene of redemption or mutual understanding — in the worst of the quiet immigrant films, these reckonings come when the white person realizes that he does, in fact, see the other as human — only the inevitability of two boys in proximity eventually growing to like each other. And Chung’s light touch in these scenes, without the tears or hysterics, resembles the way so many new immigrants experience racism. Often, you might not even know it’s happening. And even if you do, you lack the time and the context to turn it into a crying matter.
While watching the film, I was reminded of watching “The Simpsons” with my father as he gamely tried to follow the show’s thicket of references. “I don’t understand the humor,” he told me once with great disappointment. “I haven’t seen these movies they’re talking about.”
This was how my parents experienced so many aspects of American life. They mostly couldn’t pick up on what their children might call “microaggressions” or any of the veiled comments and exclusions. They generally kept the faith — rightfully, I believe — that a majority of the people who asked questions about where they were from, or what they ate, or told them about a great Korean-barbecue restaurant they had visited, were acting out of curiosity, even kindness. This, of course, did not mean our lives were free from prejudice, but rather that part of the immigrant optimism about the new country comes out of a deep unfamiliarity with the subtle ways people let it be known that the immigrants’ dreams aren’t particularly welcome. We children are aware of all this, of course, because we are American.
Why is it so hard for us to see them without first laundering them through our own need for identity, belonging and progress? My parents arrived in Oregon in 1979, bought a used Dodge Dart Swinger and immediately began hiking around the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. I see this period in the soft, sun-glazed light of the old Japanese camera they lugged around. Every summit vista, every shot of the lodge at Yellowstone, every poorly composed photo of the apartment where I would spend the first two years of my life looks as if it were bathed in honey. These images float, pleasantly, and suggest a happier time before I show up as a fat-cheeked, almost formless baby. “Minari,” which is set in the 1980s, is shot in a similar light, with the same American cars and the same lack of comprehension: We don’t know exactly why we are here, but here we are. But while my fantasies about my parents at my age are rooted in a need to see them as happy and ambitious, Chung’s film, as animated through Yeun’s acting, shows them for who they were. Perhaps that’s the only way out — to paint the picture of our parents before our memories of ourselves arrive; to show them as strangers to us, before the context settled in. And if we can strip them down and see them without the weight of identity and its spiraling neuroses, perhaps we can also see a better version of ourselves.