Life as a Reference

Kyungchan Min

A little less than a year ago, I was on a Chinatown bus heading to Philadelphia. It was night, and the freezing air in New York made the bus more an insulated cooler than a warm vehicle. Earlier that day, I took an Amtrak up to the South Korean consulate in Manhattan to renew my passport—a dark green passport issued by Republic of Korea, the country in which I had spent the first nine years of my life. Was the bus a downgrade from the thick leather seats of the Amtrak train, occupied by hundreds of business people? Absolutely. For one, the train did not have that encroaching smell of the lavatory reaching out from the back of the bus. But I don’t remember much of my Amtrak journey from 30th Street Station to Penn Station: I don’t particularly remember the comfortable seats, the crisp yet warm air, or the quiet uninterrupted ride.

I remember the bus ride though. I remember the prickly cloth of the charter bus seat, and I remember the dark interior of the bus punctuated by a single light over a seat. More importantly, I will never forget the young Chinese father under that light, attempting to soothe his child’s cries with an iPad game. I was sitting diagonal to them only two rows behind, listening to the boy cry and his father mutter soothing words in a dialect of Chinese I couldn’t figure out.

After an hour, the boy fell asleep on his father’s lap. The father was tenderly stroking his hand on the boy’s back, and looking past the seat in front of him, perhaps past the windshield twenty rows ahead.

Then, I started crying. Somehow, I saw so much of my father in the father, and so much of myself in the boy. I remembered the two-and-a-half years my family lived in Queens, always struggling to make any ends meet, but somehow shielding me from most symptoms of poverty (not that I knew at the time). It felt like I was seeing a memory I had forgotten in my sleep, but never forgotten by my dad.

I guess I wanted to tell that story because it never left my memory, and also because it’s in line with the kind of stories I strive to tell in my work. It’s the beauty in the mundane that I etch onto my memory, not the striking glamour of a black-tie event. When I decided to become a cinematographer (and eventually a colorist) three years ago, I did not realize the responsibility I would inherit as a person of color attempting to succeed in an industry full of outdated norms and prejudices. It’s not just about making pretty images, but it’s actually about telling stories that matter.

Dr. Dorinne K. Kondo, an Asian-American anthropologist at USC, wrote in 1996 that there is an “urgent necessity for Asian Americans to write ourselves into existence.” Ever since reading those lines, I stamped them into my mind and repeated it over and over again. In four months, I will be graduating from Swarthmore College with a major in sociology & anthropology and a minor in film & media studies. At around the same time, I will be finishing up my twelve-weeks at JTWO. The seats here are comfortable, the air is nice, and the people (and dogs) have been nothing but wonderful. Let’s hope that the next twelve-weeks will be full of great progress and good-times, because I’m ready to remember it all.