I finished Everything I Never Told You a few weeks ago and, though I was excited to finally read it, I ended up being – spoiler alert – not thrilled with it. I then watched Minari a few weeks later and loved it, and realized that the reasons that I loved the latter contrasted nicely with the reasons that I didn’t love the former, and that everything tied back to my own experience with being Asian-American.
Read on for more – and this is your warning for lots of spoilers for both the book and the movie below!
I started reading Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng several weeks ago. Very early on, it became clear that the story would be centered around one character’s mysterious death and the mourning process of those who were around her. I wondered if I should keep going because I had just lost a family member around the same time and was working through my own process of mourning. Though I did decide to keep reading, my real life circumstances cast a dark shadow over my experience. It took a lot longer than I expected to finish, and as much as I wanted to fully love this book, I just couldn’t – it felt too true to life at the time.
This was not the only case of bad timing that affected my enjoyment of this book. This past year has forced me to re-evaluate and my racial biases and learn a lot about racism, both individual and institutional. It’s been very personally important work, but it’s also been very draining in a lot of different ways, and I’ve also learned that I sometimes need to step away in order to mentally and emotionally reset. This is not inherently a bad thing, and I definitely should have familiarized myself with the book before deciding to jump in.
With this in mind, I was disappointed to find that Asian-American identity, mainly trauma, is another recurring theme throughout this story. Armed with my new and ever-growing interest in race and representation, I was disappointed to realize that the main characters’ Chinese heritage was never portrayed in a redeeming light or in any more than a superficial way. Instead, it was always presented as something negative and a cause for alienation. For example, all the school-aged characters are teased in school for looking different from everyone else. The family patriarch has found that the best way to fit into society is to pretend like he is not Asian at all, and lives a stereotypically American life, disavowing his heritage and not passing any of it to his children other than their looks. If I remember correctly, the only Chinese food that appears in the story are bao, which only appear as an odd symbol to rationalize one character’s irrational behavior. By the end, I didn’t feel like I learned anything about the Asian American experience in the mid-20th century besides… it sucked. And while that may be true, at the end of the day, it did not make for a fun read.
(Again, this is not to say the book is bad! I especially though that the characters, though I felt no personal connection to them, were complicated in a very lifelike way, and I did feel like I knew them well by the end. My harshest judgements for books are often in the believability of the characters, and this book passed that test with flying colors, at least for the central family. I sincerely think I just read it at a bad time in my life!)
I also watched Minari this week and, in contrast, really enjoyed it! As I was writing about Everything I Never Told You above, I realized that one of the reasons that I really liked Minari is that it is a story about an Asian American family where racial trauma is not the center of their lives. The family’s race is a definite undercurrent in all of their interactions, both with each other and with their white neighbors, but it is never portrayed as the sole reason for their issues, and, notably, their Asianness is never portrayed completely negatively.
Looking back, my favorite part of this movie was how accurately it portrayed a family that is simultaneously Asian and American. The father’s dream to start a farm in Arkansas to grow Korean vegetables felt like the perfect analogy for this journey. The switching between languages, the decor in their home, having grandma come to visit from Korea with Korean goods in her luggage, drinking Mountain Dew alongside their samgyupsal dinner, even how grandma would watch both tapes of Korean television shows and American wrestling – these all additionally felt like very realistic portrayals of a family of immigrants. Neither side is portrayed as more important than the other, or that they are ever at odds with one another or need to be compromised. Similarly, neither is portrayed as an afterthought, and both cultures play an important role in moving the family forward. In my opinion, the movie does a great job of balancing the virtues and difficulties from both cultures and the growing pains that come with that balancing act.
Additionally, most of the characters break the molds that I typically see in movies about the Asian American experience, which was a welcome change of pace. For example, most of the white characters are not portrayed as stereotypical bigots (I completely expected Paul to go on a negative tirade about Koreans after mentioning the war, but instead he takes out some Korean money that he held on to and nicely offers it to David), and the other Korean characters are not portrayed as automatically good or having the exact same values as the main family (the grocery store owner who reneges his offer and the lowkey shady co-worker at the chicken factory come to mind).
I watched a discussion of the movie afterwards that referred to family as the main driver of the plot, not the character’s ethnicity, and I thought that was a great summary. Yes, because both parents were from Korea, traditional Korean values played a role in their family dynamics, but it never felt like there was a point where they had to completely assimilate into American culture in order to solve all of their issues. Instead, their issues were universal ones – how will we provide for our family? how will we raise our children? what sacrifices will we have to make? what if we can’t agree on the answers to these questions? – that I assume resonate with people from all different cultural backgrounds.
I think the reason this mostly-neutral portrayal of an Asian American was so important to me because it reminded me of my own upbringing. While I didn’t grow up on a farm in Arkansas, it feels similar because I never felt like being Filipino was the sole cause for drama or difficulty in my life, and I felt like this was the first work of Asian American art that reflected that experience.
I was privileged to grow up in a very diverse place and was never ostracized specifically for being Asian, or Filipino in particular, because I had a lot of classmates from all different backgrounds, but especially other Filipinos. It never felt like any cultural misunderstandings were specific to me or my family, and I generally felt like my classmates were willing to learn from each other overall. Additionally, because there were a lot of other Filipinos around, I felt like I learned a lot about my Filipino heritage and learned to embrace it equally alongside my American identity and with my friends who were doing the same. (To be clear, my upbringing was not devoid of bullying or drama – is anyone’s? – but instead, anything that I went through never felt racially charged. It was all about my looks and personality and boys! Ha ha!)
This has often felt like a direct contrast to the experiences that many of the friends that I met later in life have expressed, where they felt like they had to hide their Asian identity in order to fit in. I have never wanted to reject their experiences, but it had also felt ingenuine to me to say that I experienced the same. Additionally, I could never relate with the stereotypical stories, like in Everything I Never Told You, about not being able to fit in with American society because of my ethnicity. Instead, many of my childhood difficulties came from more universally understood sources – parents fighting, mean classmates, etc.
While being Filipino is definitely part of my identity, it is not the single defining piece of my personality. I want to see people who look like me and were raised similar to me struggling with things other than specifically being Asian once in a while, you know?
While Everything I Never Told You treated being Asian as a thing that causes shame and anguish for a family, Minari instead treated it in a way that I found more relatable, like one piece of a larger puzzle. In my experience, while it still comes with difficulties, being Asian American is and was a thing to be celebrated and shared with others. I am hoping that there will be more works like Minari in the future that display the rich heritage of being both Asian and American without entirely grounding that story in suffering – because those stories exist!