The Hybrid Korean-English Language of “Minari” Makes It Feel Like Home
In the movie's "Konglish," I recognize my family, especially my mother's quest to feel comfortable in America
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My family has established a post-dinner routine ever since I’ve moved home during the pandemic: clear the table, wash the dishes, turn on our latest Korean entertainment binge. One night, we decide to watch Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s film about a Korean American family that moves to a mostly-white Arkansas town so the father, Jacob, can pursue his dream of starting his own farm. Monica, his wife, is his reluctant counterpart.
The director based the story on his own childhood in 1980s Arkansas. His character, David, is six years old in the movie, around the same age I arrived in America. Anne, the older sister, is his responsible, mature babysitter. As I watch the film with my parents and my little brother, I see myself in both characters—the wide-eyed boy excited about the move, and the sister who tries to keep the family together.
The eccentric maternal grandmother flies in from Korea to live with the family on the farm. Monica is immediately overcome with emotion when she sees the black plastic bags of chili flakes and dried anchovies her mother has packed.
“It’s so hard to get this here,” Monica says, wiping away her tears.
The scene reminds me of my mother’s own tear-stained greetings at the airport whenever my grandmother came to visit us during the holidays. She bore overflowing boxes of kimchi, dried squid, and soybean paste packaged under layers of bubble wrap to entrap the pungent fermented scents.
My grandmother would boast. “Customs? Aigo, not to worry! We just shook our heads and strolled past them—I deserve an acting award.” I always suspected an alternative truth—Customs agents probably sniffed the acridity from a mile away and left my wizened grandmother alone rather than deal with the hassle.
The most heart-wrenching scene of all is one where we glimpse the depth of Monica’s desperation. The family is on the verge of bankruptcy. Monica pulls Jacob away from the children to announce she’s leaving him and taking the kids to California.
“I can’t bear it,” her English subtitles read. “I’ve lost my faith in you.” In reality, the words translate more accurately to something like this: I can’t keep holding on anymore just by looking at you. I’m too tired for this.
The line hits me like deja vu—something I’ve heard my own mother say in the distant past. I steal glances at her out of the corner of my eye. Her laughs are bittersweet and filled with a kind of remorse. I can tell by the way they catch in her throat that she is Monica. I wonder if my parents have ever had conversations like Monica and Jacob’s out of my earshot.
The next evening, when I complain about entering my mid-20s, my mother sighs. “When I was your age, I was getting engaged.”
“When you put it that way, umma… I can’t even imagine.”
My mother is a little drunk from the soju we’ve had along with our bossam. “I wasn’t supposed to leave everything behind. I regret it all.” My father winces while avoiding her gaze. I pat her on the back and cluck gently, at a loss for words.
I toss and turn that night haunted by questions about Monica and my mother. Though Minari is centered around Jacob’s quest of staking out his own land, my dreams drift to Monica and her untold motivations.
Why did they stay? Was it out of love? And will we ever truly know what lies in their hearts?
My first memory in America takes place in a preschool office—my small hand transferred from my mother’s coarse palm to pale smooth skin.
I remember peering up at the teacher’s face. She was young and white—the first white person I had seen so up close. The sunlight reflected off her blonde hair from behind her, creating a dizzying halo. Her sharp features were bizarre to me. How is her nose bridge so high? I wondered.
“Don’t worry,” my mother stated firmly. “You’ll have fun.”
“Where are you going, umma?” I shifted my feet nervously.
My parents grinned at me and retreated from the teacher with slight bows, the Confucian method of greeting instinctual in their stooped bodies. My eyes welled up with tears, realizing that they were leaving me alone with this unfamiliar woman. I watched silently through the window as they left down the exit ramp and climbed into our Toyota minivan.
The teacher led me to the back of the building, where a group of children were shrieking in a tanbark lot. Beaming, she kneeled down to reach me at eye level and said something unintelligible while pointing in their direction. I reluctantly shuffled over to the corner of the playground. No one took notice of me cowering on the swing set.
After school, I ran to my mother, who stood waiting for me by the manicured front lawn. She wore a red wide-brimmed visor to protect her flawless Seoul skin from the harsh California sun. It cast an elongated shadow over her face, obscuring her eyes from my vantage point.
She reached out and stroked my hair. “See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”
I shrugged. “I guess. I didn’t really understand anyone.”
“Let’s go look at some English books,” my mother said, waving goodbye to the teacher.
We walked across the bridge to Cupertino Library, a massive two-story glass structure. Row upon row of arched fountain water scattered through the sluggish afternoon heat as diapered toddlers squealed and splashed around. In the hallway before the children’s section, we stopped before the enormous floor-to-ceiling aquarium. I was awestruck—everything was so big in America. Throngs of children sat cross-legged in front of the blue glass, riveted by the clownfish and blue tangs floating by. Lying beside me on the dusty carpet in the children’s section, my mother traced the large-print words with her forefinger.
“The cow–jumped—over—the—moon,” she slowly sounded out. “Now, you try.”
I chanted back. “The cow jumped over the moon!” Memorizing my mother’s recitations was a thrilling—but feasible—challenge. It was easy enough to recall her strings of nonsense based on the illustration on the page.
“Good girl. Let’s check out the rest of these books.”
We trekked back across the bridge to our new apartment, the newly-acquired picture books stacked into my mother’s backpack. I sing-songed at our second-floor doorstep while swinging my mother’s hand back and forth. “The cow jumped over the moon, the little dog laughed, to see such a sport, and the dish ran away with the spoon…”
Once inside, my mother set the books aside and turned on the TV. The news blared across the boxy screen. I stared, mesmerized by the fast-paced dictation and the slate of faces that looked so unlike the anchors back in Seoul.
“W-a-r. What does that mean, umma?” I spelled out the shortest word I saw on the fixed caption below. My mother didn’t respond, so I turned to prod her arm.
She looked crestfallen. “I don’t understand anything they’re saying. It’s too fast. How am I going to live here?”
Eventually, my brain soaked up English like a sponge. It was only weeks before I went from the lonely outsider on the playground to giggling during naptime with my new friends and volunteering excitedly to read aloud during storytime. The shock from being dropped into the middle of an English-speaking world is retained only in that single memory from that first day at preschool. I have no other recollections of struggling with the language, only a period when I didn’t know English at all, then suddenly, afterwards, when I did.
My mother, at age 32, began a more painful parallel process. Despite her master’s degree from a prestigious women’s college and her former coveted government position at Korea’s National Forensic Service agency, her credentials were wiped clean in America. She had to re-earn her pharmaceutical license in the States. She studied fervently during those first few years, her slight frame burrowed amongst binders. When I kissed her goodnight, I found her hunched over, furiously marking up stacks of textbooks. The fluorescent kitchen lights glinted off the wet highlighter ink on the page.
My mother passed the technical exams on her first try. She had always been a gifted student and it only took her a few months to refresh her memory. Medical terminology, universally in English, allowed for a smoother transition.
It was the Test of Spoken English that took years to crack. The TSE was an oral test designed to measure the communication ability of non-native speakers. After she learned to drive, our car audio alternated between my library audiobooks and her TSE English tapes. We listened to a chapter of Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary, then a recorded textbook conversation of native English speakers discussing the weather and odd hobbies. At traffic stoplights, we made sure to practice along with the tapes.
“I like to fix cars in my spare time,” the speaker said. “Now, repeat after me.”
My mother and I dutifully obeyed. “I like to fix cars in my spare time.” The instructors spoke in calm, soothing voices. In my head, I envisioned nice white ladies like my preschool teacher strolling around a Sesame Street neighborhood on a lazy afternoon. Their sentences curved upwards into smiles.
The tape fed us prompts—strangely philosophical ones, such as “Do you believe childhood to be the happiest time in life?” or, “What does it mean to acquire knowledge?” then allotted 15 seconds to prepare, 45 seconds to respond. My mother, fumbling her nascent vocabulary, recorded herself haltingly.
“Aish!” she fumed as she replayed her stilted English responses. Oftentimes there were more pauses than words in her practice answers. She rewound the tape and started again.
“Childhood is most happy time because…”
The day my mother passed the TSE on her third try, I was elected to the 3rd grade student council. We feasted that night, my father bringing home king crabs and a cheesecake from Ranch 99, a treat reserved only for birthdays and special occasions. My parents danced around the living room, tipsy and in love for the night. I imagined there could be no happier family in the world than the three of us together in our small townhouse. I drifted off to sleep dreaming of the second Harry Potter library book my mother had just checked out for me.
The Bay Area eventually welcomed many more of my mother’s classmates from Ewha University—other young Korean mothers who had followed husbands chasing their Silicon Valley dreams. Scores of them attempted the TSE test, and one by one, all of them gave up. There was only one other ahjumma who passed the exam a few years after my mother did. Citing the difficulty of adjusting to an English-speaking role, she quit her job after a few months.
My mother was finally hired at a large pharmacy chain after years of competing against younger applicants. Her joy was a short-lived one, as the reality of the workplace hit.
“They call me, speak so quickly, and then hang up!” she complained. “What am I supposed to do if I can’t catch what they said in time?” The TSE tapes hadn’t prepared her for the rapid English spoken over the phone when doctors and patients called to fill prescriptions.
In public spaces, seeking refuge from the discriminatory workplace, my mother refused to address me in English. I was always embarrassed by my mother’s loud announcement of our foreign presence. I was painfully aware of the way gazes swiveled and fixated on us at the neighborhood Safeway when she addressed me across the aisle in Korean. It seemed that she always drew unwanted attention to ourselves by bellowing a few decibels louder than necessary.
“Quiet down,” I whined in English, embarrassed that others might be watching.
My mother replied even more loudly in Korean, as if to teach me a lesson. “What, you’re ashamed of me? You mannerless wench. I raised you wrong.”
Sometime during Minari, I break out of a dreamlike trance.
My family is sitting in our darkened living room, the light from the TV screen illuminating my parents’ shiny foreheads. My father and brother are seated on the rug as they crack roasted peanuts onto a snack tray, and my mother sits beside me with a quilt draped upon our laps. We bicker throughout the nightly entertainment as usual—my father taps my brother’s hand to remind him to cluster his spilled shells together, while my mother complains of a chill and tugs our quilt over to her side.
The Minari family, too, is mundanely going about unpacking their moving boxes in their dimly-lit living room. Monica checks David’s heartbeat with a stethoscope. “I want to listen,” he says.
“You do? Put these in your ears,” she instructs.
My mother chuckles and nudges my brother. “You used to ask me that all the time when you were little, too!”
Onscreen, Jacob suggests a move-in celebration. “Let’s all sleep together on the floor since it’s our first night.”
“No, appa! You snore,” Anne retorts.
Jacob lunges for her. “Eesh, when did I ever?” They fall over in a tickling bout.
Watching Jacob’s denial, my brother and I burst into giggles, poking my father’s side. “See, appa? He snores, like you.”
My father snorts and rolls his eyes. “Who, me? I never snore.”
Why does this all feel so familiar? Though we are both first-generation Korean American families, the similarities end there; in fact, there are some glaring differences. The Minari family is in a Arkansas farm trailer in the 1980s, and my family is in the Bay Area suburbs in 2021. But it still feels like I’m observing an uncanny mirror image on the screen.
With a jolt, I realize—it’s because they’ve been speaking in Konglish, the hybrid language that mixes Korean with English. It beams from their living room to ours, lulling me into a haze of snug intimacy. More than our shared Korean resemblance, it’s the way they seamlessly code-switch back and forth between the two languages that directly reflects our own family dynamics. Their conversation could be our family’s, no matter the time or place—or any Korean American family’s I know.
I am cloaked in the vernacular of my youth. My family’s lingering laughter fades away as I slip back into the calming rhythm of a language that conjures a sense of home.
Now, many years later, my mother has graduated from TSE tapes to religiously following the NPR evening news during her commute home. At the dinner table, I bring up the political headlines of the day, and she waves her chopsticks in my face.
“I know that already. I heard that in the car. How do you spell in-sur-rec-tion? What does that mean?”
“In. Sur. Rec. Tion.” I snap in English, refusing to list out the letters. “You can figure it out.” I’ve been spelling words for her my entire life, and it irritates me to define words for her even at this age. It’s much too easy, in moments like these, to willingly forget that she guided my pointer finger to trace words like l-i-o-n and s-u-n on the Cupertino library floor.
My mother slaps my hand. “You-this. You-that. English is so disrespectful. Speak in honorifics to us.”
After dinner, we Kakaotalk videochat my grandmother in Korea. My mother has a habit of shifting to Konglish even when we are on KakaoTalk with my grandparents, not realizing her subconscious mistake—my grandmother does not understand any English whatsoever.
“Woori health insurance cost wanjun meechutsuh!” Translation: Our health insurance costs are crazy high.
“Stop your Konglish,” my father and I hiss under our breaths. “You know she can’t understand.”
“How is our Yi Youn-ee doing?” my grandmother asks. We discuss recent Korean political scandals, American two-party dysfunction, and the status of my graduate school apps. She gasps incredulously at the news scenes she sees of American carnage. “America is a developing country compared to Korea. Such violence. Also, we have better healthcare here.”
“I know. Halmoni, I miss you. I’ll come and see you soon,” I promise near the end of the call. My voice breaks as she hangs up, knowing that soon could mean anywhere from a few months to years.
My mother starts streaming our nightly Korean drama episode. I struggle with a word I’ve never heard before. “What does boojil-upda mean?” I ask her.
“For something to be pointless,” my mother explains patiently. “Meaningless.”
Moments like these are frequent these days. Am I losing my Korean? I worry. I feel like a child again at times, asking my mother questions about a language I hold onto dearly. What sounds like eloquent English in my mind will often be spat out as garbled elementary Korean instead. My brain wearily protests the effort it takes to juggle two different languages. I wonder if this is how my mother feels—constantly frustrated at the defunct machine sitting in her throat, between Korean thoughts and English words.
I turn my attention back to the screen. Beside me, my mother hums along happily to the OST. She marvels that these days, we have so many K-drama options to choose from even in America.
In Minari’s final scene, Monica and Jacob grasp a squared rock as they trail the water-witcher’s dowsing stick. They have decided to start anew after losing their harvest to an accidental blaze. Monica smiles softly at Jacob. The water-witcher points to the ground, and they set the rock down to mark a spot for their well.
I can’t help but see my mother’s story in Monica’s—that of mothers who sacrifice all that is familiar to become transplants in America. Some chase their careers. Some follow their husbands. Others, like my mother, are not sure looking back why they came at all.
But they are here, whatever the reason may be. They have chosen to stay. With all the strength they can muster, they set their rocks down, and draw what water they can from the foreign soil.