By Jonathan Chan
I have been thinking about the notion of the diaspora recently. Perhaps in some respects of its usefulness and its misapplication – to speak of the diaspora is to envision cataclysmic events that drove people from their homes, the gravitational tug of the promise of a better life elsewhere. While the diaspora once referred primarily to Jewish exiles from Israel, I also think of its aptness in describing the African populations kidnapped, enslaved, and brought across the Atlantic in the 17th and 18th centuries, or the Chinese who were drawn to flee from China amidst famine and civil war in the 19th century, or the Korean diaspora fleeing the devastation of conflict and destruction in the 20th century.
Thought of in this respect, the conceptual parameters of the "diaspora" seem constituted, irreversibly, by a consciousness of trauma and loss. Yet, as literary critic Philip Holden notes in his essay 'Interrogating Diaspora: Wang Gungwu's Pulse' from the journal, ARIEL (Vol. 33, 2002), "from the middle of the 1990s, diaspora has been increasingly divorced from the description of a single community: diasporic consciousness is, it seems, something shared in an increasingly transnational world." Diaspora provides a non-essentialist means of talking about ethnicity and cultural community, one defined not by a core identity but a boundary.
That my experiences fall within such a particular subset of what can be claimed to be the "diaspora", having been born in the United States to Malaysian and South Korean parents and raised in Singapore, has often meant that the overwhelming force of identification with situations in art was muted. The marginality I experienced growing up in Singapore, with foreign parents and a foreign passport, always felt like it teetered at the verge of insignificance, destined to experience representative scarcity.
And yet, a recent slate of films and television shows I've watched have accorded to me the very legitimacy that comes from the shock of representation. The contemporary impetus towards more nuanced storytelling about Asian and Asian diasporic populations has offered a new visual and filmic vocabulary that speaks more precisely to some of my experiences growing up: the sensation of learning to say goodbye to family members before taking flights, the relative banality of well-intentioned misunderstanding, the thickness of familial and platonic intimacy.
Perhaps one of the first sites in recent memory of that jolt from seeing elements of my life reflected onscreen has been Lulu Wang's The Farewell (2019). Its focus – an extended family based across borders with a single matriarch in their country of origin – felt like a pale mirror of my own family, scattered across continents with my Halmoni (Korean for grandmother) residing in Seoul. Even if the ethics of Wang's direction and writing felt misguided, particularly with her own Nai Nai finding out the film was adapted from a secret they'd withheld from her, the depiction of Billi's shuttling between Beijing and New York reminded me of similar disorientations I experienced growing up.
Having been raised in Singapore with one grandmother in Houston and the other in Seoul, the interactions that sought to make up for long stretches apart felt viscerally familiar: comments on body parts, the eagerness to feed grandchildren. The film's animating ruse – the organising of Billi's cousin's wedding as an excuse for their family to see their matriarch before her expected death – perhaps did not coalesce with my family's experiences. Yet, in its final scene, I found the image of Billi's Nai Nai, framed by the rear window of a departing taxi, eerily reminiscent of my own moments saying goodbye to my Mah Mah or Halmoni, aged figure slowly fading from view, uncertain as to the permanence of our farewell. The particularity that accompanied The Farewell's moments of leaving and going made it feel like a line had been threaded through the film into my own life, especially as I watched the film while a university student in England, far from the countries I'd known as home.
The feeling that came with watching Lee Isaac Chung's Minari (2020), meanwhile, threw out another line to my life growing up in Singapore, susceptible to a marginality so minor that it felt like it didn't warrant serious consideration. The fraying of the tumultuous circumstances informing a sense of diaspora as traumatic dispersion, and its new interrelation with the mobility galvanised by the contingencies of late capitalism, underpin my difficulty in claiming to be part of the Chinese or Korean diaspora. That sense of an ancestral point of departure and its ramifications on my conception of self seems disingenuous: my ancestors left China in the 1860s for Malaya because of unstable conditions, but theirs is not a pain that has transmitted to my generation; my Korean grandparents moved to Hong Kong in the 1970s partially to flee the prospect of political persecution, but also because of the promise of economic opportunity.
My parents, meanwhile, have lived unencumbered by the profound push to migrate that comes from material deprivation. That I am the composite of a series of cultural lineages attests more to the decisiveness of globalisation than the immediate legacies of conflict, even if the dividing line of the mid-20th century demarcates the generational divide between those of Asian descent who experienced war and those who did not. My parents' arrival in Singapore is hardly similar to that of Jacob and Monica Yi in their move from California to Arkansas in Minari, perhaps beyond a shared pursuit of economic betterment. That I grew up half Chinese and half Korean in Singapore hardly made me stand out in the way that their kids Anne and David do in their farming town in the South. Yet, the Edenic yearning to find and make a home, filtered through the tender brush of the film's light design, reverberated with me.
The film eschews the kind of spectacle that American films are so prone to establishing regarding racial discrimination. The Yi family, conspicuously foreign in their looks and language to their white neighbours, are susceptible to the itinerance of offhand comments that veer on the edge of microaggression. There are passing mentions of flat faces, diminutive cuteness, and the swallowed uncertainty towards difference. As Jay Caspian Kang describes in 'The Many Lives of Steven Yeun', published 3 February 2021 in The New York Times Magazine,
The recognisable imprint of daily friction is evident to those who have lived through it: the politeness that masks all manner of ignorance towards how to speak to someone new. It is the kind of low-level tension that I have felt growing up, always tentative in inhabiting a place as an outsider: being asked where I'm from, receiving puzzled looks whenever I opened my mouth on account of my decidedly not Singaporean accent.
The relative safety of the Yi family's trailer walls, in turn, provided a cipher for the domestic realms I have known – those which safeguard the anxieties that surround assimilation and provide no need for constant explanation. Even as Jacob toils the fields, Monica sexes the chickens, and David bickers with a Halmoni who makes no attempt to conform to American archetypes of grandmotherhood, I thought of uncles and aunts, cousins and friends, like Jacob and Monica, for whom the concealed, simmering rage of unfulfilled ambition and psychological pressure were daily companions. The memory of living in America persists for my family in Singapore and Seoul, even as those old brushes with constant diminution are fading from view. It is in the imperfection, the approximation of representation that I have continued to search for stories that might offer light on the lives I have never lived, on the places and periods my family knew across the world.
If part of Steven Yeun's task in Minari was to inhabit Jacob in a way that did not capitulate to the white, American gaze, by contrast, the brazen self-assurance of programming developed outside of that economy of desire should theoretically present an entirely different conception of self-presentation. It was partially in that spirit that I sought out Reply 1988 (2016), hopeful that I would absorb a sense of that pivotal year in modern Korean history, the moment at which Seoul could make its reintroduction to the world, confidently emerging from the detritus of military conflict. It just so happened that the series' events are contemporaneous with those of Minari – two visions of Korean lives amidst completely different societal inscriptions.
The five families of Reply 1988's Ssangmun-dong neighbourhood represent an array of configurations: nuclear families, single parents, young children, old children, widowers and widows. The crux of these families' affection is the friendships that persist in the subgroups within them: the gang of five teenagers Deok-Sun, Sun-woo, Jung-hwan, Dong-ryong and Taek who have grown up alongside one another, their mothers who trade jibes as they snap the tails off bean sprouts, their fathers who gather every so often to drink and snack.
The daily minutiae of familial relations – bickering, irritation, exasperation, laughter, worry – are the cornerstones of the drama. Kids across families show up unannounced for meals, couriering dishes prepared by their own parents, and neighbourhood figures are quick to take on babysitting duties. It is no wonder that Reply 1988 won such devotion from its fans – every Korean viewer could find a character that resembled a family member or friend. I saw such flickers of familiarity in the reticent Jung-hwan, the obedient Sun-woo, the zealous Bora, the goofy Deok-Sun.
Yet, that Reply 1988's effects and afterlives should continue to be so resonant and affecting was something I was unprepared for. The gang gets together for a new film from Hollywood or Hong Kong, ramyeon simmering in a bronze pot, legs warmed by a communal blanket, always in the same room that serves as the axis of their adolescent lives. That so much of Reply 1988 features friends and families watching TV, in its own strange way, felt like a fitting reminder of how I grew up: dinners eaten watching television, the post-lunch lurch of cable TV in Houston, the background noise of films played during Christmas lunch in Seoul. The show's soundtrack, composed almost entirely of covers of 80s and 90s songs from Korea by contemporary singers, foregrounds the feeling of interpolation between past and present, a constructed nostalgia intensified when each family eventually moves out of the neighbourhood.
Watching Reply 1988, I thought I'd expect a depiction of relative existential seamlessness, bereft of the diasporic anxiety that has accompanied depictions of immigration elsewhere. Yet, the show's portrayal of the inverse pressure of globalisation, whether in the race to learn English or seek out new music from abroad, made me think of the destabilisations accompanying many an Asian country through the spasms of breakneck economic development. Matthew Trammell writes (in 'The Power of Pop Culture in "Reply 1988"', The New Yorker, 29 May 2016) that Reply 1988 captures "the curiosity and energy of a young generation at a turning point, newly empowered by its sharper view of a world beyond its shores". The swift encroachment of film, music and fashion from the US, so often the consequence of liberalising international trade, is perhaps what induces that inchoate yearning for elsewhere. It is just as well, however, that none of the main characters of Reply 1988 leaves South Korea, never crossing the threshold to becoming a gyopo (a term used to describe Koreans who live overseas in another country than Korea), a point of rupture from which I saw my life diverge.
The arrival of Parasite three years later in 2019, now a symbol of South Korean cinema's ascension on the global stage, presented its own configurations of representation that felt just as striking, even if not in ways I was wholly at ease with. Like Reply 1988, Parasite is almost painfully Korean in its specificity, the substance of its storytelling rooted in domestic experiences of Seoul. The film's Kim family lives in a half-basement, just like Deok-Sun's in Reply 1988, the anxiety for English tutoring sets the film's actions in motion, and the indignity that bedevils Ki-taek and Choong-sook is expressed in specific turns of phrase, particularly the sense of their having a damp stench. It was in the Park family where I felt an eerie sense of recognition: a big home, domestic workers, lavish birthday parties, busy errands, the casual, unthinking condescension that can go unchecked.
Perhaps where Parasite fits into this tapestry of films featuring subjects of Asian descent lies precisely in its contribution to broader matrices of representation. The crawling sensation of familiarity that the film builds is the sort that shocks the system into recognising the invisible forces of capitalism that demarcate socioeconomic divides. Sara Merican (in '"Parasite" at the Academy Awards is What the Film Warned Us About', 34th Street, 12 February 2020) has written that "Parasite's very damning proclamation is also its most hopeful proposition: if the inequalities of society take place at such proximity, in such a compression of space, then help cannot, and should not, feel so far." That so many audiences have found themselves drawn into and implicated in the film's moral complexities pays heed to the stretched social fabrics they find themselves in – a world system of profit-maximisation that the pandemic has illuminated ever more starkly.
The truism that might seem most fitting in describing the feeling of being represented may come from literary critic Viet Thanh Nguyen, who has written persuasively about the need for narrative plenitude. As he writes in 'Asian-Americans Need More Movies, Even Mediocre Ones', The New York Times, 21 August 2018:
The necessary corrective is therefore the achievement of narrative plenitude, an abundance of stories, ranging from mediocre to stellar, that capture the humanity of particular groups of people. That there is such a scarcity of stories not only leads to the ossification of misconceptions, but also of people feeling that part of their own experience is unworthy of artistic validation.
However, it would also be remiss to state that anyone anywhere has ever found in art a full illumination of the tensions of their lives. We are all wont to forage for stories that grip and speak to us every instance, whether big or small, we may ever face. That there are now more that lean into the nuances of the lives of Asian subjects, wherever they may be, is hugely important, particularly as mass distribution channels enable more and more people to experience the same shock of representation that I have felt.
The critical lexicon of finding a home is built and sustained through a panoply of stories, articulations of a growing seamlessness between what is felt inwardly and what is experienced outwardly. Philip Holden (in 'Interrogating Diaspora') notes that no return, diaspora has taught us, can be on the terms of the initial departure: there is always a reiteration, a slippage, a new shadow of meaning. Within the space that the idea of diaspora accords for dealing with such contradictions, it remains that the coterminous experience between self and art, to have felt represented in a film or a show, is to receive a sense of pleasurable calm, the reminder that it remains possible to feel fully known.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 1 Jan 2022