A CONVERSATION BETWEEN DRAMATURGS MARIO GOMEZ AND SEAYOUNG YIM
How long has your family lived in the United States?
My immigration story is a bit complicated; I can't answer with just a number. I'm at the same time a 1st, 3rd, and 4th generation immigrant to the US. And that's just on my father's side. My great-grandparents first moved to the States in the 1910s escaping the Mexican Revolution, then my grandfather was born in Wyoming in 1926.
War... and an army general who was in love with my great-grandmother. Family stories claim that it was Pancho Villa, but it was most likely one of his subordinates.
Then my grandmother and her step-mom moved to the States from El Salvador, partly due to civil unrest, but also economic reasons after my great-grandfather lost a bit of money on his lands. My grandparents met in Southern California, married, and had my father and aunt.
They lived there until 1960 when they took everything they owned and moved back to Mexico because grandpa wanted to start his own foundry and casting business.
So, my dad, at age 8, was an immigrant TO Mexico and had the reverse experience - he didn't know Spanish when they moved and always thought of the US as his home. Years later he moved back to the US for a couple of years but then moved back. Then met my mom and had me.
And my life eventually led me here.
How about your family?
My dad came as a student to study at UC Berkeley. He came from a privileged family and was able to immigrate around 1960 before the 1965 immigration act
. He ended up not finishing and began working for a bank instead. My mom came in the late 70s. They met in Los Angeles and had me in ‘82.
So they were born or lived through the War? Did that affect their or their family's decision to
I don't think they would frame it like that necessarily but yes. The US involvement in South Korea forced them to be dependent on them. And the US was hailed as some kind of advanced paradise. And Korea after the war was bombed to bits.
People were starving
This is a painful history and it was hard to get them to tell me about this.
Was the US seen as a place where they could have more opportunity and safety?
I suppose. Yes. But for my mom, it was hard because she didn't have English skills. My father had the privilege of education and as a man had more opportunities to move through American society. Both faced discrimination, though. My mom had a restaurant in Korea when she was young and it did really well. I think she thought she could do even better in LA but it didn't turn out that way. She suffered a lot. And was mostly a single mom raising me.
Sounds like both our families looked for where they could do better. Either in Korea,
Mexico, or the US.
Yeah. I love that your family went back though. That they were able to thrive there. That’s
such a flip on a dominant narrative.
Yes, but I don't think that's a unique experience. The way the US is seen in Mexico is similar to what you described, a vision where life could be better. I don't know how much of it is real and how much of it was about living in the country doing the bullying instead of the ones on the receiving end.
People don't always realize the loss that comes with immigrating to the US - the ache of losing home and culture. It's really difficult being the only one that looks like you or sounds like you. And the feeling that if you're not "white" you aren't alright.
I always wondered what it would be like to grow up in Korea… or even Los Angeles' Koreatown. In Kim’s Convenience
, the church and faith play an important and positive role in the characters’ lives and is central to many Korean communities -- including offering Korean language classes, like the ones I took as a child.
What about for you when you arrived here permanently? What was it like for you?
Especially since you were familiar with American culture.
Different, moving here wasn’t that big of a shock since I grew up with both cultures My family lived in a weird space where we shared a lot of Mexico's culture and way of thinking while we also had a very decisively American way of thinking. A lot of the media we consumed were from the US or at least in English. My sister and I always went to bicultural schools.
I realize now that I did have an idealized version of how life would be elsewhere especially being a nerdy quiet kid that didn't quite felt he belonged there. So I wonder how the thought of moving somewhere else was appealing subconsciously.
Do you feel that your parents had to prove themselves here?
Oh yes, but mostly to other Koreans. But it was also about survival. I think they never quite left survival mode even when they had physical safety. The trauma of war can make people be hyper-vigilant, always worrying about when things might run out or never being able to fully relax.
Was it just about economic stability? Or did they also worry about how they were
They're intertwined. You had to look like you were rich, especially with all the anti-Japanese and anti-Asian sentiment that existed in the US when they move. You needed to have exaggerated visibility...like the way Appa ceremoniously declares his importance in his
ommunity. He demands to be seen, because if he doesn’t, who will?
Are there particular moments in Kim’s Convenience
that resonated with you or reminded you of your family?
Well, I spent a great deal of time in a convenience store in Everett, WA. So the whole getting to know customers and their business was something that resonated for me. Also, having to work long hours, the language barriers, and the cultural differences between generations in the family also spoke to me.
The children of immigrants in America are often cultural translators for their parents as well. Appa’s resentment towards Japan for colonization of Korea was also something that rang true. My own father was a youth during Japanese colonization and remembers having to learn Japanese and take on a Japanese name. Most Koreans were made to feel like Japan was much more advanced and wealthy… largely in part due to colonization and many Koreans did indeed go to Japan for work. Pachinko is a great book about this!
For me, it was a lot about how long and how much my dad worked to give us the life he dreamt for us. Just like Appa. After my dad started his third foundry, he spent a lot of time at work. There were weeks where I didn't see him because he left to work before I woke up and came back after I had gone to bed. He was doing what he had to do in his mind to provide for us and give us the life he wasn't able to have himself.
How about for you? I mean, you wrote a play about that part of your life, Do It For Umma
. Was there anything about your experience that was markedly different from Janet or Jung's?
Well, for me it was only during my early childhood so I didn't feel a responsibility to carry it's legacy forward as an adult. I also didn't get to spend much time with my father in his old age the way I did with my mom.
Do you think your family has an expectation for you to carry part of your family’s legacy?
I think for a while, growing up, my dad did imagine me continuing in the family business,
following in his footsteps. But I was very lucky. My parents above all did encourage me and my sister to pursue the paths that we wanted (sometimes to their dismay). And as it turns out, my sister, who seemed the less likely of the two of us to go into aluminum foundry given her interests and credentials in design, is working closely with my dad now. I am sure she will be taking over and kicking ass when my dad retires.
Were they bummed out you left Mexico?
Overall, I would say they are happy and understanding. I came to the US pretty much a month right after I graduated college as I got a job offer right away. My dad did say to me, that while he wished we had gotten to spend more time together in Mexico, he was happy for me and the opportunity I had.
I think because of his own experience he knows that immigration doesn’t have to be forever. It is just the next chapter.