Canadian artist Emily Jung has a fond memory from her final days living in South Korea. During her childhood martial-arts training, she had achieved a red belt with a black stripe by the age of 10. That’s one step below a black belt, but that didn’t stop her instructor from rewarding her with this for her protection.
“Before we came to Canada, our tae kwon do teacher got me and my brother black belts with our names on it,” Jung tells Pancouver over Zoom. “He said, ‘If kids are being racist and they’re trying to bully you, you show them this black belt.’ ”
Upon arriving in Canada, Jung encountered racism in school. But on positive note, she says that children are very resilient and she survived.
However, she acknowledges that she now recognizes traumatic aspects of immigrating to a new country. For example, Jung grew up with particular customs, language, and social cues in South Korea. Then those suddenly changed and she had to relearn everything.
“It probably had an effect on my personality at some point, here and there,” Jung observes.
Now, Jung’s artistic practice revolves around Korean-English bilingualism. She manifests this as a Toronto-based visual artist, playwright, and arts administrator.
In her interview, she mentions that she’s currently working with an artist group in South Korea. They’re developing a dramaturgical process inspired by Indigenous artists that still respects Korean-language theatre training.
“It’s been really cool,” Jung says.
In Vancouver, Jung is in the midst of a 10-day residency with rice & beans theatre, workshopping a bilingual play called Dead Korean Girl Comedy Show. In fact, Jung and another emerging playwright, Tehran-born queer artist Sarvin Esmaeili, are the first selected for the theatre company’s Polyphonic Translation Residency.
Jung writes comedy with Korean ghosts
Under the leadership of rice & beans artistic director Pedro Chamale, the Polyphonic Translation Residency marks an expansion of the company’s DBLSPK program. DBLSPK aims to “examine the relationship between language and culture within performance”.
“During DBLSPK, resident artists have the opportunity to work in the studio with a team of collaborators and then present excerpts of their new multilingual/translated work at a workshop-setting public performance,” rice & beans theatre states on its website. “The artist then engages with the audience in a conversation post-show, taking a deep dive into the research topics related to their project.”
The company plans to share Dead Korean Girl Comedy Show, co-created by Jennifer Park, and Esmaeili’s Maman, do you love me? at 7 p.m. on June 9 at Progress Lab 1422.
Even though Jung’s play incorporates elements of Asian women ghost stories, she emphasizes that there’s nothing scary about it.
“It is very much a comedy,” Jung declares.
Moreover, while the recent wave of anti-Asian hatred inspired Dead Korean Girl Comedy Show, she never had any intention of creating a sad story.
“I think the writing process for this was especially healing and complicated for me because the characters are ghosts,” she states. “And they don’t have bodies that could be harmed.”
In the play, these ghosts are present in Canada.
“The two main characters are Korean,” Jung states. “Then we have a sort of Canadian Government for the Dead and The Korean Afterlife that’s based in Korean folk culture. It’s very much about the conflict of those two things.”
On Margaret Cho’s influence
As part of her residency with rice & beans theatre, Jung plans to caption the play in English and Korean. She wants to ensure that it’s accessible across the English-Korean language spectrum.
“I think every immigrant knows there is a third language that happens when you are [in] a diaspora,” Jung says. “There is a very specific North American Korean English.”
She’s incorporated this in the dialogue between Korean and diasporic Korean characters. In addition, Jung discloses that her play includes plenty of absurdity. At times, her writing can be a little dark and vulgar.
That prompts Pancouver to ask if her approach was influenced in any way by the work of comedian Margaret Cho, who’s also of Korean ancestry.
“I think Margaret Cho influenced everyone, whether you’re Korean or not,” Jung quips.
She then adds that she loves how Cho shatters stereotypes about Asian women. “She reminds me of so many of my friends.”
On a more serious note, Jung points out that the history of Korean immigration to Canada is still very young. Tae-yong Whang is believed to be the first Korean immigrant on record after Christian missionaries sponsored him to move to Toronto as a medical intern in 1948. According to Korea University sociologist In-Jin Yoon, there were only 70 Korean immigrants in Canada by 1965.
But the numbers have grown enormously since then. In 2021, the Canadian census reported that there were 217,650 people of Korean cultural or ethnic origin and 218,140 Korean Canadians.
Cho, an LGBTQ icon, is one of a growing number of artists of Korean ancestry who’ve shaped popular culture in North America.
Riceboy Sleeps parallels Jung’s childhood
Jung points out that Choi’s parents came from a very different Korea in the 1970s than the country that she and her parents left many years later. Furthermore, she says that Koreans arriving in Canada nowadays are coming from a nation that is “completely different than the Korea I come from”.
In Shim’s recent award-winning film, Riceboy Sleeps, the feisty Korean immigrant mother is very willing to confront racist attitudes and actions by much larger white men.
Jung doesn’t hesitate to mention the impact that Riceboy Sleeps had on her. She was especially touched by how Shim’s film showcased the beauty of Korea. And the racism experienced by the boy in Riceboy Sleeps , Dong-Hyun, was eerily similar to what she endured, as was his mother’s response.
“One of my favourite moments in that film is when she told her son to hit kids who are bullying him because that’s what my mom told me to do,” Jung reveals.
Unlike Jung, however, Dong-Hyun didn’t have a black belt with his name on it that he could wave in the face of his tormenters.
At 7 p.m. on Friday (June 9) at Progress Lab 1422 (1422 William Street), rice & beans theatre will share Maman, do you love me? and Dead Korean Girl Comedy Show by inaugural Polyphonic Translation Residency artists Sarvin Esmaeili and Emily Jung. Visit Eventbrite for tickets on a pay-what-you-decide basis. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.