Here’s what I know about my dad’s journey to the United States: When he was six he traveled from Hong Kong to San Francisco on a boat before taking a train to New York City, where he and my grandparents settled into a cramped apartment with a bleak view of the Long Island Expressway in Queens.
All the other details are MIA, such as what it was like to go from speaking Cantonese to English, or how he became a naturalized citizen, or what it was like to grow up as a Chinese kid in Flushing in the 1960s. He’s not one to get nostalgic, and all the badgering in the world won’t pry it out of him. (I’ve tried.)
So when I watched Minari, now in theaters and streaming in A24’s screening room, I felt I got a little glimpse of what it might have been like for him and my nainai and yehyeh when they got to New York City. The film follows a family originally from South Korea—Jacob, his wife, Monica, and their children, David and Anne—as they pursue their American dream by starting a farm in Arkansas (technically it’s Jacob’s dream), viewed largely through David’s eyes.
We see all the challenges of the immigrant experience, but what puts a spark in the plot is the arrival of Monica’s mother, Soonja. David is meeting her for the very first time, and he soon calls her out for not being a “real” grandma—she doesn’t bake cookies, she swears, she wears men’s underwear.
It’s a spot-on depiction of the disconnect between first-gen and second-gen immigrants, or those who immigrated and those born in the new country. My nainai never touched cookie dough in her life; she cooks wontons and only wontons, and collects lightly used napkins from the dinner table to hand out at the next meal. She once ordered frog legs at dim sum and danced them across the table. I, who grew up in upstate New York with an Italian-American grandma on my mom’s side, grew up keenly aware that this isn’t your typical American grandma stuff.