Severance, Pachinko, and Facing the Truth of Trauma

Daniel Jung

What might two recent Apple TV series—Severance and Pachinko—have in common, emotionally and theologically? I believe Asian-Americans can see the connection more readily than others.

In the opening moments of Severance, Mark Scout (Adam Scott) sits in his car, sobbing hysterically into a disheveled napkin. He then gathers himself, walks out of his car, and goes to work. As he enters the elevator in his office building, his body language still holds remnants of his weeping: a pained facial expression, drooped posture, and an overall somber disposition. By the time he exits the elevator, he is a new man. With his head held high, Mark strides through the hallway towards his office, determined to tackle the workday that lies ahead. He later finds in his pocket the same disheveled napkin from his sobbing session and casually throws it into the trash.

We find out later that Mark works for Lumon, where the employees willingly undergo a medical procedure called “severance,” in which their consciousness is divided between their work and their personal lives. At work, Mark has no memory of his home life. At home, he has no memory of what he did at work. This enables him to discard his emotions like so many disheveled napkins the moment he steps into his office.

Asian-Americans have a special connection to this scene. We’ve all seen our parents invoke “severance” in multiple social and professional situations. I’ve been in more than a few car rides on the way to church where my parents have been fighting—screaming so much that our windows begin to fog—but the moment we enter the church parking lot . . . severance. It’s all smiles and insas (an act of greeting by bowing). I’ve seen my mother cry her eyes out, make dinner for the family, then cry some more at night when she thought I was sleeping. As immigrant children, we’ve honed our ability to compartmentalize our emotions when the time comes to punch the clock and get to work. We grew up with some form of the mantra, “Keep your head down and work hard.” I even joked about the premise of Severance to my Korean-American congregation, quipping that the show must have been written by our parents. For many Asian-Americans, we’ve learned to disembody from our emotional selves as we enter our workplaces because, well, productivity is king.

As employees, our ability to sacrifice emotional health on the altar of productivity is a superpower. As human beings created in the full image of God, it’s our kryptonite. According to Mustard Seed Generation, a Korean-American, mental-health advocacy group, the rate of depression in the Korean-American population is twice as high as the rate for the rest of Americans. And yet, Korean-Americans are also three times less likely to seek professional treatment than the national average. My past inclination was to believe that cultural stigmas were the main reason why this was so. But I’ve recently come to grips with another factor altogether.

Enter Pachinko. Adapted from the novel by Min Jin Lee, Pachinko chronicles four generations of a Korean family as they move from Korea to Japan to the United States from the early 1900s to the end of the century. The story begins in Korea in 1915, just after Japan colonized the country and subjugated its citizens to a form of working-class slavery.

My parents and grandparents would always lament Korea’s suffering at the hands of Japanese colonialism, but as a Korean-American boy whose sole goal in life was to watch a WrestleMania event live, their stories would always fall on inattentive ears. I always viewed it as my version of parents telling their kids they had to walk three miles to school in the snow. (Sorry, Dad, but that was just something your generation had to endure.) The disconnect was vast.

Watching Pachinko breathed life into my parents’ stories.

But watching Pachinko breathed life into my parents’ stories. It has also helped me understand the necessity of their emotional severance. For the first generation, severance was a response to the dehumanization they experienced under the yoke of Japanese occupation. For the next generation, it was the devastation of a country divided by the Korean War. For the generation after that, it was the trauma of racialization as they immigrated to a new country. Three continuous generations of compounding trauma and their one unifying thread was that survival necessitated severance.

In many instances, speaking out and open dialogue was met with imprisonment or even execution. Our parents and grandparents had to communicate through hushed tones and suppressed emotions. The option to process feelings did not exist. Emotional suppression has always been a necessary trade-off in exchange for survival.

In Episode 7 of Pachinko, an earthquake devastates the entire city of Yokohama. Hansu (Lee Min-Ho), one of the main characters, is told, “Take a good look. You’re not the only one suffering today . . . But in times like these . . . there will be those who suffer and move on and those who will only wallow in their miseries. Don’t be one of those fools.”

So “move on” the previous generations did.

I’m reminded of Tim Keller’s interpretation of the Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph narratives in Counterfeit Gods. He writes of a pattern of trauma repeated through the generations and how each generation’s inability to reconcile their own emotional baggage led to compounding turmoil for the next. In Genesis 42, Joseph reunites with his brothers after decades of estrangement. He had been compartmentalizing his emotions his whole life until this point, so he turns away and begins to weep. Pachinko mirrors this, especially regarding patterns of response to emotional trauma. The "Asian" way has been to compartmentalize this trauma, ignore it, refuse to acknowledge it, and push forward to the point where the seams burst and weeping is inevitable.

But for our community, there is a way forward. Pachinko, in fact, offers a cinematic avenue for hope. My generation often lamented that our parents and grandparents rarely verbalized “I love you,” but perhaps we failed to see that an offering of cut fruit often stood in its place. In the season finale of Pachinko, a grandmother (Youn Yuh-jung) cuts an apple as she waits by the bed of a terminally ill member of the family. We witness the expression of love where spoken words are not an option.

The gospel, God's message of love to us, can also be shared in silent acts. Many of us have never heard the audible voice of God, but through an understanding of redemptive history, including the story of Joseph, we know he loves us. Through his act of creation, through the incarnation, and through the passion of Christ, we witness his generosity and saving grace.

Through knowing our own history as Asian-Americans, we should be able to better hear our parents’ unspoken acts of love as well. Pachinko, like Severance, will return for a second season. It's my hope that both will further encourage Asian-Americans towards healthier avenues of emotional expression and the God-given desire for wholeness as beings created in his image.

Topics: TV