seoul searching: the movie and other thoughts

Seoul Searching: Movie

im obsessed with immigrant stories. and as an asian american studies major, the seoul premier of the asian american film ‘seoul searching’ felt right at home. i wrapped myself in the warmth of familiar words such as ‘2nd generation’, ‘immigrant parents’, ‘diaspora’ ‘identity’, and ‘self discovery.’

these are my people and this is my world, sort of.

because it’s really not. the film is very much focused on the korean-american/european (gyopo) community, with an opening scene of a korean teacher asking the 2nd generation korean teenagers what it means to be korean.

but i live in korea, i understand a little bit of korean, and i can whole heartedly relate to the characters’ struggles grappling with their ethnic vs. nationalistic identities. (2nd generation vietnamese american here, hello! hi! how are you?)

so i enjoyed this film immensely on a personal level. when one of the characters is chastised for not knowing and identifying with her korean name, this is my story (with my vietnamese name). when one of the girls likes a fellow camper only to find out he’s got a white girlfriend back home, this is my story. when one of the characters shouts at the top of his lungs his frustration of not understanding his parents harsh criticism and lack of sympathy, this is my–and every child of immigrants–story.

whether the film can reach an audience beyond us 2nd generation children, i’m not sure. there are some lofty attempts at a rich and complex story, but not enough time to explore each arc fully; therefore, most of it seems haphazardly put together: i felt sad when it was revealed that one of the harshest teachers’ son killed himself after failing his college entrance exams–but the sorrow comes from the standard reaction to suicide and not because the character was developed enough that i felt for him.

there’s also a few could-be quite colorful dialogue points in the film, notably one girl’s trauma-induced association of korean men with violence against women (a common sentiment i hear often here in korea, sadly), and a bit of gender bending toward the end. but both were inserted into the script without serious commitment and development, and thus are seen as the starting or end point of a joke: i loved seeing the skirt-chasing mexican korean character dressed as a woman, but any morsels of his character trying to redeem himself for his misogynistic behavior were destroyed when the camera pans to his male friend reaching across and squeezing his chest while he’s wearing the dress.

the film could have also done without the multiple light-hearted uses of the word, “rape,” such as when one female camper asks the skirt-chasing mexican korean guy, “why are you raping me with your eyes?” perhaps it was a conscious attempt at mirroring society’s rather lax attitude toward rape and rapists, but again not fully developed and no serious commitment leads me to believe these lines were inserted for laughs—all the more inappropriate and disturbing.

my identity as a 2nd generation vietnamese american is something i’ve wrestled with my entire life–the disconnect i have with my parent’s background and culture. growing up, i often thought about the wide divide between their lived experiences and view on the world having grown up in vietnam and mine in the US.

now a days, i often think about my future children—a new development in my adult consciousness. i wonder if they’ll be able to learn vietnamese, or if my korean will never be good enough to understand their native language fully. i think about myself trying to teach them the value of immigrant stories and starting sentences with, “when i was in america…”

and then i realized—for 27 years when i lived in the US, i felt a disconnect from my immigrant parents, whose memories were painted with the colors of a different land and narrated by sounds of a different language—but by moving to korea, and with plans of settling here permanently, i will become an immigrant parent.

it’s funny how life works: i moved as far away from my parents as either of us could have ever imagined, but i feel closer to them, and their lived experiences, here than i ever could back in the states.

a million more things to think about,


opportunity for reflection

i am having a bad day.

but even so, i am thankful even for this bad day. i am, for the most part, healthy and i am safe. i was fed and not harmed in any way, and i was cared for well.

even if my present situation is unpleasant and inconvenient, unplanned, and unprepared for–there are still many things to be thankful for.

like the quiet time to reflect and list all the things i am thankful for.

though sudden and unplanned, ive been gifted more time and not the kind of free time to jam-pack more plans into, but quiet, slow time to sit and think.

as this sort of time is rare, i am thankful for that.


the duality of being strange

when i lived in new york and san francisco, my 9 to 5 jobs never paid enough for such luxuries as health insurance or rent; so i would pitch ideas and stories to various outlets, magazines, websites, start ups, etc.

i was given the title of content creator. i liked the sound of that, because it so succintly described what i was doing–moreover it glamorized the truth: i am strange, and i write about it.

i have been writing for over 20 years and creating content for just as long.

when i was 8, i wrote fanfiction about my 9 year old cousin, nathalie, and i living with the backstreet boys. a new chapter came out every week. i hand wrote it in an emerald-green spiral notebook, made copies at my parent’s office, and mailed it to her each week with stamps i stole off my mom’s desk.

when i was 11, i made a scrapbook of my family by cutting up family photos i took out of picture frames hanging on our walls (i obviously had no problem taking things as a child), and when i felt it wasn’t home-y enough, i combed through family albums and cut out all the tiny background images of stuffed animals. the scrapbook was called: Nguyen Family Scrapbook featuring Jelly and Daniel (jelly was my sister’s stuffed elephant and daniel was the dog jelly belly from the 90’s that i made friendship bracelets for).

and so on and so forth. the older i got, the more things i took and appropriated, inappropriately, for entertainment. but i started to notice that people only celebrated and enjoyed my content and strange view of the world when it was fun and light-hearted or easy to swallow.

you see, the same strangeness that makes me sensitive to everything around me–that can create a joke about sitting in an empty classroom or a short story out of the man scribbling manically to himself–is the same strangeness that makes me sensitive to feeling lonely when i live in a country whose language is not my own, or extremely sad when current events around the world are bleak, or despondent when those closest to me in proximity are the furthest from understanding my thinking.

all my life, everyone is eager to share in my laughs, but is baffled when i cry. it’s as if i am only allowed to exist in a happy state—only create content with a smile. when my heart churns out sorrowful images or my written lines express discontent, no one believes they are of the same mind and quickly dismiss me.

i am only tolerable when the content i create is a joke, i am told.

i would like to be accepted when i am happy and when i am sad; and furthermore, i would like to be recognized as a whole, genuine person whether the content i create or the words i say to you are light or heavy.

if i joke, accept my joke. if i am serious, accept my seriousness. if i am kind, accept my kindness. and if i am mean, well, i’m sorry. i am working on it, but accept that even that meanness is a part of me–and accept me wholly.

i don’t know if i was born in pieces or shattered somewhere along the way, but please accept all the pieces that i am presenting to you and handle them with care.

i’ll do the same.


p.s. if you were wondering about the ending of my fanfiction, nathalie went on to marry nick and i married brian, obviously.

아가씨 (“The Handmaiden” movie)

*so many spoilers ahead


i saw that a local art space was screening this new and much talked about korean movie with english subtitles tonight, so i went not knowing what the movie was about.

it’s dark and an emotional roller coaster throughout, but it’s also damn smart and timely given the state of the world and the teetering talks of gender equality and the position of women.

it’s a revenge story true to korean cinema with its head-spinning plot twists, but where it’s disruptive in the traditional narrative is that every man in the film is a victim of women; the men are fools, bumbling annoyances that are easily duped. initially, the characters of the story, and the audience watching it unfold, are made to believe the women are naive and innocent–perhaps aided by our own gendered stereotypes–but in the end the men die at their own hands, while the women run away together, embracing and laughing.

the film is incredibly erotic, uncomfortable, and awkward to watch. but as i think about it now, i wonder if i felt uncomfortable because i’ve been conditioned to the images of intimacy as one only between a man and a woman; so that when i see two women so openly engaging in sex, it somehow feels unnatural. its not unnatural and its not wrong, but because society has set a standard for acceptable images of sex in movies and media as one between men and women, it felt uncomfortable because it’s not what were used to seeing.

and just in case the audience missed that this story is a revenge film where women rule the world, at one point one of the men has a woman pinned down and as soon as he drops his pants and grunts, “women feel the greatest pleasure when taken by force,” he dies. 

or does he? true to korean plot twists, he reawakens later in the film but soon dies without ever “taking” the woman. in fact, the most powerful scene in the entire film is on the man and woman’s wedding night, in which they’re expected to consummate the marriage. she does so on her own terms and he doesn’t lay a finger on her. and yet he still later recounts the night as truly memorizing. there’s also a fantastic scene where the women destroy a man’s precious collection of pornography, which was unabashedly cathartic.

my only wish for this film is that it didn’t propagate the sexualization of women’s bodies through the super erotic sex scenes between the two women, because there are enough images of naked contorted female bodies out there (we don’t need to add anymore); and certainly there are many folks who will watch this film and never make it past the bare nipples and wafer waists. perhaps they won’t understand the images as ones of defiance, where women bring pleasure to other women. a visual message of women embracing one another, comforting and supporting one another, and pleasing one another.

the film is smart and timely. given the recent violent crimes against women and the unjust punishment for those crimes, a movie where men, with the intention to harm women, die at their own hands in their own torture chambers–without ever knowing the answer to their lecherous question of “how did she taste?”–is one i can get behind.

and for those of you who will scream that the film is cruel and unjust toward men–well, the director considered your feeble minds with the male lead’s last breath and line of dialogue: “at least i get to die with my cock intact,” because let’s be frank, for people like you that’s the only thing that makes a man anyway.

if you’d like to see the film with english subtitles, Emu Space near Gwanghamun has additional showings this week:
6/24(Fri) 19:30
6/25(Sat) – 6/26(Sun) 19:00
6/28(Tue) – 6/29(Wed) 20:00

call or message them on facebook to reserve your tickets as the tiny theater only seats about 25.



on expat life: friendship

in the place that i had lived for 27 years before moving to seoul–in the place that i had, with all my mental and physical strength, carved out an existence for myself–i had a support system of friends and family who shared my view of the world.

through fine-tooth grooming and conscientious choices, i surrounded myself with like-minded people whose prioirities in life aligned with mine–and those priorities could be as broad as wanting to be kind or as simple as a love for golden retrievers (i particularly like these people).

but as any person who moves to another country will tell you, when you set up shop in an unfamiliar place you are drawn to people for more basic things such as they speak the same language as you or they lived in a place somewhat close to where you had lived.

my first year abroad, i found myself comforted when i met other native english speakers and other americans. i could have nothing else in common with them–and i often didn’t–but i still felt a kinship as two english-speakers or two americans living in korea.

but it’s my second year here now and my level of understanding of my experience here and my adaptation requirements are more refined. sitting across from someone who may know the words i am saying but is not willing to listen to what i am saying is no longer enough to comfort me.

in fact, these empty conversations are chipping away at the peace of mind i had previously worked so hard to build for myself.

after speaking to a friend from home, i realize i need to shed* these false friendships i have forged since moving to korea.

wait, that’s too harsh. they’re not necessarily fake friendships—it would be unkind of me to dismiss the friendly feelings that still exist–but they’re not fruitful friendships and they are certainly not real friendships which come of love.

love is kindness between two people who do not seek any form of dominance or power. in a real friendship, no one overpowers another. friendship is not a struggle: it is not censorship and it is not a competition. it is not who can speak louder or who can speak more. it is not who has the better view in life or the greater understanding.

it doesn’t even have to be shared experiences if that’s not what you seek out of love and friendship—it could be as simple as listening to someone as they tell you of their experiences. listening, not refuting. listening, not rejecting. listening, not judging.

i say all this not to suggest that i only seek friends who will not challenge me. in fact, i love my current partner for the very exact reason that he has challenged me intellectually more than anyone i’ve ever met—because his lived experiences are so vastly different from mine. his view on the world is so incredibly far from mine.

but i love him because he gives me a safe space to explore those differences. at our greatest, there is no power play; no one is trying to dominate the other. we allow these differences to exist, we do not judge and we do not compete. at our best, we are kind and open.

for me, this is love. and this is what i seek not only in my romantic relationship but going forward in my friendships, too.


*by shed i do not mean reject or act unfriendly toward them because that would be unkind of me. i mean that i will not consider them a friend and thus will not share my thoughts or experiences with them. if you are unwilling to listen, i will not waste the energy it takes to share.

thoughts on my mother’s country


i bought tickets to vietnam.

i’m not seeking a big, identity-defining trip. having grown up in a large community of vietnamese-texans, with a mother who raised me on nuoc maam and cha gio, i’m cemented in my identity as a vietnamese american.

instead, what i hope to explore during my third trip to vietnam is the identity of the country itself. as vietnam is written about and talked about more and more, i find that i am uncertain about it. living here in asia, where many countries are just a few hours away, everyone travels everywhere. and when my friends tell me about their experiences in vietnam–the country where my mother and father were born–i see no similarities in their stories. there is no familiarity in their words.

when i hear folks refer to saigon as ho chi minh city, i remember when my sister was young and innocently assigned a school project about vietnam. she drew the flag as it flies now: one yellow star tacked to a sea of red. my father refused to let her take it to school. our flag, he told us, is three red stripes on a bed of gold.

in past trips when i was young, i traveled with my family. we were shielded and coddled by distant relatives who lived locally in saigon. i rarely used my vietnamese outside of speaking to family members as they knew my viet kieu accent wouldn’t fly. so i haven’t really experienced vietnam without guidance or translations.

i want to see, taste, and feel the country as other travelers do. but most of all, i want to compare it to my feelings living in korea. if you’ve followed my writing over the years, you’ll know i write a lot about the notion of home.

seoul is the first place that i really feel at home; but the more and more i allow that thought to seep through my skin, the more i am plagued with the question of “am i losing my cultural roots?” as i learn more korean, i wonder what vietnamese i’ve forgotten. as my palate grows accustomed to korean food, i think about what vietnamese flavors i can no longer recall. and as i dream of my future, i realize how much korea has to do with it, and how little vietnamese there may be.

again, i am not looking to call vietnam home or even understand vietnam as home–the vietnamese youth have a lived experience that is completely different from mine. i will not pretend to claim or understand their feelings as my own; i just want to experience and see the country for myself.

i often wonder how korean americans feel about korea: do they roll their eyes when people like me gush about how awesome and fun it is? do they scoff when 외국인들 don 한복? do they give the side eye when people eat korean food wrong?

i want to know if i will feel any of those things as i travel through vietnam as a vietnamese american. how will i feel if i see a foreigner wearing an ao dai that i had to wear to temple as a child? will i stare if someone doesnt wrap their cha gio in rao before swirling it through a bowl of sweet and salty nuoc maam?

what if–and i think about this a lot–they don’t eat their pho with the distinctly vietnamese boat-shaped soup spoon in one hand and their chopsticks in another? there’s a balance required when eating pho, a sip of savory broth followed by a loud slurp of thick banh–that back and forth balance that i’ve associated with eating pho–that image of my mother’s glasses hovering, fogged, above her bowl or my dad’s brown face hidden behind billows of sweet basil-scented steam.

i know how fucked up it is to say that there’s only one way to eat pho–and i’m being a bit cheeky to claim any of this is “authentic” (there is no such thing as authenticity…everyone has their own lived experiences that adds nuance and details to every culture’s story), but what i’m trying to say is i long for the familiarty of my vietnamese family.

so for myself, on this trip, i will do one thing–i will have a traditional vietnamese wedding dress hand-made. it’s not because i am getting married any time soon, but when i do i will carry with me the customs and culture of my mother’s country.


today, i feel broken. but thats okay.

we dont have to feel put together all the time. i think that idealistic concept is harmful.

we can still be lost or broken or sad or unsatisfied or discontent and still be whole.

i am a complete person even when im broken.


i want to remember this fight


you asked something of me that i cannot give you.

i was angry you even asked. my words are mine alone; what may seem like just simple keystrokes to you are actually my thoughts made tangible.

my writing is how i am able to hold my heart, to nurture it and keep it safe. so when you asked me so carelessy to lend my writing to someone else so that they may call my words their own, i responded unkindly.

i was angry, and i was not kind.

for that, i am sorry; not for my anger but for my unkindness.

and as we walked silently, i thought about what i wanted to happen next.

i took your hand, still angry, but conceding that i didnt need to win this fight. and we walked together, quietly, side by side. you held my hand, and i held yours.

i want to remember this fight because it was the first time in any relationship i’ve ever had that i didnt want to give everything and i didnt need to win. there are some things, i realize, that i can keep for myself. and that’s okay.

we dont have to share everything, understand everything, or give one another everything, but so long as you take my hand, even in our quietest moments, and walk with me side by side, we’ll be okay.

i want to remember this fight because i hope we can face whatever the future throws at us just like this–side by side, hand in hand.


dear mother,

today is mother’s day.

yesterday, i stood in a store for an hour running my fingers along shiny boxes of pretty cakes. my standing in this store was the result of hours of planning days before. i thought, long and hard, for the perfect gift for my boyfriend’s mother. you have always taught me to acknowledge and respect someone’s mother, especially the mothers of who we love.

“what’s his mother like?” you always ask me. “does she ask about you? has she met you? does she worry about what you eat?” you care, you’ve told me, because you hope she’ll care for me.

and as i gingerly placed the sweets in a tissued box i picked out for her, and tied an elegant bow across the top, i realized that i didn’t have a box for you. where are my mother’s pretty cakes? where is her carefully picked box and elegant bow?

why hadn’t i thought long and hard for your perfect gift? after all, it is mother’s day and you, you, are my mother.

i can not hand you a box that i’ve wrapped myself, so instead i’ll write to you about my life–because after thinking long and hard for the perfect present for you, i’ve decided that the best gift i can give you is the reassurance that i’m okay.

i live thousands of miles away and you can not see what i wear or eat or what time i come home, but i want to tell you that when it’s cold outside, i dress warm. when i’m hungry, i eat well. and even though i come home late often, i arrive safely.

every morning i wake up, rested. my bed is soft, and it is always there to cradle me after a long day. i go to work monday through friday to a job that may not pay as much as you had hoped but is consistent and satisfying. i know you wanted a genius doctor daughter who saves lives, but i’d like to think my work as a teacher is just as intellectually stimulating and, too, touches lives.

i am in a loving relationship that, while causes me great frustration at times, always allows me to feel loved. my partner is kind and patient and has challenged me to grow. his thinking, you’d be surprised to know, is completely opposite of mine–and i’ve learned that that’s okay. i’ve learned to love someone who is so unlike myself, it’s amazing.

i know you often worry if there’s someone who will care for me, whether it be the person next to me or his mother, but i write you this letter to let you know that you’ve raised me to love and care for myself.

i will always ensure that i am warm, fed, safe, comfortable, financially stable, intellectually stimulated and satisfied, and loved—even if i only have the love of my mother and myself, i’ll be okay.

you’ve taught me love and care in its purest form that i can only love and care for myself with the same utmost attention.

when i was young and scraped my knees, when i broke my arm after falling 10 feet, when i pierced my tongue and lip, when i snuck out of the house, when i said “i love you” to boys who didn’t deserve it, you had always told me i would understand the hurt i had caused you when i become a mother.

but i think i understand now, even though i am not a mother. respecting myself, taking good care of myself, is a reflection of my respect and care for you. therefore, i will always practice deliberate self-care and self-love.

i will love and respect myself, and i will live well. so please don’t worry about me (though i know telling a mother not to worry is like telling the sun not to shine). i will always be okay–no matter how far apart we are or who is standing beside me.

happy mother’s day, mom.



today is my birthday.

i would like to give myself the gift of time; to live slower and do less.

think less, feel less, see less, touch less–in past years, i have lived too quickly and done too much.

i have lived thinking about what is next, what is there to do, and who can do it with me. i have lived every day wondering about tomorrow, what will be and what’s supposed to be.

every year, on this day, my mother wishes me a happy birthday. she congratulates me on becoming one year wiser. but it’s funny, every year i dont feel any wiser–if anything, each year that passes, i feel i know less and less about what is correct and what is fair, what is and isnt.

maybe it’s only after enough birthdays have passed, that i will know so little about how life is supposed to be, that i can finally be free.

today is my birthday, and i’d like to give myself the gift of time–and the freedom to do absolutely anything with it, no matter how quiet and slow.