Abiding in Exile - The Bittersweet Dream of an Immigrant Family in America 06/17/2021

Abiding in Exile - The Bittersweet Dream of an Immigrant Family in America  06/17/2021

June 16, 2021

This week’s reflection is a guest post from Rev. Dr. Heecheon Jeon, Conference Superintendent for the Central/Riverview Park District since 2016. We are grateful for his reflections, especially in light of recent violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders—the news of which can seem to erase the details of individual experience.

The Bittersweet Dream of an Immigrant Family in America
By: Rev. Dr. Heecheon Jeon

I grew up in South Korea. My wife, Anne, and I, as students, came to San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1996 at the age of 26. Our daughter, Sonia, was born as a “seminary baby” because she was the only baby while we were seminary students. We went to Claremont in 2002, California, where I started a Ph.D. program, and Anne started her ministry for the mentally challenged. Because of divine intervention, we were called by the Iowa Conference in 2007 to serve Corning in the Southwest District. It was the first time that we had ever lived in a rural community in Iowa. I fell in love with that, but my family had difficult moments at times when they felt disconnected and isolated in a predominantly white community, racially and culturally. Unlike other immigrant families who might have an American dream for a better life, we both had a missionary mindset. Wherever we were sent, we were ready to sacrifice and serve. That was our passion for ministry. After four and a half years of ministry in Corning, we went to Iowa City in 2013 and then to Mt. Vernon in 2015. Since 2016, I have been serving as a district superintendent of the Riverview Park District. 

Minari is a leafy green vegetable grown mainly in Asia, particularly popular in Korea. It is a flavorful, bitter watercress that grows best in damp conditions and near running waters. The Oscar-nominated movie directed by Korean American Lee Isaac Chung is named after the vegetable minari to depict the bittersweet life of an immigrant family. For many Korean Americans, minari culturally symbolizes a life of abundance and love, and endurance amid existential struggles. The story is layered with specific cultural elements from a Korean descent immigrant family who came to settle in a small rural town in the American heartland, Arkansas. The movie portrays those values in brilliant specificity, such as the resilience of an immigrant family in America.

Jacob (father) and Monica (mother) married in Korea and moved to the U.S. They had two American-born children (Anne and David). The Lees had been living in California, where Jacob worked in a chicken hatchery, dreaming of a better life. He always had a dream to succeed in this foreign land. One day he purchased a large plot of land with a trailer in a small town in Arkansas to start a dream life. Their new life on a rural farm, however, was particularly hard and isolated. Jacob tries to find a way to grow Korean vegetables and sell them in a market for other immigrant families. Running a family farm in the 1980s was difficult, when getting a loan from a local bank and doubling down of the government subsidies increase a risk of failure in business. 

Jacob befriends Paul, a middle-aged fellow who served in Korea with the U.S. Army and practices a version of Pentecostalism. He tries banishing evil spirits from the Lee’s property, speaking in tongues, praying over the crops, and hauling a cross down the road. In addition to Paul’s cultural and religious oddity, the Lee family joined a nearby church and encountered a sense of cultural disconnection from its white congregants. It is the stress and tension of living in the foreign culture.

Living in a remote trailer, Monica feels lonely and miserable and always worries about David who has a heart condition, because the nearest hospital is several hours away. She also wants to move to a city for more resources but sacrifices to support her husband’s American dream. Later, Soonja (Monica’s mom) arrives from Korea to stay with them. She is not a typical grandma. She doesn’t bake cookies like other American grandmas, and she plays practical jokes. She is funny and full of life—foulmouthed and unceremonious—bringing a smell of Korea. Soonja is unashamedly being a real Korean grandma to David and the whole family. One day she and David went down to a tree-covered creek, where she planted minari. It soon covers all over the edge of the haven. 

When Jacob lost all his produce from the barn fire, he didn’t want to give up on his American dream. When Soonja had a stroke and lost her speech for a while, the family became more resilient in the midst of difficult relationships. In those moments of crises, David grew closer to his grandma, and the whole family became more bonded together to let life go on in these bittersweet predicaments. The abundant patch of minari is still flourishing amid the ebbs and flows of human existence. 

Minari resonates so much of my family’s life in Iowa. We struggle to find our own hybrid identity (Korean-American) within the dominant culture. While I fall in love with the cross-cultural ministry, I also notice that my family struggles to find their places in this foreign land. Isolation is the reality for an immigrant life. To overcome it, it is crucial to reconnect with a family of origin. Grandma Soonja and her grandson David bridge the cultural and generational gap when both can realize the common root grounded in their DNA. Minari provides with them a glimpse of the origin of who they are and where they belong to and how they live as a Korean descent family. For my family, kimchi that my mother and grandmother made for us is another minari that brings us home as a family and reassure us of who we are amid social isolation and cultural alienation.  
In brief, the power of storytelling through the lens of an immigrant family is to resist the generalized grand narrative on immigration and to deepen our own human conditions through those fragmented but sophisticated stories. They will reach more diverse audiences and expand shared humanity for all. Isolation, intergenerational struggles, marital relationship, cultural clash, and minor feelings are universal challenges that immigrant families are facing in the U.S. and other places. As minari can thrive in American soil, it is clearly noted that life goes on in spite of all other existential threats. It can be Moses’ story at the outcry of the Hebrew slaves. It also can be Ruth’s faithful commitment to the family value amid her own identity struggles. It even can be Daniel’s dream for messianicity in the exile, as he was longing for a new era which might have promised liberation and peace. Perhaps, we are all immigrants of a kind, looking for a better life.