On February 9th, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite won four Oscars Awards. It left me starstruck to see countless Americans nodding in approval despite not being able to pronounce the director’s name nor its cast. For anyone who has seen Parasite, it is not a movie that can be brushed aside – regardless of whether you enjoyed it, you will talk about it with everyone you run into. Bong said that he wanted his audience to toss and turn after watching the movie, and I sure did. Night after night.
I was particularly invested to see Bong’s success in the US because it was exhilarating to see a Korean director move a diverse audience with a story that seemed specific to Korea. Seeing Bong win the Palme d’Or and the Oscars showed me a glimpse of hope that a strong story can transcend the language barrier. That the experience of being a human is similar across different cultures and having another language as your mother tongue will not cost you a career as a writer. That maybe, just maybe, I could write a piece that resonates with readers outside of my immediate circle.
I spent my teenage years struggling to express myself fully in English and learning to be comfortable in my own skin. When I left Seoul to study abroad in Canada, I was a 13 year old Korean girl who was picked last in PE classes because I was neither athletic nor sociable. Living in Canada for two years helped me become proficient in English, but living in rural China made it rusty again. When I submitted my first History paper at an international school in Tokyo, my teacher kindly advised me to re-learn the use of articles. I was getting them all mixed up, and it did not inspire confidence when I blurted out Mandarin words in the midst of a Japanese conversation either.
Switching countries every two years made for a good college application story, but it did not come without its costs. Worst of all, I could not shake away the fear that I would not become fluent in English to become a writer I aspired to be. Learning Mandarin, Japanese and French were opportunities of a lifetime that I am grateful for, but I likely won’t be able to write creatively in those languages. Spending pivotal years away from home meant that my Korean more or less stayed at the level of a middle schooler too.
But recently, it dawned on me that creative writing is similar to mastering a foreign language. It requires you to fully immerse yourself in another world, speaking in a tone that seems foreign to you. Perhaps more interestingly, the essence of who you are sips into your fictional work or ‘yourself’ in another language. The Gentlemen in Moscow would not be rich with intellectual references if it were not for Amor Towles’ learnedness, and Pachinko would be a bland story if Minjin Lee didn’t have the experience of immigrating to the US as a seven year old. Parasite would not have become a sensation if Bong did not get a perverted sense of joy from sucking people into a tunnel of suspense.
This gives me hope. A hope that the dots of uprooting my life across 7 countries will connect themselves into a story if I let them.