My family owns a small Mexican bakery and restaurant and has run the place since 2008. It was a consolation after scrambling from the recession, a way to build back up—home lost, business bought. Growing up there I met a lot of strangers over the years, some of whom became good family friends. But there was one pair who my family bonded with, an elderly couple from Indiana. For privacy, I’ll change their surname but maintain its Irish quality that they were so proud of—they were the Coneellys.
The Coneelly’s were very Catholic, very kind and very old. At first we were merely cordial, but as they became older they were physically unable to drive and thus unable to come by the bakery. They lived in a trailer park about a block away from the restaurant, and my mother took the initiative and decided we as a family would look after them. My typical childhood Sunday would be walking over a container full of coffee and take-away plates of chicken enchiladas with my sister to the Coneellys’ trailer. We’d say grace before they ate, watch old Disney classics on VHS and talk about how the bakery was doing.
“Minari” (2019) deals with the Yi family, a Korean immigrant family who’ve moved from California to rural Arkansas. Set in 1983, the film dramatizes this melding of cultures and the necessary adjustments to a new space and culture. But in the meeting of Korea and Midwestern America, what director Lee Isaac Chung portrays isn’t racial conflict. It’s ignorance
There’s a scene where the Yi family attend an all-white church for the first time and afterwards are greeted by members of the congregation. It’s the kind of scene that makes you brace for the worst, and it makes me cringe so much. Monica (Han Ye-ri), the mother, is called “cute.” Anne (Noel Kate Cho) is approached by a young girl who proceeds to make sounds that register as stereotypically East Asian. David (Alan Kim) is asked by a white boy why his face is “so flat.” These comments all come from a gross source, one full of orientalism and racism that can be found across portrayals of East Asians across American film history.
But the women who call Monica cute tell her they’ll help teach her to learn English. The young girl eventually stumbles upon ‘imo’, which Anne translates as ‘aunt’ in Korean. The young girl is genuinely excited to have discovered this new word. The boy who asks David about his face ends up inviting him to a sleepover. Chung makes it clear that this Midwestern congregation is ignorant of Korean culture, but it’s not filled with hate. These two unfamiliar cultures are willing to engage with one another and coexist.
The attention the bakery required meant my family became more distanced from the Mexican community around us. We couldn’t make the weekend carne asada and fiestas, and the invitations stopped coming. The Coneellys became a part of our Mexican rituals, and they were happy to learn in their old age. On Dia de Reyes we’d cut the Rosca de Reyes, a loaf with dried fruits and sugar crust, and look for the baby Jesus that would mean a day of tamale making. For Dia de los Muertos, we’d bring them sugar skulls and show them pictures of our ofrenda—an altar decorated with marigold petals, candles, plates of food and photographs of those who’ve passed as a way to remember and reach them in the afterlife. Now that they too have passed, alongside my grandfather who is buried in my parent’s pueblo in Oaxaca, Mexico, are the Coneellys, my pseudo-grandparents buried in Indiana.
Minari is a movie about planting roots and growing. For as much as the movie is about this cultural meeting, comparing Korean and American culture, I’ve neglected the larger discussion in the film on what it means to be Korean and Korean-American. The Yi family struggles with an estrangement from their culture, isolated geographically because of what they want. They want to farm Korean crops on American soil. Chung recognizes that inner turmoil, the search for a clean label that helps define who one is. Labels aren’t useful because they’ll never be clear enough. What is useful is curiosity, the willingness to share and to listen, especially if its source is one of ignorance. It’s never too late to discover something outside of yourself.
Minari is currently available on Polarflix.