Planting new roots: Minari and Korean identity

Identity

Image description: A red bricked barn surrounded by trees.

There is a scene in Lee Isaac Chung’s film Minari (2020) that features a brief conversation between a father and a son outside of a chicken factory. Both speaking in Korean: pointing to a chimney belching black smoke, the son asks, ‘What’s that?’, and the father answers ‘Male chicks are discarded there’.

The disparity between them is revealed when an English word breaks the flow of Korean sounds. ‘What’s pye-gi?’ Not yet fluent in his mother tongue, his father explains to him the word ‘discard’. English words continue to punctuate their sentences: when the father asks in Korean, ‘How do you like our farm?’, the word ‘farm’, as well as his son’s reply, are again in English: ‘It’s good.’ It might have been a scene straight out of my own house.

Being half Korean, born and raised outside of Korea, Korean culture has always been something that permeates parts of my everyday life. But it also remains just out of reach much of the time. Such is the experience of a gyopo, a Korean term used to describe natives who live – or ‘sojourn’ – outside of the ‘home country’. While it also carries negative connotations of leaving behind one’s cultural roots, it is an umbrella term that many in the Korean diaspora use to identify themselves.

There are ways in which my life experiences align with that of people whose parents are both Korean, or who have lived there themselves, but often a sense of disconnect manifests itself in that I don’t know if I’m ever enough. Both Asian and Western culture creep together into things such as my value system, my mannerisms, the places I end up on the internet, and even my sense of humour.

The constant intermingling of different cultures at home has settled into something that looks more like a state of coexistence than of conflict; a sort of give-and-take that by now feels natural. It is hard for me to imagine a reality without this process of almost constant negotiation, of trying to strike a balance in a world that often asks me to pick a side.

In Minari, Chung paints a cinematic portrait of the Yi family, who are first-generation Korean immigrants, as they carve out a new life in rural Arkansas in the 1980s. The American Dream materialises for them in the form of 50 acres of land and a farm where the father, Jacob, cultivates only “Korean vegetables and Korean fruits” while he and his wife Monica make ends meet working as chicken sexers.

While I’ll never know the struggle of trying to assimilate into an all-white evangelical farming community in the American Midwest, I felt inexplicably drawn to David and Anne, the couple’s children. Growing up as the second generation away from the ‘old country’, their cultural affinity with Korea is much more detached than that of their parents.

The most striking character by far is Soonja, the children’s grandmother flown straight in from Korea to keep them company: boisterous, loud, and carefree for her old age, she brings a youthful energy into the family dynamic as they struggle to take root in their new surroundings. However, she alarms the six-year-old David in particular. With her penchant for gambling and watching pro-wrestling, his conclusion is that Soonja “isn’t like a real grandma”. By “real”, he means “American”: his outward disappointment springs from how she does not live up to the image he may already have of a Western grandmother. “Real grandmas bake cookies, don’t swear and don’t wear men’s underwear.” Overwhelmed and irked by the cognitive dissonance arising from his Americanised perspective and its clash with the Koreanness that his grandmother represents, his inability to articulate these feelings culminates in his cry, “Grandma smells like Korea!”. He has never been there before.

While watching David display his infantile disdain, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of secondhand guilt from somewhere inward. How many times have we all, at some point, felt a sense of personal estrangement from – or even an abject disregard for – our own cultural heritage, even though it often forms a part of who we are?

How many times have we all, at some point, felt a sense of personal estrangement from – or even an abject disregard for – our own cultural heritage, even though it often forms a part of who we are?

Having a sense of cultural estrangement towards Korea doesn’t by any means aid their acceptance into white society: when they first enter the local church, the Yi family’s otherness makes them stick out like a sore thumb amongst a sea of ‘all-American’ families. The differences between them inevitably surface in conversation, making for mildly awkward social interactions. The women condescendingly tell a flustered Monica, “You’re just too cute”, as she struggles to greet them in English. Before even introducing himself, a boy asks David, “Why is your face so flat?”. One girl starts speaking in nonsense syllables and imitating supposedly ‘Asian’ sounds to Anne, telling her, “Stop me when I say something in your language”.

Despite this, Chung carefully reveals how the Yis can also scrutinise the American cultural landscape. The rational Jacob scoffs at how the other farmhands unnecessarily prolong the process by looking for water with dowsing sticks: to this he says, “Korean people use their heads”, firm in his belief that his way is the best one.

But Chung does not hold back from expressing the lasting emotional strain, the sense of isolation, and the pain of economic hardship the Yi family struggle through alone. After seeing that Soonja has come to Arkansas armed with gigantic packets of chilli powder and fried anchovies, Monica bursts into tears at this nostalgic reminder of a drawn-out longing for not just the taste of home, but perhaps also the comfort, the security, the foundation it represents.

There is a tender scene where Soonja catches an old Korean song playing on TV, and reminds both Monica and Jacob – exhausted from a day of hard labour and arguing with each other about the farm’s precarious position – that they “used to love this song” in olden days. As their children ask their grandmother if this is true, she quietly mutters to them a sobering reality of uprootedness, that cross-cultural sacrifice extends even to simple joys: “They come to America and forget everything”. The diasporic experience does, in many ways, entail a continuous process of forgetting: the discarding of certain priorities, values, expectations, and the replacement of these with others – whether one likes it or not.

The diasporic experience does, in many ways, entail a continuous process of forgetting: the discarding of certain priorities, values, expectations, and the replacement of these with others – whether one likes it or not.

But the quieter, more enduring force running alongside this intergenerational pain is a process of remembering. The eponymous minari plant, brought by Soonja from Korea and transplanted into Arkansas soil, slowly covers the patch of land it has been left on and continues to grow. The pain of uprootedness is something that stitches itself harshly through every part of the Yis’ lives, but more importantly, they reclaim this, and both literally and figuratively plant new roots. As they sleep on the floor together – slipping into an authentically Korean household tradition in their American mobile home – we can see that they are united as they battle through the reality of gyopo identity, and cling to the things that matter.

Ultimately, Minari is a story about roots. It tells you that going through the formative stages of your life in a place that isn’t your ‘native home’ doesn’t have to mean that your identity is shaped around rootlessness. Just like the roots of the minari plant, your own cultural roots can still belong to you on foreign soil: you can reclaim them, recultivate them, replant them, watching as something new takes shape.

Photo by Frances Gunn on Unsplash

 

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