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A compound image made of two film stills. On the left from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PINES by Anne Koizumi is a claymation Asian character wearing an orange shirt and blue pants, holding a mushroom standing in a pine forest. On the right from TIGER AND OX by Seunghee Kim is a pencil sketch of a daughter figure sitting on her mother’s back. Her mother is lying down on the floor with her face propped up in her hands.
Film Stills from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PINES and TIGER AND OX

Deeper Than The Cosmos

by Khiem Hoang

This essay is published as part of the Youth Critics Initiative II, a collaborative program between the 24th Reel Asian Film Festival and TACLA.

Introduction

Growing up, I was never quite sure if my parents loved me or not. It was rather jarring seeing people on TV hug so much and throw out phrases like “I love you” so freely. Consume enough Western media and you might feel like something’s wrong when your family doesn’t treat you the same way. A lot of my childhood energy was spent trying to get my parents’ approval, and more importantly, trying not to make them angry. I would get frustrated when my loved ones did certain things and they’d get frustrated when I didn’t do certain things. Familial bonds can be strange because affection is oftentimes hidden underneath some sort of shell. Perhaps it’s a prickly shell that stings when touched, or maybe one’s true intentions are hidden so well that it’s hard to notice something’s encased inside. Everyone is left feeling confused nonetheless.

With all these complicated dynamics, it’s not surprising that people — especially Asians — talk about our families so much. It’s a perennial topic that worms its way into a surprising amount of social situations. Don’t know how to break the ice with a cousin you’ve just met? Initiate a venting session! You’re at work and your coworker keeps bothering you? Tell them your dad works at Nintendo! Tired of arguing about K-pop with your friends? Tell them your grandma’s cooler than BLACKPINK (mine definitely is)! The applications are endless. One explanation for family being such a popular conversation topic is the fact that it’s a relatively universal experience. Most people have spent some portion of life living with family (blood-related or otherwise) and can relate to others in this regard.

Our loved ones can be a huge source of joy at times and sorrow at others. This varies from individual to individual, but I’m sure most of us have had fluctuations in our familial relationships. It’s not uncommon for people to have mixed feelings about their folks. In the case of me and my parents, “mixed” is putting it lightly.

The Hurting — Incongruencies, Instabilities

Despite various complications, my childhood is filled with happy memories: my dad bringing home bootleg DVDs for us to watch, planting tulips with my mother, going to the park with the whole family. All these memories, I cherish dearly.

So where did things go wrong? Why did my relationship with my parents become so strained? For me, it started during adolescence when I was beginning to define things for myself. When I naturally began questioning the things my parents taught me. Generational differences are already difficult to navigate and my hyphenated identity as a Vietnamese-Canadian certainly didn’t make things easier. Children in the diaspora are bombarded with so many conflicting messages throughout our lives: taught one way of life at home and another outside of it. We can only embody so many values throughout our lives and many choose to forgo those from our heritage.

My relationship with my parents went sour because we couldn’t understand each other and slowly drifted apart. It’s funny huh. We, the children, mess up somewhere along the way and spend our adult lives trying to figure out what went wrong. Some of us eventually come to terms with things and take steps to repair our fractured relationships. Others decide to cut contact completely.

Intergenerational trauma has sorta become a buzzword in our community. Not because it’s ceased to exist or has become any less important, but because our discussions about it often don’t go past introducing the concept. We tend to bring up the term and just let it “hang” in the air. This is a large part of our struggle, no? Our parents go through a lot of pain, develop unhealthy ways of dealing with it, then transmit them to us. Perhaps we pass it onto our children as well. Many people find themselves perpetuating cycles of hurt. How do we make it stop? How do we heal from that?

The Healing — “Parentcore” Art and Reconciliation

There’s a certain type of art I’ve noticed resonates with a lot of Asians. I’ll call it “parentcore”. As you can probably guess, it’s art that’s about parents and children in some way or another. Such work may touch upon the artist’s relationships with their parents/children whether it entails love, anger, remorse, or the myriad of other emotions that arise from parent-child relationships. One of my favourite examples of parentcore is the song Pieces of You by Epik High. It’s a record where rapper Tablo (supported by his group members) mourns his deceased father, wishing he could turn back time. It’s heart wrenching and it’s freakin’ beautiful. A more positive example of parentcore is Isn’t She Lovely by Stevie Wonder. This is a joyful affair where Stevie celebrates the birth of his (then) newborn daughter. The frames of reference I’ve provided show how versatile parentcore is; it can be used to explore the many dimensions of the parent-child relationship.

Parentcore art is frequently made when a person comes to certain conclusions about their relationships. More often than not, this comes with the passage of time, and as part of the process of reconciliation. This was certainly the case with the Side by Side shorts program at the 2020 Toronto Reel Asian International Film festival. This group of films comprised meditations on intergenerational trauma and healing. Two of the shorts resonated with me in particular: TIGER AND OX by Seunghee Kim and IN THE SHADOW OF THE PINES by Anne Koizumi. I saw myself reflected in them. Their stories, intertwined with mine.

TIGER AND OX — Let’s Agree to Disagree

Still from TIGER AND OX. A pencil sketch of a large tiger looking down at a disproportionately small ox.
Still from TIGER AND OX

The charmingly animated TIGER AND OX depicts a conversation between Seunghee Kim and her mother. Their different approaches to life are visualized through mother’s depiction as a tiger and daughter’s depiction as an ox. Mother is a fiery “warrior in an apron” whose aura commands respect wherever she goes. Kim is around the age her mother was when she had her. She’s spent her life weighed down by expectations because “a daughter is worth ten sons.” Both women discuss the stigma of single motherhood and the hardships it entails. Mother shares details about her life as a restaurant owner. She’s open about the discrimination she faced as a female divorcee, and about how difficult it was having no one to turn to for support. Kim reflects on how fearful she was of her mother, pondering if things might’ve turned out differently if she was born a son. Perhaps the most poignant scene in the film comes when Kim sheds her ox-shell to reveal her human form, showing her resolve to break free of the expectations put on her. To be fearless about her upbringing as the child of a single mother.

Part of the reason parent-child relationships tend to be so fraught (yet loving) is because people can be as different as apples and oranges, tigers and oxen. Coming from different eras and contexts is bound to result in clashing perspectives and manners of living. Something that TIGER AND OX illustrates well is that problems like patriarchy and societal gender norms have an effect on everyone — just in different ways. Mother feels like she has to be strong for her family’s sake but is shunned for her marital status. Daughter finds it difficult to understand why her mother is sometimes cold and distant. The two haven’t done anything to warrant their mistreatment, but suffer simply for existing.

Watching this film reminded me of my father and I. He was someone I was always in awe of — and fearful of — as a kid. His story may be very familiar to those in the Vietnamese diaspora: he endured poverty in the post-war era, escaped the homeland by boat, came to Canada with only a plastic bag to his name, and hustled his way into the life he has now. Father always stressed that I had to be “a good son”. I’m still not sure what that means. It’s an idea that sounds vague, yet carries a host of connotations. From what I can tell, a good son, at least to my father, means someone who’s the picture of Vietnamese masculinity and mirrors traditional values. It’s been a constant struggle for me to live out my masculinity on my own terms. I never felt it was fair that I couldn’t openly cry or show that I was upset as a child. Nor could I explore traditionally “feminine” things without being reprimanded. In regards to traditional values, I appreciated the education but couldn’t live as a “traditional Vietnamese” person because, well, I’m Canadian. What seems natural to my father may seem foreign to me and vice versa. Plus, his idea of tradition is frozen at whatever time he left Vietnam. As such, I felt like my father was constantly pressuring me to be someone I wasn’t. Like he couldn’t love me for who I was. Like my existence wasn’t valid.

I spent years avoiding interaction with my father whenever possible, I just didn’t want to fight anymore — figured it was better to live and let live. Still, tolerance is not the same as acceptance, and this was only a band aid solution to our tensions. It took a lot of effort on both our ends to see eye to eye. The event that set off the process of reconciliation occurred during a time in my life where things weren’t going so well. I had just been fired from a job I planned my life around, my mental health went boom, and my body decided it didn’t like functioning properly. I didn’t see the point in anything. During that time, I noticed my father being extremely fussy and running around trying to do things like prepare food for me. I couldn’t understand why he would stay up and worry about me at night or go through so much bullshit for me. Like ughhhh, dad why won’t you let me neglect myself and sink into the floor? So, at 5 AM, as he was driving me to this shitty part-time job I’d picked up, I asked him “Why do you love me?”

Here’s his answer translated and condensed from Vietnamese:

A collage of a textured green background, with text on the left titled, “Why do you love me, dad?” Body text reads, “My son, the only thing I have in this world is you and your brother. I come from nothing so that you two wouldn’t worry about anything. The only thing I have is you. I could lose my house, my limbs, my pride, anything. If I could still have you. Image on the right is a baby photo of two young Asian children.
Image c/o Khiem Hoang

This response really fucked me up. I bit my tongue and held back tears walking into work. I kept it together until halfway through my shift, then spent lunch break crying in the washroom. The cleaning lady, upon hearing the commotion, found me and hugged me (I still think about her sometimes). It finally clicked for me why my father was the way he was. Why he endured so much abuse at work, experienced crushing losses, and still held his head up high. It was because he loved me after all. Him having problematic viewpoints and acting in toxic ways was a reflection of the harsh life he led, not a harsh attitude towards me. The reason my father wanted me to live a certain way was because it was the only way he thought I could survive in this world. It didn’t mean that he hated me.

It meant he didn’t know how to love me in a way I could understand.

This is a conclusion I couldn’t have reached without time passing. When the initial cracks showed in our relationship, I hadn’t lived enough to understand what my father was going through, just like how Kim couldn’t understand her mother until much later in her life. Understanding comes with time and effort. Healing between people is possible if they are willing to reflect and engage with one another.

IN THE SHADOW OF THE PINES — A Cry into the Ether

Anne Koizumi recounts an anecdote from her childhood. She’s in Grade 2 and her sick classmate has just thrown up. Someone is called to clean it up. It’s none other than her dad, the custodian. Anne rolls her pencil off her desk so that she can hide. She doesn’t want the other kids to know they’re related. She asks her dad,

“Do you remember that?”

IN THE SHADOW OF THE PINES is Anne Koizumi’s exploration of grief. Mixing claymation, collage, and archival footage with a dash of pensiveness, Koizumi delves into the shame and guilt she felt about her relationship with her dad. She shares painful experiences, such as those times her dad shouted her Japanese name (Mayu) in the school hallway while she ignored him in response. Koizumi lays out everything she ever resented about her father: his status, his gruffness, his Japaneseness. She wanted him to be a slick-haired salaryman or a refined sensei. She rejected him and molded herself into the image of her “ideal” father. The father she wanted.

Still from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PINES. Diorama setting of a white furry carpeted living room with a brown couch on the left, checkerboard coffee table and side table with a lit lamp sitting on it, and a television set on the right. There are paintings hung on the walls behind the couch and the side table, and flowers are hanging down on all the other walls.
Still from IN THE SHADOW OF THE PINES

With the help of archival footage, Koizumi’s father explains his own perspective. He grew up in a Japanese orphanage in the aftermath of the Second World War. He didn’t get the attention he needed from his mother (who worked at the orphanage) so he’d call out to her. That’s why he called out, “Mayu”. So that she’d know he was there for her. He apologizes to Koizumi, telling her that he tried his best and worked hard for her.

The film concludes with a memory. Koizumi’s dad takes her to go searching in the pine forests for matsutake mushrooms. She finds a mushroom, calls out to her father, and sees that he’s no longer with her. She’s left staring into the shadows.

IN THE SHADOW OF THE PINES depicts a case where a person can’t just talk with their loved one and hash things out. It’s a lot different when one part of the equation has already departed this mortal plane. How do you communicate with someone who can’t talk back? What happens to the relationship that’s cut short?

There’s a day in my life that’s seared into my memory. It started as a usual Saturday morning, with my mother dropping my brother and I off at Vietnamese language school, then heading to work at the nail salon. Being 12, I dreaded Saturday school (why put your children through this???) but it was okay since uncle got us McDonald’s on the way home. It was always exciting coming home because I got to indulge in my regular routine of video games, video games, VIDEO GAMES. It started getting pretty late and we were all wondering why mom hadn’t come home yet. She never came home actually. She’d had a stroke earlier in the day and was braindead by the time my family got to the hospital. 3AM. She was already a shell at 3AM.

Everyone understands that their loved ones will perish someday but nobody expects it to happen any day. There should be warning signs, arguments with the doctor, a beautiful scene where everyone pours out their sincerity around a deathbed. My family got none of that.

I felt so robbed.

Robbed of so many things. Of a proper family life, of a normal adolescence, of my mother. The thing I grieved most was the opportunity to understand my mother. At the time of her death, my feelings towards my mother were predominantly negative — I resented her. She scolded me into praying every night. She made me solve math problems until my hands cramped. She wanted me to be a doctor when I wanted to be a vampire or something. She made me feel worse when I needed to feel better. She was the bad cop to my dad’s…bad-but-in-a-different-way-cop. It’s scary cause I so desperately want to love her like I do the rest of my family, but my memories of her are fading. I recall less and less everyday. I don’t even know if the voice I remember is real or not.

In her Q&A panel, Koizumi mentioned that she went digging into her father’s history because she didn’t know much about him other than the life she lived with him. To fill the gaps in both their identities, Koizumi collected stories from his friends, relatives, and even the orphanage he grew up in. She felt that a better understanding of her father’s past allowed her to get to know him better. I’ve been on a similar journey in the years since my mom’s passing. Whenever I can, I ask relatives for stories about my mother. What was she like growing up? Did she have any dreams? Was she cool? Cooler than me? I hear different things every time but each piece of the puzzle contributes to a clearer picture. I also try to take stock of whatever remnants she left behind: old photos, a sewing machine, some documents. Her old documents were the real kicker. Felt like I’d hit the jackpot stumbling into them. “Finally, I get to see a glimpse of her inner mind!” I initially regretted it.

A blackout poem that reads, “ REDACTED by glass found in the shell afterwards upset, uncomfortable Often dizzy” with two illustrated ghost figures on the top right, saying “uh oh!” and “yikes”.
Image c/o Khiem Hoang

These words were pieced together from what I found: a resume, a record of bills paid, notes on dressmaking, notes on applying fake nails, and a journal entry describing a host of health problems. Upon reading this, a wave of melancholy washed over me. It seemed like my mom was really struggling. I remembered when she had to look for work, how she was always so stressed about money, how she loved working as a seamstress, how difficult she found it learning to do nails, and how she constantly complained about aches and pains. Both my parents suffered so much without me realizing it. They hid it well.

It made total sense why Koizumi fabricated her father’s apology in the film. Like she mentioned in her Q&A, there are some conversations we can’t really have when our parents are still alive. Death allows us to come to conclusions we might not come to otherwise. Reconciliation is our opportunity to extract enlightenment from tragedy. Towards the end of the panel, host Angela Sun shared a beautiful comment from the audience, “Anne, your father’s character was very much like mine. Perhaps they are comparing notes somewhere in the cosmos.” I hope my mother’s out there watching me. All the other ones who’ve left before me as well. I hope you’re watching me kill it. I promise to send a nod and a wink once in a while.

To my mother in the cosmos, I offer this message:

Xin lỗi mẹ, I forgive you.

Conclusion

It’s largely considered a compliment to hear that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, but for the longest time, I wanted to fall as far away as possible. I’d been hurt so much that I so dearly wanted not to exhibit any of the negative traits I saw in my parents. Out of spite, I also refused to acknowledge their positive traits.

The more I age the more I realize that I can’t deny my roots. I can fall as far as another galaxy, but I’ll still be a tree no matter what. I’ve begun to recognize some of the harmful patterns ingrained in me but also the helpful ones. Yes, I learned the deep-seated anger and shame from my parents but they also gave me my tenacity, grit, and undeniable charm. This parentcore comic by Tommy Siegel really sums it up.

We’re not wholly defined by our circumstances but by what we choose to make of them. I can let the tree (that is me) rot and bother random passersby, or I can cultivate a strong foundation, and allow others to bask in my splendour.

A collage with layers featuring written correspondence, and text “I can sleep/feel energetic /sew /disturbing work” overlaid on textured paper. Photos include a woman with her face whited out sitting on the edge of “feel energetic”, the author pointing finger guns at the bottom left, yellow flowers running along the bottom of the collage, and a figure with their face whited out holding a big fish on the bottom right.
Image c/o Khiem Hoang

I’m getting more comfortable acknowledging my family for all their efforts and their faults. I’ll admit that I am loved even if it’s not shown to me in the ways that I’d prefer. Like yeah, my dad isn’t too thrilled about the amount of time I put into music but he did buy me my first guitar. And sure, my mother wasn’t so down to buy me toys but she was more than willing to support my love of reading. My father remarrying was a huge adjustment at first but I’ve learned to love my stepmom as if she were my own kin. Relations with my folks can still get challenging from time to time. We fight occasionally and it’s hard using my shoddy Vietnamese to explain concepts like “orientalism” or “meme culture”, but it’s okay. We’re trying.

I never would’ve gotten this far along in my journey without parentcore. Works such as TIGER AND OX and IN THE SHADOW OF THE PINES helped normalize these complicated feelings I had. They also gave me the strength to define myself irregardless of any trauma. As long as parentcore art exists and continues to be made, we’re never truly alone. We’ll always be side by side.

Khiem Hoang (He/Him) is a writer, community facilitator, and wannabe musician with an obsession for shawarma and counterculture. His work seeks to question our realities and ponder radical possibilities. He cares deeply about celebrating a multiplicity of perspectives, improving our conditions, and being “heavy metal” (whatever that means). You can find him trawling thrift stores and shilling obscure artists.

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a commons run by a coalescing of Asian diasporic people.