“Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you,” the actor Steven Yeun told Jay Caspian Kang in a February New York Times interview. This simple statement captures what has historically been our unusual position in American society: still in flux, still discomforting for the mainstream, still vividly invisible. Yet over the past year, we’ve become achingly visible, as racism against Asians has metastasized into violence. Our elders have been beaten in the streets; our faces have been spat on; our homes and businesses have been vandalized.
These recent horrors paradoxically come at a time when we are seeing a new kind of visibility for Asians in America. The entertainment industry, for decades a painful void of representation—where the only Asians were either nerdy or exotic, or else white people in yellowface—has made dramatic advances despite the toxic political climate. Last year, the South Korean movie Parasite won Best Picture at the Oscars. Awkwafina won a Golden Globe for her brilliant performance in The Farewell. The year before, Crazy Rich Asians became the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the past decade, paving the way for Always Be My Maybe, Never Have I Ever, and the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy. Now there are even trashy reality shows with Asian stars, like Bling Empire and House of Ho.
And at this year’s Oscars, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari and Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland are competing for Best Picture—though not without controversy. At the Golden Globes earlier this year, Minari—about a Korean-American immigrant family that mirrors the director’s own—won Best Foreign Language Film, despite being set completely in Arkansas. Meanwhile, Nomadland won both Best Motion Picture Drama and Best Director for Chloe Zhao, who holds Chinese citizenship.
It seems the nomination categories themselves are confused, unable to categorize the subtleties of these cross-cultural, international explorations of identity, even when they still center on and artfully explore the core features of Americanness itself. The controversy isn’t new: The Farewell was directed by Chinese-American Lulu Wang and based on her own experience of staying with family in China, but it was nominated for multiple Best Foreign Language Film awards. Parasite won the Best Picture Oscar despite being an actual South Korean film set in South Korea—perhaps because it nailed the global zeitgeist of capitalist anxiety. Nomadland looks on track for the same, with its Beijing-born and Anglo-American–educated director setting the film in the working-class, largely white world of the American West.
These controversies speak to the confusion, the inherent “otherness” that Asian-Americans face in a particularly pointed way. Partly it is because of the extreme distance between Asia and America (bridged so easily with that hyphen!), and the implied chasm between East and West. Partly it is because our immigration to the United States happened in waves, with fits and starts and families broken by exclusion acts and internment camps. Newer arrivals, rich and poor, co-exist alongside the descendants of Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian laborers who arrived in the 19th century.
At times I have felt, as an Asian-American born and raised in America, that my own life has floated in a limbo state. I’m reminded of one particularly sad interlude in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where the monster quietly observes the members of a family from afar, grows to love their humanity and their hopes and dreams, thinks and feels like them. But when he finally ventures out to meet them, the encounter is disastrous. The family flees in terror. Belonging will remain just a longing, never a reality for him. For us.
But an inside-outside perspective can carry its own acute wisdom, even in the midst of its loneliness. I find some intriguing similarities between Minari and Nomadland, two films from two different auteurs coming out in the same movie season, hitting complementary facets of the American experience.
The Yi family in Minari takes a large gamble, moving from California to the deep South to try its hand at farming. The project on some level seems inherently doomed, much like Roanoke or Jamestown. The father hopes to carve out a new marketing niche selling produce to other Asian immigrants, despite being far away from any of the more established communities like the one the Yis left behind. But he hopes to succeed the way many white pioneers in the New World did. The family struggles onwards together, despite the growing generational differences. The more Americanized children co-exist with Grandma, whose arrival initially brings the tenderness of the Old World but soon reveals its burdens as well.
The American pioneer appears in another, contemporary form in Nomadland. Fern, played with empathy and skill by Frances McDormand, is recently widowed and forced to leave a long-time union job in a shuttered factory town. She stubbornly insists on a peripatetic but self-sustaining existence, driving from menial temp job to temp job and living in trailer parks throughout the western states, too ashamed even to borrow money from a wealthier sister when her RV breaks down. Instead, Fern meets and confides in various fellow nomads who roam like she does, living off the land in an uncanny echo of the original Native Americans forced off the same expanses. The film becomes a matter-of-fact, unsentimental survey of a hardscrabble existence, rooted in an individualist dignity but at the cost of basic security or comfort.
Both films are survival stories, of people trying to eke out a living in an unforgiving land that nonetheless offers freedom and opportunity. For Asian-American immigrants, that story is often fraught with contradiction and confusion. We come from what sometimes feels like one loving but suffocating collectivist family into an indifferent and individualistic New World. For immigrants to America, individualism is the path to success, but one that is still tied to devotion to the smaller family unit, its patterns and rhythms an echo of the old world left behind (see the Godfather trilogy).
In Minari, the Yi family, despite some internal conflicts, remains a single unit. The children are too young to develop more awareness of the tangled path ahead, the torn loyalties between their family and mainstream, largely white American society. They innocently joke about Grandma smelling “like Korea” and befriend other white kids at church despite the casual racial taunts thrown at them. (I myself recall a similar brief period of perhaps false innocence. My first memories are from ages three to four in small-town West Virginia, where I received dolls from an elderly white spinster neighbor whom we called “American Grandma,” sang “Away in a Manger” at the Christian nursery school, and apparently picked up a temporarily strong Appalachian accent, before my parents moved us to the suburbs of Washington, D.C.) Minari seems to only focus on the seeds of what is to come for this family, similar to the new crops the father sows, in the hope that the movie’s namesake greens—a kind of cress that grows prolifically in watery terrain—will thrive on the Arkansas riverbanks.
In a way, Nomadland picks up another end of the metaphor—the barren fields of the American dream, populated by working-class white drifters promised manifest destiny. The once-glorified conventions of Western cowboy individualism are stripped down to their present-day form. Chloe Zhao is herself is an international nomad of sorts, born to a wealthy family in communist China and sent off to British and American boarding schools before attending film school at NYU. Perhaps her own peripatetic path informed her ability to astutely capture a land that she didn’t entirely grow up in but can still observe with the keen eye of the in-betweener, the wanderer between worlds.
Maybe Asian-Americans are both blessed and doomed to become these types of cross-cultural nomads, caught between worlds, between more established Black and white or Latino and white American racial conflicts, between family collectivism and individualism. We stumble around, neither here nor there, invisible yet all-knowing, feeling chronically displaced or culturally nomadic or perpetually foreign, depending on the moment.
Towards the end of Nomadland, Fern visits the abandoned ruins of her hometown, where any sense of community or security has dried up like the rivers that once flowed through the canyons of the Badlands. Only the bones—rocks, empty storefronts—stick up in the bleak landscape. The old dreams may have dried up, but the stories we have to tell are sprouting on the banks of the river: universally human, and uniquely our own.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.