What 'Minari' is doing for Asian American farmers like me

Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han and Noel Cho in "Minari"

Mai Nguyen, a farmer in Sonoma County, California, is the founder of the Asian American Farmers Alliance and co-director of Minnow, which supports California farmers of color. The views expressed here are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)Early in the film "Minari," Korean American farmer Jacob Yi digs his bare hands into the Arkansas dirt. The first time I saw this, as he revealed the soil's dark, loamy tilth, I swooned: not only to see this rich earth, but also to see hands like mine, Asian American hands, working it.

Mai Nguyen
The film follows the Yi family as they move from California to Arkansas to start a small farm, pouring their life savings into a mobile home and a swath of fertile land. I'm a California farmer who, like Jacob, began farming to grow food for my community: mine Vietnamese, his Korean. I've been heartened that the film has been embraced by such a broad cross-section of the country: farmers and immigrants, the Ozarks and Hollywood (it's been nominated for six Academy Awards). In this past year, during a pandemic that disproportionately affected my community, amid heightened anti-Asian violence and climate-change accelerated wildfires, I felt isolated and unseen. Until I saw "Minari."
    While Asian American farmers have long contributed to the US food economy -- teaching White Midwesterners how to grow cherries and stone fruit, turning California's swamplands into the most productive agricultural economy in the country and creating the modern farm-to-table infrastructure that increases food security for all -- we find ourselves absent from how much of America imagines the country's agricultural heartland.
      Steven Yeun (foreground) in 'Minari.'
      Farmland near cities is expensive, prey to the market forces of development. My first farm was three hours north of San Francisco: a distance of great geographic expanse, but an even greater cultural chasm. At first, I was optimistic, energetic; I believed that I could build new communities and maintain old ones. There's a Vietnamese saying, "Good neighbors are better than distant family," so I immediately introduced myself to neighbors. I assumed the ones I didn't meet simply weren't home, until later I noticed newly hung Confederate flags on their porches.
        I felt determined even as I understood their threat perfectly. With friends and at national farm conferences, I spoke of these "minor feelings," Cathy Hong Park's term to describe the contradiction between the country's mythology and the racial reality for Asian Americans -- the dissonance when your lived experience is unacknowledged, or impossible, against the ideological backdrop of American opportunity and big dreams. Minor feelings bubble up when we tell White friends about being racially profiled by the police, or hear the silence of elected officials when we tell them about our experiences of anti-Asian violence in the communities that they represent.
        And I recognized so many of the worries that plague the Yi family in "Minari." I heard my mom's voice in Jacob's wife Monica, who brings a steady dose of reality to his dreams: why not find a farming town closer to a community that cherishes you, a town with culturally aligned child care, a town with a hospital? My mom warned me of those same challenges. She knows about abandoning everything for a new, unwelcoming place; she arrived in the US in 1982 as a war refugee.
          The Yis also face the hardships that affect all farmers: the insult of seeing a year's work rejected by a fickle buyer, the uncertain conditions on which next year's harvest depends, the grim knowledge that in the meantime, the ground holds nothing but debt.
          Yuh-jung Youn in "Minari"
          In the face of these challenges, physically separated from our communities, many of us have built our own networks of care. In 2014, I founded the Asian American Farmers Alliance (AAFA) to combat the alienation I felt as a Vietnamese American farmer and to create the resources and support networks we couldn't get from government programs that on center commodity agriculture and White farmers. At the time, Natalie Bowen's book "The Color of Food" had just come out, filled with photos and oral histories from farmers of color in the US. It included a map -- the nearest farmer of color was 120 miles away, Kristyn Leach of Namu Farm.
          I met Kristyn and Nina F. Ichikawa, then policy director at the Berkeley Food Institute, at the same time, and they introduced me to three other Asian American farmers in California. I organized a meeting for us to learn about each other and our challenges, and that winter day at the Oakland Buddhist Temple was the start of an alliance that has grown into a membership of farmers and advocates spanning North America to save seeds and stories, share technical assistance, create market channels, document recipes, advocate for racial justice and Indigenous sovereignty policies and support each other through the relentlessness of climate change and social disasters of late.
          Labor is racialized and gendered, and violence is racialized and gendered. Asian Americans, especially Asian American women, find themselves in those crosshairs. Asian Americans have been the targets of increased violence and hate crimes over the last year: our elders have been robbed, assaulted, and killed. March 16 brought with it the murders of eight people, including six women of Asian descent. Were they killed because they were Asian American? Or because Asian American women are the ones who labor at this edge of the racialized labor market? How do you tell the difference?
          When AAFA met after the killings in Atlanta and the attack on 65-year-old Vilma Kari in Manhattan, many of us said that our first reaction to the shootings was to check on how others were doing. I felt numb as I did that, just ensuring everyone was OK. Numbness gave way to sadness over the deaths and the coverage, and how little was known about these women. I thought of my mom, who was a hairstylist in the evenings after she taught at public school during the day, all to pay for my college tuition. I thought of how the women who were attacked were working to care for their families. These are women who, in our culture, are socialized to be endlessly giving and selfless. Too often, these women's labor is so unseen and voices are unheard until they are attacked or killed.
          Alan S. Kim and Yuh-Jung Youn in "Minari"
          As farmers, we know that our livelihoods are predicated on justice for all, on supporting one another through the hard times and sharing in plenty during the good times. When the pandemic hit, we cared not only for each other but also for Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people-of-color farmers, those left behind by decades of farm policy. We've built alliances with Black-led farmer efforts to support legislation, such as the Justice for Black Farmers bill, and with Indigenous peoples for rematriation and sovereignty. We know that we can only gain power through solidarity. We need racial equity -- proportionate investment into communities from whom resources have been disproportionately extracted and that haven't had the support and funding of their White peers.
          After the killings in Atlanta, Georgia state Sen. Michelle Au made a plea: "All I'm asking right now, as the first East Asian state Senator in Georgia, is simply to fully consider us as part of our communities."
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            Since "Minari" was released, other Asian American farmers and I have been invited for speaking engagements and interviews; AAFA has seen a dramatic increase in membership. The success of this film has made our work visible and enabled more Asian American farmers to find each other. We are essential workers, and society gladly accepts the fruits of our labor, but "Minari" helps people to understand, welcome, and maybe even celebrate us, not because of the work we do, but because we are human too.
            I've watched the film three times now, and each time I hope that others will see in it what I do: reasons to support immigrants and independent farmers, reasons to meet others with care and not judgment, and cause to ensure everyone -- Indigenous, Black, and immigrant -- can belong. In the face of everything strange and terrible in the last year, what we can do is see each other, hold each other, and, as fellow farmer, Nikiko Masumoto says, "love each other harder," as neighbors and as people who call this country home.