I told Yeun that I was impressed with what he said about how being Asian-American meant that you thought of everyone else all the time, but no one ever thought of you. But maybe his children can grow up without this debilitating awareness?
“I don’t want to eliminate all of these questions for her,” said Yeun. “But I hope they are more unlocked than me and less traumatized. But for me it is [expletive] The nature of this statement is that it implies a lack of agency, just like our brains are hardwired to accommodate others. I think that probably still applies to me and our generation, but I don’t think it’s a fate. “
I know what he’s talking about. It feels like mild but constant tinnitus; You are aware that it is there, but you are also figuring out how to turn it off and just get on with your life. For example, I know that being a “racing writer” comes with assumptions about the true literary value of your work that lead you to write about everything else, which then raises the recurring questions of who is steering the ship. All of this is exhausting and counterproductive. It’s better to just be Amy Tan and accept the country and your role in it for what it is. Today I write almost exclusively about race and identity, if not exactly by choice. My job, including what you are reading right now, is part of my career teaching Asian Americans to Asian Americans. It’s good. But even if not, what should I do about it?
If the trailer For “Minari” appeared online last fall, I wrote the link to a Korean friend. She said she wasn’t sure she could see the movie because those two minutes seemed almost too precise, too close to some of the memories she buried. When I went online to read the reactions of others, I saw similar reactions, not just from Asian Americans, but also from Latin American and black immigrants. I understood where they came from. The trailer hinted at 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 put aside. How was life for him as a young immigrant with two children? Of course I saw his frustrations, but I can only see it in retrospect today, which tells me that while our situation has caused us difficulties, our struggles are less important than other struggles. This may be a reasonable walk to me – I speak perfect English and live comfortably – but it erased my father’s memories when we arrived in the US. What did he think?
At its core, “Minari” is a straightforward and extremely honest film about a Korean-American immigrant family moving from Los Angeles to Arkansas. Jacob Yi, the patriarch played by Yeun, gets tired of his job as a chicken sex babe, a job that is mostly about taking baskets of newborn chicks and sorting them by gender. He wants to start a large farm that will provide products to thousands of Koreans immigrating to the United States. Jacob’s wife, Monica, played by Yeri Han, has reservations about her husband’s ambitions, but she goes with him when he sows, irrigates, and plows a cursed piece of land.
Yeun’s character is a departure from one of his earlier roles. Yeun sees this as the highlight of his career so far. For example, if he never had to improve his Korean for Burning, he might not have been able to pass a native Korean speaker who is struggling with his English. It also gave Yeun an opportunity to reflect on his own father.
“My father had a hard time, I think.” Yeun said. “As a patriarch, I was sure that he needed to touch the world a little more, which made him very suspicious of people. As a Korean, it had to be difficult to get from a collectivist country, which you know your worth depends on who you are and what position you are in, to a place where there are hierarchies, but you do just don’t know what they are. “