The streets of New York City are empty. Storefronts are boarded up, and the siren of an ambulance murmurs in the distance. A coastal wind rattles apartment windows and echoes through concrete tunnels. The last time I took the train from Manhattan to Jersey City, it was 5 in the afternoon. I had finished one of my last shifts at a coffee shop, which has since shut down. I leaned against the doors of the car to keep my distance from other commuters. At this point, I’d already read a number of articles reporting incidents of harassment and assault against Asian Americans. With my hands in my pockets, I examined the patterns of the train floor and clamped my mouth shut.
In California, my parents report a similar quiet. The highways are empty and my mother’s commute to her essential job takes half the time it normally would. It becomes clear to me that it will be months before I can see them again.
My voice cracks over the phone, “I miss you guys.”
“I know, this isn’t forever, Sydney,” my mother says, “Dad is going into the other room.” In the background, I hear, “Okay! Bye!”
My father never took well to crying.
Justin Chon’s Ms. Purple opens to the swell of violins, and then a voice in Korean: “My daughter is so beautiful.” A middle aged Young-Il (James Kang) kneels in front of his daughter, Kasie, to tie the bow of her pink hanbok. She watches his face carefully but says nothing. He speaks to her tenderly as he adjusts the fabric of her dress and brushes the hair from her face. The scene widens to show her brother sitting behind them, kicking his feet against the sofa, cast in the shadows of the living room. Young-Il embraces his daughter, and the scene cuts forward to an adult Kasie (Tiffany Chu) stumbling across the asphalt of a Los Angeles street, the ribbons of her hanbok flutter, the sun rises behind her.
Like many others across America who have the privilege to stay at home in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I turn to my phone, the internet, and television for some source of comfort. I spend hours in bed, scrolling through my photo albums, playing mindless phone games, ignoring emails. In the afternoon, I go on short walks to feel the sun, but with the uptick of violence against Asian Americans in public, I find myself afraid to be alone on the sidewalk. I shift the plants in the living room throughout the day. I raise the volume on the television to fill the room with voices.
In present-day LA, Kasie cares for her father who is now in a vegetative state. They live in the house she grew up in. The camera hovers in the rooms of the house as Kasie changes the tubes out of her father’s life support machine, wipes down his body, and eats dinner off a small table on the floor. The scene suddenly transitions to Kasie, walking around a dimly lit canal, staring off into the distance. The scene jumps again to the evening—Kasie’s hair is up, her eyelids darkly shadowed; she wears a fitted black dress.
Kasie works as a doumi girl at a karaoke bar. She drinks with the men who frequent the establishment, lets them lean over her, whispers sweet nothings into their ears. We see her life in montage: Kasie swallows a glass of whiskey then wrings the laundry by hand; she tends the bedsores on her father’s back then eats alone in the karaoke bar hallway, looking out at the space in front of her. Although the scenes are populated, the characters don’t speak, a murmur of nightlife is washed away by the overwhelming violin music. The sequence ends with Kasie in an empty karaoke room, staring at the neon lights on the ceiling. A dissociative quality is applied to Kasie’s stares; her view is often out of shot, leaving us to guess what she sees; her face remains still, ambivalent to the chaos of her life. She only acts as she needs to, withholding her emotions, so we can only imagine the loneliness of her interiority.
I can count, on one hand, the number of times I’ve cried since the beginning of March. On the same hand, I can count the number of times I’ve called home.
On a particularly bad day, I play Ms. Purple on Hulu. I’m not an avid movie watcher, but I go out of my way to watch movies with Asian cast members. As the Asian diaspora slowly makes its way into popular media, I am continuously fascinated to recognize some characteristic of myself on a public platform.
Young-Il appears on screen, and I immediately think of my father—though truthfully, any middle-aged Korean man on TV reminds me of my father. Kasie’s brother, Carey (Teddy Lee), a thin young Asian man with a sparse moustache, reminds me of my brother. And while I don’t necessarily see myself in Kasie, I identify with her sense of familial responsibility, her stoicism, her loneliness. Although she has plenty of reason to despair, Kasie cries infrequently, melting down only when she admits her father into hospice.
Throughout the film, Chon collages scenes from the past and present to show the life of this Korean American family—the resentment, the affection, the grief, and the joy. Kasie’s relationship with her father has always been loving, while Carey runs away from home to escape the rage of his father.
As parallel timelines of the siblings’ lives are stitched together, they are each revealed to live in solitude. Interspersed throughout the narrative, Kasie is shown tending to her own body, trying on clothes, bathing, applying makeup, drying her hair. Drawing on the opening scenes of care between father and daughter, this kind of tending carries motifs of love and protection—in this way, she is only able to depend on herself. Carey is shown at internet cafes through shots of his expressionless face, lighted in the glow of a computer screen—another source of comfort.
After my last day of work, I lay on the floor and said to my roommate, “I feel defeated.” To which she kindly responded, “What can I do to help?”
I wanted to say, absolutely nothing, but I held my tongue and mumbled, “It’ll just take some time.”
Somewhere between loneliness and hopelessness is fear and anger. I am afraid of the pandemic, I am afraid of what comes after, I am afraid that if I fall into the pit of emotion, I’ll never be able to climb back out. I am angry with the government for placing me and the people I love in jeopardy, I am angry that Asians have become the scapegoat for a global pandemic, I am angry with myself for feeling lonely and hopeless. As protection, I’ve deluded myself into believing I can numb myself of emotion—that if I can’t cry then I’m not sad. I can climb into a different pit, close my bedroom door, and create a bubble where loneliness is a choice.
So on this particularly bad day, I have trouble understanding why I feel so lethargic. I play video games, bake granola, water my plants to pass the time. I consider calling home, but it feels too heavy, like too much work. I turn on the TV.
I imagine scenarios over and over in my head as I rush back to my home from the grocery store. If a car lurches toward you at an intersection, you hit the hood of the car and run. If a stranger spits at you on the sidewalk, you throw yourself into them with all your weight. If you are assaulted, you fight back. You fight like you’re fighting for your life.
Ms. Purple depicts the intergenerational trauma of Asian masculinity through the perspective of an Asian woman. When Carey is alone with the unconscious body of his father, he grabs Young-Il’s shoulders and shakes him. The scene is muted, shifting between simultaneous scenes of Kasie out with her lover and client. Carey screams into his father’s face, but we don’t hear what he’s saying. Like Kasie, we are aware of the rage, but when we witness the action, a facet of that rage is withheld, so it’s difficult to identify.
When Kasie describes her childhood, she says, “My dad was like a dick to my brother, so he left when he was 15.” In reducing the conditions of her childhood to a sentence, she refuses to identify the rage seeded between her father and brother. But, in a sense, she is protecting them. She holds family at too high a standard to blur it with rage.
When I was a child, I cried often. Like many children, I cried when I was scolded, I cried when I felt left out, I cried when my brother accidentally snipped my finger as he was passing me scissors—in fact, I wailed at the top of my lungs until my mother rushed into the room.
From my mother, my tears were often met with warmth, a hug, an “it’s okay, you’ll be okay.” When she was scolding me, she would pretend I wasn’t crying, so she could clearly explain my misdoing.
My father approached crying differently. Sometimes, he’d invoke my mother’s method and try to ignore my crying, but his English was flawed and communication was frustrating. Once I knocked over a glass of juice on the carpet, and he yelled, “Be careful!” Immediately, I started to cry to which he responded, “Why are you crying?! Clean it up and be more careful!” This was how I learned to clean up after myself, that my mistakes are often fixable if I am willing to fix them. This was also how I learned that crying would get me nowhere.
As an adult, I rarely cry at movies. When the last man I was seeing broke things off, I smiled sympathetically and nodded, “It’s okay.” I got into my car and said to myself, “Alright, you can cry now,” and took a deep breath. But as it turned out, the well of tears I thought I had plugged behind my eyes was empty. I pressed them with my fingertips, hoping to coax out just one tear, but nothing emerged.
When COVID-19 arrived, and the world around me began shutting down, I became irritable, but I didn’t cry. The muscles in my back tensed, as they often do when I’m stressed, and I lied in bed, tearless for five days.
I’m not going to lie for the sake of this essay, I did cry a little bit, in short bursts. Once, when the tension in my back felt unbearable, I sat on the floor and squeezed my face in frustration with my own body. Tears trickled down my cheeks, and my roommate rubbed my back for a few minutes. When I stopped, I laughed and said, “This is like the end of an episode in some anthology series about the end of the world.” She smiled, “It feels overwritten.”
There’s a photo of an Asian man floating around on Facebook. His eye is swollen and bruised, his lips are bleeding. When I first see this image, paired with the word “coronavirus,” I think, Is this what the virus does to you? When I click the post and read further, I learn that the man, Jonathan Mok, was attacked on a London street on February 24. His attackers were motivated by the coronavirus.
On March 19, at a White House briefing, Donald Trump refers to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus.”
NYPD reports an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in recent weeks.
On Instagram, a friend in Canada posts about a number of incidents in which she is harassed in public with distinct references to her Asian appearance.
I tell my roommate, “To be honest, I’m afraid of going outside.”
She looks down and says, “I’m so sorry.”
I don’t feel better. I don’t expect to feel better, but somehow her apology makes me feel more lonely. Her apology admits that my fear is something she can never understand, and I don’t fault her for this—there is nothing we can do to change our racial identities, and I appreciate that she recognizes our differences. But my loneliness is a reminder that my Asianness and the weight it carries aren’t shareable with non-Asian people. Away from my family, Asianness sets me apart.
In the final scene of the film, Young-Il sits on a stool and gazes at his children, spooned together, asleep on the sofa. A close shot of his face, first stoic, almost sad, then a smile emerges on the corners of his lips.
Immediately, I recognize this face. I have seen this look of absolute contentment before on my own father. During my last trip to California, my family and I had dinner at a sushi restaurant. My brother and I sat on one side of the table, facing my parents and grandmother. My father looked at us as we picked at our salads and miso soup. My father’s gaze was uncomfortable to look back at, his eyes sparkled above his curled lips.
My brother’s low-toned voice grumbled, “What?”
My father leaned back and crossed his arms, maintaining his charmed stare. “I’m just looking at you.”
From the third-person, watching a man watch his children who do not see him, I can consume the scene without the discomfort. He is beaming with pride and affection. As my father’s face appears in my mind, tears fill my eyes.
The credits roll, and the violins return.
I dab the corners of my eyes with my forefinger.
Then, like some kind of magic, my phone rings. My father’s voice.
“I miss you, and I just wanted to hear your voice. How are you?”
“I’m okay—,” the tears streaming.
We talk for 10 minutes about the state of the world. Our hospitality jobs. My grandmother who refuses to stop taking the bus. The money the government has promised us. Then he remembers video chat. “Oh, we could try that right now!” he exclaims.
“No, I don’t want to do that right now!” I shout back, desperately wiping my face.
“Alright, next time. I’ll talk to you again soon. I love you.”
“Love you too.”
I place the phone on my lap. I hunch over on my bed and gasp for air as I whimper into my hands.
“They all seemed like they needed somebody…the men at the karaoke…they all reminded me of dad,” Kasie remarks in a voice over as she burns her hanbok.
At the height of the pandemic, I feel desperate. Like everyone else, I am scared of an invisible virus that could bring me or my loved ones to our deathbeds. I am horrified and outraged by how my government has handled the outbreak, how people of color and the working class have been left defenseless. I am scared of the people who blame Asians for COVID. I am scared for my life.
I’m searching for comfort in anything I can find—in television, in art making, in long phone calls with friends. I imagine my parents and grandmother at the dinner table in my childhood home, and I long for a day that I can safely be there too.