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April 30, 2021

‘Minari’ Tells a Story of What It Means to Participate in America

‘Minari’ is part of a wave of 2nd-generation storytelling about what it means to participate in America.

by Natalie Jesionka
‘Minari’ Tells a Story of What It Means to Participate in America

At the 93rd Academy Awards on April 25, Yuh-Jung Youn became the first Korean woman and the second Asian woman since 1957 to win an Oscar for best supporting actress for her work in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari.

Minari tells Chung’s semi-autobiographical story of growing up as the child of a Korean immigrant farmer and the family’s 1980s Arkansas dream. It is one of the best films about immigrant experience.

Culture writer David Sims wrote the film has a “brilliant specificity” that has “volumes to say about the wonders and frustrations of building an independent existence in America” and challenges more stereotypical “cliches of immigrant parents and their American-born children.”

While many are celebrating Chung’s film making success, his path was not always lauded. In an interview with University of Utah Magazine, he said when he told his parents he wanted to make art films instead of be a doctor this provided “ample chance for a father and mother to try to convince their son, ever so gently, that he was making a big mistake.”

Chung’s story may resonate with some accounts of children of immigrants who pursue creative careers as storytellers in the face of different parental or family expectations. Yet, as sociologist Jennifer Lee notes, there is no “one-size-fits-all” set of American immigrant parental or family expectations and how these are internalized by the next generation.

Today, beyond Chung, second-generation American storytellers are being candid about the challenges and benefits of pursuing their creative work, in the face of family hopes or fears, or a wider societal resistance to hearing marginalized narratives. They are relaying stories about identity, ambition and personal history in new ways.

Also read: Letter from America: A Nation of Fears

First-generation Expectations

Sanjena Sathian, raised in Georgia by South Indian immigrant parents, is the author of Gold Diggers. Sathian’s debut novel tells a story about ambition through the eyes of an Indian American teenager, using magical realism woven together with themes of identity and community. The book will soon be turned into a Netflix series produced by Mindy Kaling.

“My parents were never explicitly, like, ‘Be a doctor.’ They never said, ‘Be a lawyer,’ or ‘Be an engineer.’ But there was this implicit fear I could see in them every time I mentioned I wanted to write,” says Sathian.

Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian. (Penguin Random House)

“As I wrote Gold Diggers, I started to get more empathetic about why some forms of ambition are treated as more legitimate than others. So much of that has to do with safety,” says Sathian.

Gold Diggers highlights the story of Indian American teenagers striving for success and grappling with mediocrity. The main characters, Neil and Anita, begin drinking an alchemic lemonade made with gold to keep pace with the ambitions of their peers and their community.

“I was handed stories about the immigrant experience and lonely nostalgic immigrants who missed the homeland,” says Sathian. “The things I desperately need to see are people like me participating in America. I wanted to write a very American novel.”

Also read: Crazy Rich Asians and the Gulf Between Asians and Asian-Americans

Seeking Autonomy

For Dennis Tseng, global culture program manager for Google staffing, the path to a creative career involved pursuing a passion, and then circling back. “I was incredibly lucky to have … ‘follow-your-dream’ parents,” says Tseng, whose immigrant parents are from Guangzhou, China. “Dad was from a long line of poets, and mom always encouraged me to do what made me happiest.”

Tseng went to the NYU Tisch School of the Arts to pursue theatre and acting. He found himself trying to get cast in a theatre industry that was not telling stories about Asian American experiences.

He founded his own theater company, Thirsty Turtle Productions, in 2004 and as executive director produced 10 full-length productions over five years. The company was geared towards blurring the line between fantasy and reality and lifting up the voices of those less heard.

Dennis Tseng in costume at a talent show when he was an MBA student at Yale Business school. (Dennis Tseng), Author provided

Tseng’s favorite production was of an Appalachian folktale titled Dark of the Moon, which employed giant puppets almost two and a half meters tall, and a curtain that opened onto 42nd Street, where passersby could stare into the stage.

“We never told a story explicitly centered on the immigrant experience,” says Tseng.

“We thought it was enough to ensure that our casts were multiracial, and that full discussions of marginalized identity were probably too far from the mainstream audience’s taste to be successful.”

Tseng says he was lucky to have a family that supported his artistic pursuits, but ultimately the difficulties with telling the stories he wanted and the limited opportunities to be cast led him to think about how he wanted to transform arts, culture and entertainment industries. He went to Yale Business School to pursue an MBA.

Tseng says, as a child of immigrants, he experienced additional immigrant guilt—a kind of “reverse guilt”—when he went to business school.

“I felt a little bit like I was betraying my parents’ dream.”

He says if he could, he’d love to go back in time with his theatre company and tell stories about Asian Americans and marginalized identities that gain support and draw audiences. In his current work, he focuses on organizational design and cultural transformation.

Interconnected Stories

Performance artist and playwright Susan Lieu, whose parents came to the United States as refugees from Vietnam, pursued telling a painful family story although initially her family did not want to talk about it and only wanted to move on.

Lieu’s one-woman show 140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother is about her mother Hà Thúy Phường’s death during plastic surgery.

Lieu started investigating what happened and went through legal documents to track down the plastic surgeon. She took the show on a nationwide tour, and now is writing a memoir about her experience as a child of immigrant.

“When I was working towards the premiere of 140 LBS, it was totally personal and for me. I wanted to prove to myself I wasn’t a coward because performance had been a deep calling and for so many years I hid from myself because I was terrified I would fail,” says Lieu.

Lieu says when she started thinking about having kids, she knew she had to confront her pain so that she wouldn’t perpetuate a “cycle of intergenerational trauma.”

“After the world premiere, I realized this wasn’t just about grieving my mother, but creating a space for others to heal too,” says Lieu.

She says the show doesn’t end with total resolve between family members but, “it does show my own growth of developing compassion for how each of my family members coped with grief. With my own family, it hasn’t been easy, but there has been progress for all of us in our own ways.”

“With the obvious void of my mother, I leave the audience asking what conversations they need to have with their loved ones, living or dead, for their own healing.”

“I use vulnerability as a method to dismantle the normalized shame we live with so we can transform past pain into power. The audience can feel the truth of this and this allows them to start seeing their family in new ways outside the default narratives we collectively and begrudgingly perpetuate.”

This article was first published on The Conversation, a global media resource that provides cutting edge ideas and people who know what they are talking about.

Natalie Jesionka is Dalla Lana Global Journalism Fellow, University of Toronto.