What Parasite's win means to me, a Korean-American

Written on February 12, 2020

Parasite, a Korean movie directed by Korean director, Bong Joon Ho — has won not just one, but four Oscars in 2020. Including the award ceremony’s highest award — best picture. As a Korean-American, it’s been a pretty awesome and pretty weird experience for me.

My wife and I watched Parasite in the theater. We had no idea about the hype around Parasite before we went and saw it. It was a date night and I chose Parasite because I caught a glimpse of the director being on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Reading the synopsis on Fandango about the juxtaposition between two families in different socio-economic classes it piqued our interests and we decided to check it out.

We went in with no expectations and came out blown away at how well the movie unfolded with many twists. In all honesty, it caught me off guard because it was a Korean movie and the story was really well told.

Growing up, as a Korean kid in America, I viewed Korean entertainment as cheesy and not relatable. For a very long time I joked with my wife that the Korean dramas that she watched were predictable and formulaic in nature — stories of forbidden love triangles, conflicts of the rich and poor or family rivalries and betrayal.

And yet, here I was walking away from a Korean made movie, that was all in Korean, blown away at how modern, relatable and original the story was. It was refreshing because it made me take pause at my preconceived ideas about Korean storytelling and entertainment. I had walked away from Parasite completely entertained and satisfied.

Then a few days ago, something extraordinary happened. The Oscars and what felt like the world, acknowledged that Parasite was indeed not just a very good Korean movie, but a very good movie.

The night of the Oscars, I went on Twitter and saw many of my Korean-American friends celebrating in this historic event. While it did feel pretty amazing that a Korean made movie had received that sort of acknowledgement, I found myself having a bit of an identity crisis.

Over the past couple of days since Parasite’s limelight at the Oscars, I’ve been trying to process my feelings and understanding my torn excitement towards the movie. On one hand, I am proud that it was a Korean made movie and because I am Korean excited that a movie could have such an international impact. On the other hand the movie was made by a Korean cast, by a Korean director, in Korea. While we look the same in appearance, I still feel distant in ways.

I think the experience is similar to watching the Olympics for me. While I could root for the Korean Olympic team, their success doesn’t feel that personal to me. But take for example the 2018 Winter Olympics which took place in Korea, when Chloe Kim — a Korean-American athlete — won a gold medal, I felt proud and ecstatic for her win.

Perhaps it was because I could relate to Chloe’s story more than I could with the native Korean athletes. While I’m sure there are many stark differences in Chloe Kim’s and my life’s story, the fact that we share the same Korean-American story of coming from immigrant families, makes the victory more relatable.

I write this post, not to discount the immense amount of talent and energy it took from those involved in the creation of Parasite or even native Korean Olympians. Their dedication to their craft is beyond what I could achieve and I celebrate in what they have done on such a global stage. I write this post, reflecting on how Parasite’s international acclaim and what it means for myself, a Korean-American.

I’ve wondered in the past what remnants of the Korean heritage that I grew up knowing would get passed onto my children. I’ve written a post about it and concluded that food and watered-down traditions was all that would remain for future Korean-American generations. Today, what Parasite did for me was open my eyes to a part of my heritage that has been foreign to me and now has caused excitement for what it could mean for my kids and their generation.

I’ll admit that I don’t quite understand the appeal of the Korean culture for those that aren’t Korean-Americans. Take for example BTS. I don’t understand their appeal. I don’t listen to their songs relating to their lyrics, but listen to their songs because it’s catchy. I can’t relate to the way they dress or the way they act in interviews. But growing up with K-pop in my youth, there is something familiar. I think that familiarity is similar to when you buy a car. All of a sudden you start noticing that same make and model everywhere you look.

All this to say, I’m excited to see what international impact of Korean entertainment will have on shaping my kids’ generation. Would they feel split in their identity as I did growing up? Would they be able to take part in the pride from the success of talent coming from their mother country? How will their peers view them now that there are cultural impact by talents from Korea?

What Parasite made me feel as a Korean-American is confused, excited and hopeful. Confused about my identity, excited for its success, hopeful for what it could do positively for my children’s generation.

If you haven’t seen Parasite I hope you’ll go see it. I hope you’ll walk away from the experience entertained by a well made movie. I hope you’ll walk away challenged by the struggles it highlights of a capitalist society. If you’re Korean-American or a kyopo — I hope the movie will make you feel and stir conversations amongst you and your peers.

I’d like to also share other forms of Korean entertainment that I’ve enjoyed and has made an impact:

  • Kim’s Convenience: Is a comedy show about an immigrant family in Canada. While the time frame is modern, there’s a lot of things I relate with growing up in an immigrant family in the United States. Topics covered: cultural misunderstandings between children and parents, first-generation Koreans and their peers (the poop needle episode) and the significance religion has on immigrant families.

    While I think the first two seasons was more in-tune with telling the immigrant story, season three felt like a departure and felt like it was going for more broad appeal.

  • Crash Landing on You: Is a drama about a couple between a super rich South Korean business woman and a North Korean soldier. While I can’t speak to how accurate some of the depictions are of North Korea and the characters. It’s been an endearing show to watch. I think the character development is really well done and the story twists has been palpable.

    It even includes a couple actors from Parasite.

  • Seoul Searching: Is about Korean teenagers from around the world and their time in Korea at a camp created by the Korean government to raise awareness of the Korean heritage. I went to this camp back in the late 90s as I hit puberty. While I didn’t enjoy my time at the camp, I thought the movie did a good job highlighting the struggles of kyopos, adoption of Korean children by non-Korean families and even the affects of the tensions between Korean and Japanese folks. What’s refreshing is that the movie was created by a Korean-American, director, Benson Lee.

  • The Good, the Bad, the Weird: This movie is a bit old, but it was very enjoyable. It’s about three characters as they duke it out over a treasure map. The story feels like an old western movie with cowboys but with Korean folks. It stars Lee Byung-hun (known for his roles as Storm Shadow in the G.I. Joe series of movies) as the bad and Song Kang-ho (the father of the poor family in Parasite) as the weird.

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