Photo by David Bornfriend, Courtesy of A24

‘Minari’ Reminds Us of Asian American Roots

The film by Lee Isaac Chung restores an overlooked part of Asian American history. It begs the question: Why do so few stories portray Asian Americans as caretakers of the land?

WORDS BY ALEXIS CHEUNG

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When we think of Asian American stories, certain settings come to mind: a laundromat brimming with folded clothes, a restaurant bustling with steaming dishes, an urban enclave buzzing with immigrants as in any Chinatown. Rarely do we imagine Asians in green pastures or open fields, especially in the American heartland—but the film Minari changes all that.

 

Though many American films—think Crazy Rich Asians and The Joy Luck Club—place Asian Americans within an urban context, the community has a rich history on the land. In fact, the earliest Asian immigrants in the U.S. came as agricultural workers. Minari restores that important and overlooked part of Asian American history and how the promise of the American dream was first connected to the earth. The film is one of the first in the canon to celebrate that.

 

“Stereotypically, [Asian American narratives] are often these sweeping intergenerational epics that start in the old country and then move to like a Chinatown or some sort of zone of proven assimilation, and then, generationally, the struggles play out from there,” explained Hua Hsu, associate professor of English at Vassar College and staff writer at the New Yorker. “But I think that more reflects the types of stories that people were able to publish more so than the actual history of Asian people in America,” which, he added, has always been tied to filling needs in the labor market.

 

In Minari, the labor market isn’t the drive. The father’s dream is. Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, the Oscar-nominated feature depicts a Korean family led by the headstrong patriarch, Jacob (Steven Yeun), who is determined to start a Korean vegetable farm in Arkansas in the 1980s. He uproots his family from California to try his hand at growing produce that new Korean immigrants might miss in the states.

 

While the surrounding land is lush, Jacob’s farming plot is parched: He struggles to find water, and for 116 minutes, viewers watch Jacob divert water from his trailer home to the farm; witness the marital strife between him and his wife Monica (Yeri Han); and see Monica’s mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), come to America and empathize with her grandchildren as they adapt to their new home. The film’s name comes from the Korean vegetable minari, also known as water drop or water celery, which Soonja brings as seeds and plants along the banks of a nearby stream.

 

Based on Chung’s personal history—his father started a farm in Lincoln, Arkansas—the film is an intergenerational epic on par with John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which Chung cited as a reference along with the writings of Flannery O’Connor. Both are writers known for their depictions of rural lands—Steinbeck in California and O’Connor in the South—which, again, is a departure for most Asian American stories, even if that’s counter to the community’s earliest experiences in America.

 

“Prior to the turn of the 20th century, Chinese immigrants transformed California’s Sacramento River Delta into one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country,” wrote journalist Cathy Erway in a 2019 article on Asian American farmers for Eater. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which halted Chinese immigration, other Asian communities—such as Japanese, Filipino, Sikh, Punjabi, and Korean—arrived to fill the labor shortage and help the agriculture industry flourish along the West Coast and in Hawaii.

 

California’s Alien Land Law of 1913 prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning agricultural land or long-term leases over it, thus discouraging Asian and other groups from settling permanently. The state further tightened the laws in 1920 and 1923 by preventing U.S.-born children of Asian immigrant parents or corporations owned by Asian immigrants from leasing or owning land. (Fifteen other states including Arkansas, Florida, and New Mexico also enacted discriminatory laws restricting Asians’ rights to hold land. Most of these laws remained intact until the 1950s—and some even longer.)

 

By the 1940s, Japanese Americans “were producing a majority of California’s strawberries and a significant share of its popular vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and celery,” Erway reported. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 in 1942 affected the lives of 120,000 people, and many Japanese American families lost their lands and livelihoods during internment.

“Among so many different diasporas, maybe seeds are the only thing that you really pack and take with you.”

Kristyn Leach
Namu Farm

This history begs the question: Why do so many Asian American stories happen in urban areas? Especially when Asian American history has always been tied to agriculture?

 

Despite the backdrop, Minari’s general premise—an immigrant trying to make it in America and succeed on his terms—is typical of most Asian narratives. “It returns us to this kind of old-school, American dream thing that has always been at the center of a lot of Asian American texts, but we’re just not used to seeing it as farming because we’ve been conditioned to forget,” Hsu said.

 

There are a few stories depicting this agrarian reality—but not enough. Filipino poet Carlos Bulosan’s semi-autobiographical novel America Is in the Heart, published in 1946, follows Filipino migrant laborers in California and the Pacific Northwest in the 1930s. Steinbeck’s East of Eden from 1952 features Lee, the Chinese American servant to the Trask family on their sprawling Salinas Valley estate in California. Then, there’s Hawaii-born author Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s 1997 Blu’s Hanging, whose patriarch is a part-time janitor at a supermarket and pineapple picker on a Moloka’i plantation. Finally, we have Minari, which takes this narrative to the big screen.

 

Third-generation Japanese American farmer and author David Mas Masumoto has written 11 books about his life as an organic peach and grape farmer, in part, because, as he said, “I did not grow up in a storytelling household.” His father bought their initial 40-acre land in California’s Central Valley after their forced relocation to Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona from 1942 to 1946. His grandmother was furious about the purchase. “You don’t buy things in America because they take things away from you,” he recalled her saying.

 

Masumoto felt Minari captured overlooked aspects of the immigrant experience, not only from an agricultural standpoint—“it was one area of economy that America didn’t worry about: who grew their food”—but also the long-lasting intergenerational struggles: the cultural baggage immigrant families carry, the generational trauma that becomes part of their histories, and, of course, whether the children would choose to continue farming in the future.

Photograph by Melissa Lukenbaugh, Courtesy of A24

Kristyn Leach, a Korean adoptee and farmer of Namu Farm in Winters, California, who practices Korean natural farming, which is a no-till and no-strip farming approach based on historic subsistence farming practices, was drawn to the juxtaposition between Jacob’s large-scale, industrial approach—he takes out a loan to buy a tractor and till the land—and Soonja’s intuitive, traditional method of seeking out a natural place to plant minari, which ultimately ends up saving the family financially.

 

“Agriculture is, in some ways, a narrative that’s about domination and being the master of an environment,” she explained. “But other forms of agriculture that are still being maintained are contracts we make with an ecosystem that are really rooted in reciprocity, mutual care, and mutual evolution.”

 

She found Soonja’s method not only a way to show respect in a place that wasn’t her ancestral home, but also that planting the minari was a form of placemaking that may feel familiar to many immigrants. “Among so many different diasporas, maybe seeds are the only thing that you really pack and take with you,” Leach said.

 

Torm Nompraseurt, senior community organizer in Richmond, California, for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), shared that local Laotian communities grow vegetables found in their cuisine like peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, squash, lemongrass, and mint. “Even if I don’t know the family personally, I can identify if that’s a Laotian family by their garden,” he said.

 

The group’s advocacy work in Richmond includes lobbying for rent control, securing funding for youth services, and halting the expansion of the Richmond Chevron refinery. With another chapter in Berkeley, California, APEN ensures that the legacy of Asian Americans as stewards of the land carries into the present day.

 

In all, the story of America has always been a story of the land—who discovers it, who occupies it, who owns it, who works it, who is brutally disowned of it—and that story has long had careful, self-serving editors: ones who highlight certain tales and downplay others, either by minimization, omission, or intentional erasure, thus distorting history and entire groups’ contributions.

 

Minari restores an often overlooked narrative when it comes to Asian American history: that Asians came to work the land, to care for it, to make it profitable, and, when permitted by law, make it their property and, thus, their own.

 

The film’s presence in mainstream media and the Asian American canon comes at a critical time when Asian presence in America is once again questioned, invalidated, and violently attacked. By telling this history, Minari forces America to remember that Asians—along with other immigrant and BIPOC communities—have always worked the soil, molding the landscape, the economy and, therefore, the country with their steadfast, patient, and persistent imprint.

 

And so when questions of belonging inevitably arise, perhaps the only way to answer is with the rebuttal: Well, what could be more American than that?

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