On joy, cultural empathy, and the K-drama Crash Landing on You.
In April, I was suicidal for the first time in over a decade. Even before lockdown, my mental health had been poor. The dreams I was having in April—back when I was actually sleeping—were anxiety-based and vivid. One recurring dream I had, both before and during the pandemic: I was walking in a grocery store where everyone but me was white. They would put their hands on my wrist or back or hair as I walked by. If I said anything in my dream, if I reacted, someone would say, “You’re taking this too seriously.” Wide awake at three in the morning, I didn’t wake my husband. I needed to make a decision for me, not for him—I called a hotline.
After the call, I made two lists. One was the things I had to do to stay alive. The other was a list of things to accomplish in my hopefully long life. Even writing this now, I still feel the eviscerating embarrassment I felt while scrawling out ambitions and ideas and small beloved things: walk down the street again eating a lemon ice cream; write another book; visit my friend in Sweden.
When solace is dramatized, it tends to be portrayed as therapy visits, ones where you cry yourself empty, meals spent with friends or family, or the character in the short story who, in the last few paragraphs, looks at something beautiful in nature and, somehow, that peony dripped with rain opens a locked door inside him. My solace is a K-drama on Netflix: Crash Landing on You.
The premise is this: an obscenely wealthy young businesswoman has a paragliding accent and ends up in the demilitarized zone. This woman, Yoon Se-ri, runs into members of a North Korean military unit, including her future love interest, Captain Ri Jeong-hyeok. Making a poor choice, Se-ri disregards the directions Ri Jeong-hyeok gives her and goes the wrong way. She runs through a field laden with land mines, finds a conveniently fallen tree that has smashed into the electric fence, and parkours over it into North Korea.
We live in a world where anything feels possible. Why should I ask television to behave rationally?
In the episodes that follow, Se-ri learns how to live a much different life than the one she has in South Korea. She learns North Korean customs, befriends North Korean people, and from the experiences—friendship, trauma, fear, curiosity, love—changes as a person. She doesn’t become a perfect person from this exposure to people culturally and economically different than her; there’s a later scene, back in Seoul, where she buys apartment buildings and promises her tenants two years free rent if they go fight her enemies in a warehouse for her.
I laughed at the absurdity of that situation typing it out. Yet, every time I’ve watched that scene, I’ve thought about how if one of my landlords had handed me a baseball bat and asked me to fight someone for two years free rent, I would’ve at least sat down and made a pros and cons list.
So, yes, there are flaws. There are probably other problematic moments for people who have deep cultural understandings of either nation. Even still, while watching Crash Landing on You, something became deeply apparent to me. That despite my deep distrust of the U.S. government, despite my complicated relationship with capitalism, I had never thought deeply about North Koreans as people. I had never taken a moment to parse the American rhetoric about that nation, learn more about their culture, or consider how easily I had swallowed the ideas that bricked up my empathetic imagination.
In mainstream U.S. television, who gets to be a person? What is culturally upheld in television shows? How often do we get to see people from other countries not as terrorists, not as victims who desperately need us, not as people to use as punch lines, but as people? Let me take it a step further. How often does our culture let us see our own indigenous, Latinx, and Black people as people? Especially without the cloak of a “respectable” job like police officer?
In Crash Landing on You, Ri Jeong-hyeok is a classic romantic hero. He is handsome, reserved, and has beautiful manners. In, I think, every episode, his looks are remarked upon; in a later plot point, he becomes the star of a viral video because he is a man who is somehow handsome and nice enough to open the door for people. Ri Jeong-hyeok is also seeking justice for the politically motivated murder of his brother. He is an incredible pianist. He has several fighting scenes that I can only describe as John Wick–esque. Ri Jeong-hyeok also sulks, makes poor decisions, takes video games too seriously, and hurts the feelings of people around him. He is a person. He is a North Korean person. I was ashamed that the first time I had thought seriously about North Koreans as people was via the vehicle of an attractive South Korean actor. I felt alive because suddenly, unexpectedly, I was learning. I was questioning my beliefs and thinking of ways to make myself a better person. As Ri Jeong-hyeok and Yoon Se-ri suffered, I became more and more attached to them. I grew.
In The Art of Death, in her chapter on suicide, Edwidge Danticat writes: “Our most humble, and perhaps most arrogant, wish is that our writing might help others feels less alone. Our suffering, or our characters’ suffering—be it internal or external, physical or psychological—is never wasted.”
Over the past few years, I’ve felt very cynically about this quote. The rest of the paragraph it’s from doesn’t distinguish a particular group of writers; she’s speaking for us communally. When I’ve read literature by white writers, there have always been small moments and stylistic reminders that this writing is not meant for me. For example, the number of times Black characters are the only ones raced. When racism comes up it’s used to show readers that hey, this white protagonist is a great person, and then, when the brief moment is done, it’s back to all-white characters, all-white spaces. There is no consideration that those settings and choices also say something deep about the ways race and inequity in the United States work. I’ve felt regularly, subtly abandoned by a lot of contemporary white writing.
I’ve also struggled to accept the consolation in that quote because for so long, it has felt like mainstream publishing’s abiding interest in Black life is in order to see us suffer in ways that fit their narrative of us. Drug dealing, slavery, an interracial romance so that white readers can easily think when they finish: yes, love sees no color. It’s hard for me to see the optimism inherent in Danticat’s statement, to always keep in mind the wellspring of empathy that could happen if there was more room to tell many different kinds of stories.
My suffering is never wasted. I’m here. I’m writing. My suffering is a part of my creative life for better and for worse. But now I’m thinking of a parallel statement: my happiness is never wasted. It’s time to build a reservoir of joy in my creative life. The question I keep returning to now, especially in this moment, is how can I put just as much emphasis on the idea that happiness, too, might make others feel less alone? How do writers—how do I—make sure that the full complexity of being alive is never forgotten, never wasted?
In Crash Landing on You, Se-ri finds a community that she’s never had before in her life. Women and men to drink and commiserate with, people to tease and argue with who never expected to have a friend quite like her. These are characters whose countries have consistently been at war, who at this point have been steeped for generations in dehumanizing rhetoric about one another. Crash Landing on You never wastes its joy. It turns the camera on friendships: a surprise birthday party filled with song and elaborate bouquets; a roasted potato eaten by a campfire; chicken wings and a soccer game; and taking a lover’s hand in the movie theater as the lights dim.
During the golden hour, I sit on my porch and read a friend’s new book. I pick my first pea from the garden and tell my husband, “I can’t believe how sweet this is.” I talk to a friend on the phone for hours, until words are gone and we’re only listening to each other breathe. I won’t waste these moments.
Megan Giddings is a senior features editor at The Rumpus and a fiction editor at The Offing. Her first novel, Lakewood, was published by Amistad.