Ten years into living in Canada, there are still things that bring me joy and frustration in equal measure. Frustration: when I search every supermarket in the city for curry leaves (a vital ingredient to South Indian & Sri Lankan food imparting a toasted earthy flavor to stir fries and curries) and yet cannot find them. Joy: when I asked an out-of-towner friend to bring me some in jest and to my surprise, she arrives with a scrunched up nose and a grocery bag full, despite never having heard of them before."Is that how they normally smell?", she asks. "Yes", I reply. "They smell like home".
Food, with its transcendent appeal and its ability to connect the strangest of strangers is at the heart of Minari, Lee Isaac Chung's 2020 semi-autobiographical film. It tells the tale of growing up on an Arkansas farm with his Korean parents who yearn to be masters of their own fate and escape the comical and equally morbid job of chick sexing. With 50 acres of land, Jacob dreams of entering the Korean vegetable market in the midwest, while Monica cares for their children Anne and David, whose heart condition is cause for continuous concern.
Despite its vivid colors and sweeping cinematography, a low hum of discomfort runs through the film, punctuated by uneasiness like when the family visits their local Pentecostal church and is inundated with saccharine niceties befitting of the oriental. Feeling lost and needed the support of a matriarch, the family welcomes Grandma Soonja who arrives with a suitcase full of Korean staples like gojugara and myeolchi. Monica sobs for glee in one moment and shame in the next, feeling the weight of her otherness reflected in her mothers eyes, as she clutches the bags of Korean chili powder and dried anchovies to her chest.
A familiarity swept over me as I thought of the annual winter trips my grandmother, Veronica, would make to our home in Dubai when the sweltering summer heat subsided. Nani, as we called her - as most Indians call their grandmothers, would arrive with bags full of every kind of Goan speciality. There were vacuum packed bags of cashews, still in their pinkish shell waiting to be dry roasted and feni, the fermented alcohol of the cashew apple which is a vital ingredient of vindaloo. The most anticipated item of her trip, however, was Goan chorizo or pork link sausages - one of the last remaining legacies of the Portuguese besides Roman Catholicism.
Food can at once be alienating and welcoming. Throughout Minari, there is a universality of experience, a kind of deja-vu that only immigrants can know. The elation of finding a much sought-after condiment, the peculiar comfort of a matriarch who is both family and foreigner, the desire to make one's mark and show the next generation that culture and traditions have value. Though the protagonists in this movie are Korean, they could truly be any nationality. It is just as easy to picture them as Punjabis, whose presence in Canada is inextricably linked to India's dark colonial history or Ukrainian, to whom large swaths of Canada claim a cultural connection, who came here to escape one demagogue 80 years ago, finding community and resiliency through food, culture and human connection and through similar circumstances, must doing so again.
As I sit on stolen native land, I ruminate on the opportunities being an immigrant has given me. Opportunities to connect with a culture I found strange and foreign while I grew up in the Middle East. In Dubai, we are not immigrants since we have no claim to the land we tread on. We are expatriates - transient workers whose only value is the labor they generate. There are no analogies of melting pots or mosaics, there is only a drive to provide that carries people from one day to the next, leading many people to begin the process of immigration. The immigrant experience isn't for the fainthearted. It is a test of mettle. It will put you face to face with xenophobia, racism and arguably most crushingly, defeat. I, myself have lost count of the failures and defeats I have endured over the last ten years. In retrospect, perhaps a better approach would have been to allow myself to lean into being an immigrant and see it for what it was, not what I thought it might be. To see it not as painful, but hopeful. In Minari, Monica surveys her new home and finds it nothing like she'd imagined. "What is this?", She asks. "This is what we wanted", says Jacob. "A new start".