Zihao Lin

When I reached out to Lee Isaac Chung to request an interview, he tentatively agreed, then gently asked if I’d gotten the chance to see “Minari” from all the way in Taiwan, where I’m taking my COVID-19 gap year. I sheepishly told him that I’d planned to watch it before our interview but I had not. 

Watch it first and figure out if you want to interview haha,” came the email response. “You might hate it!”

When the buzz about “Minari” began to permeate my social circles a couple of months before, I was cautiously optimistic. Friends from my campus Christian group said I had to watch this film. “It’s about an Asian American immigrant family in Arkansas,” they pitched. “I bet it’ll really resonate … because you know … you’re from Arkansas.” 

When you are Asian American in a place where there aren’t many Asian Americans, people expect you to be an expert on all things Asian. Marie Kondo? Happy for her but skeptical of her methods. What are the best Asian restaurants in town? Depends what you mean by Asian restaurant. How do you pronounce the name of this Japanese animé character? I don’t know. So I always experience a special mix of excitement and dread when I hear a new Asian American movie is coming out. Deep down, I am always rooting for stories like “Minari” to be good and do well, but still, I delayed watching it. It felt like I had to love “Minari,” just like I was expected to love “The Joy Luck Club” or “The Farewell.” I just want to watch the movie and form an opinion based on the story and the characters, not because the writer and I share a similar genetic pool. No one expects white people to like movies just because they happen to have other white people in them.

Besides, the writer-director Lee Isaac Chung is Korean, not Taiwanese, and Arkansas is a big state. When Asian Arkansans say they’re from Arkansas, they usually mean they’re from near the state capital, Little Rock, where the Asians actually live. “Minari” was set in rural Arkansas, and the movie was about farming. I didn’t grow up on a farm. What if I wasn’t “Arkansas-y” enough to identify with the film? Besides being Asian and from the same state, what would Chung and I have in common anyway?

As it turns out, a lot. Chung and I both grew up in Northwest Arkansas, where we both attended two church services per week: one at our respective Asian churches and another at the local First Baptist Churches, which were predominately white. We did debate in high school, and during the summer of our junior years, we both attended Arkansas Governor’s School. For college, we both attended Yale with plans to attend professional school afterward. I was pre-law; he was pre-med. We struggled academically first year, took some Chinese and joined Yale Students for Christ. Then, we both abandoned our pre-professional tracks because of a class we took to fill a distributional requirement. For him, it was “Video as Art” taught by Michael Roemer, professor adjunct of film. For me, it was “The Education Beat” taught by Jane Karr.  

With all of these similarities, I knew I wanted to profile Chung even before I watched “Minari.” Even if I didn’t like the film, I could resonate with his story because it reminded me so much of my own. Combined with his many interview appearances in which he explicitly says he was not trying to make something to represent his identity, this gave me hope that “Minari” wouldn’t try to explain the entire Asian American experience in 116 minutes. But I felt that our email exchange gave me special permission to watch “Minari” with no racial strings attached. I could hate it if I wanted to. 

***

“Minari” is the story of the Yi family, a Korean American family of four, who move from California to Arkansas with aspirations to plant a 50-acre Korean produce farm. Set in the 1980s, the film explores tensions within the family unit as they integrate into their new community. The father, Jacob, played by Steven Yeun, and the mother, Monica, played by Han Ye-ri, argue over their conflicting visions of what’s best for their family. When Monica’s mother Soon-ja, played by Yuh-jung Youn, comes from Korea to help, cultural clashes abound between her and 7-year-old David, played by Alan Kim, the character who is based on Chung.

As Chung has mentioned in past interviews, the film is semi autobiographical. While Chung did grow up on a farm in rural Arkansas in the 1980s sharing a bedroom with his grandmother, he took creative liberties with the plot and tried to create characters who are “alive and on their own.” 

He intended it to be “independent from anything that’s actually happened in real life.” So it’s not about his family and their move to Arkansas — it’s about a fictional family that might remind you of the Chungs, if you knew them. 

I watched “Minari” expecting to see some familiar landscapes, but I didn’t expect the film to call to mind small yet vivid parts of my childhood that I’d never thought to discuss with anyone. Watching the film felt like hearing a secret I didn’t know I was keeping be told to the world. In “Minari,” two scenes refer to my hometown, Rogers, Arkansas, as a big city where the Asians actually live. I audibly gasped when I heard Monica mention Rogers. It was the first time I had heard my hometown mentioned on screen. 

Watching “Minari” felt personal to me in a way that no other film had. It was more than just geographical. When I was around David’s age, I had to drink Eastern medicine too and I hated it. I might have poured it out once or twice just like he did in the movie. In another scene, the pirated VHS tapes of Korean dramas stacked in the corner reminded me of my own set of pirated Chinese movies my aunt brought me when my sister was born. I was in high school before I realized that the Barbie movies I had watched for years were originally in English.

These are small details. They don’t further the plot, and most reviewers don’t mention them. But they’re important to me. I decided to go into journalism because I wanted to write the kind of stories I didn’t get to read growing up: stories about Asian Americans who felt authentic, nuanced and human. Watching “Minari,” I felt like I was already seeing one of those stories. More than that, “Minari” depicted Arkansas in a way that I’ve been struggling to articulate in my own writing — it’s not just Asian Americans who lack nuanced portrayals in pop culture. People from the South, particularly white Christians, often live as caricatures in the minds of those who are not from there — especially at Yale.

***

I don’t want to overstate the similarities between Chung and me, though. The Arkansas I grew up in differs radically from the Arkansas Chung remembers, and the Yale I’ve come to know has shifted dramatically since Chung left. For example, his residential college, then Calhoun, is now Grace Hopper. Chung grew up in Lincoln, Arkansas. Population: 2,444. In comparison, Rogers, with a population of 66,344, seems like a thriving metropolis. The rolling fields of grass and the creek in the forest from “Minari” were familiar to me because I’d seen similar scenes while hiking on long weekends, not because they were part of my backyard. And socially, people have changed too.

“When I was in high school, anytime I went out, there was like a 50-50 chance I would hear something that’s kind of racist,” Chung said. “It wasn’t always like a pernicious evil sort of racism, sometimes it’s just like that playful sort of thing, microaggressions or whatever, or just people being inquisitive and curious and wanting to tell you they had eaten Chinese food or something.”

These comments were not as pervasive in the Arkansas I grew up in. I’ve never been approached by strangers who wanted to talk to me about race. Actually, I’m pretty sure most people would prefer never to discuss race at all. But among Arkansas acquaintances, I do field the same sorts of questions Chung did. They’re not trying to hurt my feelings; it’s mostly borne out of ignorance. It’s not unlike the way people ask me about Arkansas while I’m at Yale.

In Chung’s other interviews about “Minari,” people ask him about Arkansas, college and his creative process, but I’ve noticed that he usually doesn’t bring up Yale specifically. No, he doesn’t pull the “small liberal arts college in Connecticut” misdirect some of us might attempt when socially convenient, but he doesn’t typically mention it unless specifically asked. So I do specifically ask. He chuckles to himself.

“I’m not trying to hide it,” he said. “It hasn’t felt as relevant to the experience of whatever I was trying to work through.” Chung feels as though his life after college, including the places he’s lived after school, his friends and the news he follows have been heavily influenced by his time at Yale. “So when I’m recalling back to the film and everything, I’m almost hearkening back to what came before that.”

I think about my “before” a lot. Before Yale, before I realized I could go into journalism, before I could decide to write a profile about a world-famous director and just happen to know someone who could put us in touch. I wondered about Chung’s “before” too. Obviously, there is “Minari.” The story was the result of Chung writing out a list of 80 memories from his childhood, but memory is tricky. How do the people from his “before” remember him?

Chung’s older sister, Leisle Chung, went to Yale three years before him and inspired him to apply. They not only grew up together but also overlapped for a year in college. 

“You talk to Isaac now and he’s all serious — that was not him,” she said. When asked to describe Chung, she pointed to David from the film. The character “is a mischievous and funny jokester, and Isaac was like that.” She remembers Chung as a kid who couldn’t stay in his seat during class, a mastermind of practical jokes, and someone who’d run around the hallways in high school. A far cry from the “very mature, thoughtful … man” who I’d met over Zoom the week before.

***

Going to Yale, Chung, like me, had to move between school and Arkansas which seemed worlds away from each other. During my first year, I always looked forward to going from Yale to Arkansas and back, but everytime I left one for the other, I spent a couple days feeling uncomfortable. It wasn’t until a teaching fellow suggested to me that I was experiencing culture shock that I understood why traveling from Arkansas to Yale felt like leaving the country.

In some ways, Chung’s culture shock was even more pronounced than mine. About a quarter of Chung’s high school graduating class attended college, so starting at Yale, where many students attended private schools with rigorous SAT prep and plentiful resources, was jarring. 

He entered Yale intending to major in ethics, politics and economics, or EP&E. After getting “terrible grades” his first year, he realized that graduating with a good GPA would be difficult, so he turned to what he thought of as the easier option: the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major on the pre-med track. I told him that that didn’t sound easier.

“All the bio majors will be really angry that I said that,” he quipped, then elaborated. “In high school I did so much in ecology, just because I grew up in the woods.” His science fair projects were all in environmental studies, so with all the research he’d done, he felt like he already “knew the lingo.”

In case my evolutionary biology professor is reading this, I grew up woods-adjacent — that’s why biology wasn’t easy for me.

***

During his senior year, Chung decided he wasn’t going to be a doctor after all. He took “Video as Art” with Roemer and fell in love with the process of making films through weekly assignments. Before that class, he had filmed “joke videos” with his friends in Arkansas, projects which were created with no editing software. He also made announcement videos for Yale Students for Christ and pitched the group on the email circulation system dubbed “Ebody,” which we still use to this day. But taking the class with Roemer allowed him to bring his skills to the next level. He was doing film as art and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

But first, he had to tell his parents. It was winter break 2000, and his sister planned a trip to Disney World for their family: Chung, his parents, Leisle and her husband. Chung broke the news to them in the hotel near the beginning of the trip.

“It ruined the whole trip for me,” Chung said. “The whole trip was them trying to convince me that I need to, you know, stop being a fool and wasting my life.” He remembers being lectured every day while he was just trying to enjoy the Disney rides. But the Chungs all remember the trip differently. 

“My dad’s memory is that Isaac told him, and he was very supportive,” Leisle said, laughing. “That’s not how I remember it.” She remembers many conversations which basically boiled down to “you can do whatever you want in life; just go to medical school first.” Regardless of the details, she says, many of the rides at Disney World are designed to be ridden in pairs, and Chung spent the trip sitting alone, waving from the back.

Chung has come a long way since then. He has made five films and been nominated for various awards, even before his most recent successes with “Minari.” But his parents weren’t truly sold on his filmmaking dream until they saw “Minari.” 

“Three years ago, my mom was asking me if it’s not too late for me to go to dental school,” Chung said. “I think they were surprised when they saw ‘Minari’ that maybe I had still been steadily working on the craft.”

This doubt didn’t stem from an ambition to have a doctor in the family though, but rather, a deep weariness and care for Chung. “They’ve suffered a lot, and so they want their kids to have established, safe careers where they don’t have to struggle,” Leisle explains.

Talking to Chung about his transition into film reminded me of my own conversations with my parents about pursuing writing. I was scared — still am sometimes — and a selfish part of me wanted Chung to tell me how to get over that.

“I think I should have been more scared than I actually was,” he said. “I was just kind of optimistic that somehow, if I love it enough, then it’s going to work out.”

In college, he committed to pursuing film with the same intensity and discipline he would have given medical school or a career as a doctor. But making films is hard. In fact, he intended for “Minari” to be his last film before moving to a more stable career as a film professor at the University of Utah in Incheon.

***

Much is written about immigrants assimilating into American culture, but not as much attention is paid to the cultural differences one experiences when moving within America—like the ones Chung experienced when he came to Yale. “In the South, you say hi to everybody,” he said. He chuckled as he recalled the time he stopped to chat with a person experiencing homelessness on the streets of New Haven, and his roommate from New York remarked after, “Yeah …we don’t do that.”

While Chung was at Yale, he tried to distance himself from his Arkansas identity. “People would make fun of me when I said certain words,” he said. He used to pronounce “pull” like “pool” but spent considerable time trying to iron out his vocal quirks to fit in with his peers.

“People think of you as kind of dumb sometimes too because —” We do the equivalent of making eye contact on Zoom. It’s as if he realizes that whatever he’s saying also applies to me and quickly corrects himself. “Well, I don’t know, I’m not you.” We both laugh at this. “There’s a certain naivete that is attributed to a lot of us from the South,” he said. “We’re raised to treat people a certain way.”

It was funny because it was true. I remember the day I consciously decided to stop saying ‘hi’ to strangers as I was coming down the stairs of Welch Hall — people didn’t really say ‘hi’ back and I got a lot of weird looks. Maybe there are just more students from Arkansas now, or maybe the admissions office’s diversity efforts have promoted some “Y’all College pride,” but I didn’t feel the same pressure to distance myself from Arkansas. Instead, I felt obligated to defend it.

I was halfway through my first year before I realized that “I grew up in Arkansas” wasn’t just shorthand for “my experience is very different from yours because there were barely other Asians where I lived” to most people. That’s how I meant it, but when I said things like that, I think other people took it as shorthand for “I grew up oppressed by terrible racists in the middle of nowhere,” which wasn’t my intention at all. Even now, I’m hesitant to include Chung’s quote about racism in Arkansas, because I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.

Many of my friends from high school are doing well at local universities and community colleges. They’ve joined sororities, they do research, and they will become doctors someday. A good number of people I graduated with aren’t in college — they either didn’t go or stopped going for a myriad of reasons. Some people are married with kids. And sure, maybe a couple of them have said things to me about my race that I would rather not repeat, but I don’t know how to tell you that that’s the way it goes sometimes without inspiring a barrage of emails explaining that I’m not supposed to be okay with it. And I don’t know how to say that it did bother me at times, without confirming your worst assumptions. I asked Chung about this.

“It’s hard to explain Yale to Arkansas friends,”  he said. “And then with Yale friends, you don’t want to explain Arkansas too much because they don’t…get it. They think it’s a joke, but it’s not a joke.” So there were things he just chose not to try to explain. “You feel like your friends would judge them” — your Arkansas friends —  “and you feel like they don’t deserve that judgment.”

These complexities are what Chung was trying to get at with “Minari”. He didn’t set out to write something that represented Asian American immigrants or a Christian movie or a political statement. Whether they’re farmers, Asian Americans, religious, or all three, people are complicated.

“I just wanted to tell a story about people and about human beings,” Chung explained, “They’re not archetypes for any issue or even an archetype for identity.”

There’s a certain set of expectations that comes with making a film about Asian Americans though. Especially in light of hate crimes and shootings in Atlanta, controversy about “Minari” categorization at the Golden Globes as a Foreign Film, and discourse about the “bamboo ceiling” resurfacing around the Oscars, I knew I had to ask him about it, but I didn’t really want to.

I didn’t want to put pressure on him to speak for all Asian Americans or to have answers for deeply embedded social justice problems. I’m also aware that the set up to this profile where I, an Asian American writer from Arkansas, am put in dialogue with an older, more successful Asian American writer from Arkansas who went to the same college, potentially lends itself to a different set of expectations. I run the risk of writing the very kind of story we’re both trying to avoid. 

“It’s such a hard thing to talk about, and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around everything,” Chung said. “I also worry about speaking into this moment with this film with too much presumption.” He’d like us to focus on the “human-ness of the people” involved, saying, “I think what’s happening is that there is a dehumanization, and people are being reduced strictly to identity in a very pernicious way.”

“I wish I could have a voice for this to say what really ought to be done, and I don’t have a sense for that.” Chung continued.  “I’m only telling stories here, and I hope there will be more stories that come out to try to connect us, and try to show all of us as human.”

So that’s what I’ve tried to write too.

SERENA PUANG