Hi, I'm Jay Caspian, Kang, writer at large for the New York Times Magazine. Here's my article, The Many Lives of Steven Young.
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 in the kitchen, God's wife, were on everyone's bookshelves. I, of course, hated Amy Tan because I consider myself a hard edged thinker. Her books, which are mostly about industrious, dignified immigrants, embody the type of minstrelsy in which the Asian-American writer gives the white audience bits of tossed off Oriental wisdom. Isn't he merely the result of wounded love or a few parables about golden black tigers or what have you?
If I had been asked back then what I plan to write about, I might have gestured towards the Betamax or cutting down trees in the woods or heroine 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 MFA program, I would walk to the bookstore and wander among the fiction shelves, wondering where my novel would fit. This is embarrassing and vain, and although I would certainly both those things, a stage managed my reverie with some measure of self-aware detachment, performing at being a broke unpublished author, fantasizing about a bright future in a similar spirit.
I would look around for Asian authors who are not Amy Tan. There are also Maxine Hong Kingston and Chang Riley, but I saw a few others I knew I 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 and publishing in my American ambition, which is feeding me some version of a snicker at just do it. There's never much of a contest the world would yield to me.
I was twenty three and typing out a novel about a young Korean man who had a brother with Down's Syndrome whom he cast in various public service announcements about tolerance, there are parts that were supposed to be a direct parody of Life Goes on the ABC drama that starred Chris Berg as Corky Thatcher. I thought this was very edgy and funny, but I also mix in occasional ruminations about Korean ness 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 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 90 second Street Y.
I took this professor's class because I wanted to write difficult literary fiction. I also consider myself a tough student who could handle criticism. But this particular comment, class 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 Chiangrai Lee, Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan.
If this bizarre book I had written could be regarded only as a, quote, immigrant narrative. Would I ever be anything other than a race writer did have any control over how the world would see me in my work. I felt humiliated, of course, but he raised some issues that I spent the last 20 years thinking about, what exactly is a typical immigrant story, and it's a 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, quote, 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'm 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 a 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, Stephen Young has a beautiful face. His laptop camera points slightly up towards his chin, which accents his sharp cheekbones and delicate nose. My face, by comparison, looks like a russet potato with Iceland scooped out with a spoon by a visual code.
Most Koreans now Yun's pale skin and delicate features 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 is early December, and we were supposed to talk about Yun's latest starring role in Menary, a film written and directed by Lee as a child about a Korean immigrant family that takes up farming in rural Arkansas.
Young lives in Los Angeles, and the county had just issued a blanket stay at home after we talked about the usual things, his early moves from Seoul to Saskatchewan to suburban Michigan, his parents, who are shopkeepers in Detroit, his American childhood, which is 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 Young had been deep in it, especially for this particular role, one of his concerns with the Korean accent he had put on for the film. I'll be honest with you, John said, I'm still justifying the action in my own head, I'm sure I'm going to get a lot of people giving me about it saying that's not what Dad said 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 and adjust the accent and it felt fraudulent. And I'm OK with it because this is 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 or 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? Where 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 repression 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, Yan said.
And so we talk to that. To start, there's a whole set up 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 John. What do you mean?
He replied earnestly. There's a practice Common John's voice when he speaks, but underlying it as a manicured, 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's a screenwriter 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 and 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 now 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, Jen said, or at least it'll be therapeutic in some way, our talks, I admit, were therapeutic, at least for me. John and I are both immigrants born in Seoul and then raised in mostly white neighborhoods. But young 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. Young'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've got to show you this photo from back then, Young told me at the start of one of our talks.
It's a kindergarten class picture from the roof and Buck's school in Regina Yun. 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 lined up shoulder to shoulder. Yan 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 Young's family relocated to Taylor, Michigan, where an uncle had opened a clothing store.
They 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 off shore 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 up 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 young 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 me and said so. They think those are the first English words I learned because I was hearing it at school all the time.
He remembers being a happy kid in Korea who wandered around shopping centres and stole away from home to play video games in a nearby arcade. The family put me on this pedestal and 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 come into the middle of nowhere and being pulled, kicking and screaming into kindergarten. I've looked at this photo so many times and 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 try a Detroit suburb when John was in fifth grade, his parents opened a beauty supply store for black customers in the city, enjoying one of the several Korean churches in the area. That's where he 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, Young 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, quote, build up into this constant anger.
In Detroit at the time, there are 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 grew 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, Yun said they weren't weighted down with all that same self-consciousness.
They even walked differently. Those are the divisions in his life, quiet and unassuming, Stephen 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, Young didn't overthink these divisions. He existed in both spaces at once. My perception of race is pretty stunted, Young 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 and what at the time was a high crime area in downtown Detroit.
But his parents said little about their experience today, knows all about the history of the Korean middle man 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 supply chains. Then they get a loan from a 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 learn shame for the exploitation they determined took place. Most likely they will feel both at the same time. After graduating from Kalamazoo College, where he performed in an improv group, Young, hedging his bets when he expressed interest in acting, his extended family and friends would suggest he'd consider moving to Korea following the path of dozens of philippos, 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 cat when the teaching job didn't come through. Young moved to Chicago to make the rounds on the comedy improv circuits for a few years. He moved to Los Angeles when he was twenty five to church. Friends from Michigan had rented out a condo in Koreatown and moved in with them and set out on the audition circuit five months after arriving in Hollywood. He tried out for the role of Flannery 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 a shock. He got the job. The success of The Walking Dead catapulted Youn 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 Towhead, an Asian man dating a white woman on the most popular show on TV with see not only as a marker of progress, but also a permission slip for white women to maybe start dating more of us. John 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 again, said, referring to the typical rejections in emasculation 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, Glenorie and by extension, Yune was touted as a great Asian hope, the Jeremy Lin of dating white women on TV. I still get emails from Asian days to this day, Yun 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 artwork, films like Punching House, Twenty Seventeen Boots, Riley, sorry to bother you.
Twenty eighteen and most notably Lijiang Dung's burning twenty eighteen. It seemed as if John was on a different track than other established actors like John Cho, Daniel Day, Kim, Margaret Cho or Sandra. Oh, they were all identifiably Asian-American. Their roles require the acknowledgement that people who look like them might also be heading to White Castle or working in a Seattle hospital. John, by contrast, felt as if he came out of some new models 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 and 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. You 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 twenty seventeen, Jan flew to Korea to film Burning, a psychological thriller about a young, struggling writer named Lee Jones, who falls in love with Shin Hammie, a woman from the same rural village at the start of the film Hemi, as a youngster to look after her cat before she travels to Africa. When she returns, she's accompanied by Young's character, a shifty playboy named Ben Leech, hanged on 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 then, despite his Americanized name is not a KPO, he is a full blooded Korean sociopath. I think Lee Chungdam thought my body will do one type of acting while my words did another type of acting and 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, Janet always spoke in 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 Yun 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. So he certainly wouldn't have been the first to do this. Korean dramas, movies and K Pop have their fair share of goalposts, but his time in Seoul convinced him that America was his home early during his stay there, he saw director friends childhood photo on Instagram.
He was dressed in a karate costume and wore a shirt emblazoned with a Japanese rising sun flag, which in Korea is comparable to the Confederate flag in the United States. Impulsively, unlike the photo, which set off a maelstrom of outrage, in the end, he was forced to issue an apology. This is unpleasant, but Yun 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 to I know all the same things as Koreans who grew up in Korea now because I don't live there and because I'm not indoctrinated by that society.
Young paused. I told them 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 nineteen seventy nine would never accept me, my daughter or my wife. Young 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 couples in their midst.
But we also agreed that we, the couples, would always be questioning what people were thinking. I told you on 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 that questioning for them unsaid, but I hope they'll be more unlocked than me and less traumatized.
But for me, the nature of that statement is that 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 is 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, quote, 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? Because of covid-19, Internet traffic is spiked, but Comcast is prepared, they've created a powerful network with one simple purpose to keep customers connected.
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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 suggests that an intimacy that made me deeply uncomfortable. Young 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 is wiped away the memories of my father. When we arrived stateside. What was he thinking? At its core, minority is a straightforward and exceedingly honest movie about a Korean American immigrant family that moves from Los Angeles to Arkansas.
You know, Jacob Yade, the patriarch played by Chris, tired of his work as a chicken sexer, a job that mostly entails taking baskets of newborn checks and sorting them by gender.
I see daddy like that new farm girl things good doing things right. Yes. He wants to start a big farm that will supply produce to thousands of Koreans who are immigrating to the United States. Jacob's wife, Monica, played by Jerry Hahn, has reservations about her husband's ambitions. But she goes along as he sews, irrigates and plows a plot of land he owns. Character is a departure from any of his previous roles, but Yan also sees it as a culminating point in his career.
To date, if he never had to hone his Korean for burning, he might not have been able to passively play a native Korean speaker struggling with his English. It also presented John with an opportunity to reflect on his own father. My dad had a tough time, I think, Young said, as the patriarch. I'm sure he had to go out and touch the world a little bit more, which made a very distrusting of people. As a Korean man, it had to be hard to come from a collective, this country that 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.
John continued, he got really frustrated he couldn't trust the system to acknowledge him. I remember we were at a Murry'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 to people at the store, told him they didn't sell that product. And John'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 Murry's auto shop. Jacob spends much of minority in a state of quiet rage, he doesn't understand why his crops are 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.
Minardi premiered at Sundance and to come the US dramatic grand jury prize and an audience award. Yan's father sat next to him during the screening, which unnerved Young. There's such a rift between generations because of the communication barrier and because of a cultural barrier, he said. But with his 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. The UN began to tear up as you 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 done added his father was able to communicate that back to me through a lot. They started to close the gap that took thirty six years to bridge. We, the second generation, are pretty indoctrinated. Young 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.
Those families are stymied from ever even touching those deep emotional things together. NRA is loosely autobiographical, as most quiet immigrant films are. The director, Lee Isaacs, 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. 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, an 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 minority.
In other words, is not what I called dignity porn, the type of story that takes the life of the 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 at the dignity. Porno will say Kimche 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 and said I was aware of what the expectations for a film like this might be, 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 that 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 chuggers movie does include white people in 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 weighed down the lives of these striving people. The white boy he stares at, David in church, ultimately becomes his friend. There's no sign of redemption or mutual understanding in the worst of the quiet immigrant films. These recordings 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 Chang's light, touching the 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 like the time in the context to turn it into a crying matter. Well, 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 are talking about. This is how my parents experience so many aspects of American life.
They mostly couldn't pick up on what their children might call microaggression or any of the veiled comments and exclusions they generally kept the faith rightfully. I believe that a majority of the people who ask questions about where they're from or what they were told them about a great Korean barbecue restaurant they have visited, reracking out of curiosity, even kindness. This, of course, did not mean our lives are free from prejudice, but rather the 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 this, of course, because we are American.
Why is it so hard for us to see them without first slandering them through our own need for identity, belonging and progress? My parents arrived in Oregon in nineteen seventy nine by the U.S. Dodge Dart Swinger and immediately began hiking around the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. I see this period in the soft sangla as light as the old Japanese camera. They logged here at every summit, this every shot of the lodge at Yellowstone, every poorly composed photo of the apartment where I 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. Ben-Ari, which is set in the 1980s, is shot in a similar light at the same American cars in 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, Chungs film as animated through acting, chosen for who they were, perhaps that's the only way out to paint a picture of our parents before our memories of ourselves arrive, to show them as strangers to us before the contest settled in.
And if we can strip them down and see them without the weight of identity and its spiraling neuroses, perhaps you can also see a better version of ourselves.
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