Today is the day I’ve been waiting for for weeks now; it’s the day of the Pachinko finale.
I had the privilege of watching the show in its entirety months ago, but I couldn’t say anything till now. Understandably, of course, Apple TV+ wanted to preserve its audience’s watching experience. I hope they saw it through the same misty eyes I did.
This isn’t a show review; it is my love letter to Pachinko. But first, a disclaimer feels necessary, so let’s get that out of the way. I’m not Korean; I haven’t experienced the lasting effects of Japanese colonization. But still, the adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko spoke to me in a way I didn’t think possible.
Every story told thorough the show spoke to me; it spoke directly to my family’s experiences over the past hundred years. In Youn Yuh-jung’s Kim Sunja, I see my Dadi (paternal grandmother) Prem Lata, a Multani girl who fled Pakistan during The Partition to settle as a refugee in India.
She also married a man who had ambitions outside of being a husband. She also has two sons who she had to house, feed, clothe, and put through school. A woman forced to shoulder the realities of the world that spent centuries trying to clip her wings. As I watch Kim Min-ha’s young Sunja scramble to make and sell kimchi to support her family, I hear my father tell me about Dadi’s work as a seamstress. The feeling of pride and pity bubbled up in me the way it bubbled when he told me about the time she once sewed through her hand and kept working through her pain and tears because how else would she rebuild what she felt behind?
The memories of Dadi’s actions and voice slip through my mind like water through a sieve. Honestly, even her face escapes me. I’ll never have the chance to sit across the table from her, eat her renowned Doli ki roti, and hear about her time growing up in Multan, as Sunja did with her grandson Salomon. But through Pachinko, I stitched together flashes of her smile. I got to listen to the crinkle of her silk saree and smell her perfume waft across my screen.
But it isn’t enough; it will never be enough because, just as Pachinko illustrates, it isn’t just memories and recipes that colonization steals from us; it’s our very time and identities.
Throughout the series, Han Geum-ja played by Hye-jin Park, repeatedly asks Salomon Baek (Jin Ha), “you really believe that?” whenever he talks about how different things are. But, as he comes to accept, the truth is they aren’t. Pachinko’s unflinching look at colonial violence from the eyes of those who survived shows us a glimpse into the world our ancestors lived and died in. But, more than just that, it allows us to see how far we’ve come and how little has truly changed.
Sure, we sit amongst our oppressors. We rejoice over the money we make from their businesses. Toast to the rewards they reap from our continued labour. But when it comes to the value of our lives, do they see us as their equals?
Salomon goes to America, gets a shiny Ivy League degree from Yale and even uses his ethnicity against his own, all for the betterment of his Japanese and American employers. But that does save him from being thrown out on his ass when their deal falls through? No, because as his boss so quaintly puts it, “I warned everyone of this, to bring someone like him into this… he should have never been trusted.”. They see him as a means to an end, not a peer.
The show skillfully pulls back the curtain and airs out all the dirty laundry that colonial nations like Japan try to hide— bringing to light horrific crimes against humanity like the Kantō Massacre. A racially motivated mass murder where thousands of Koreans lost their lives at the hands of the Japanese imperial military, police and civilians. It forces them and us to acknowledge the incomprehensible loss we’ve experienced and never honestly dealt with. Calling into question the reparations that have gone unpaid and the amends that have gone unmade.
It’s a harsh reminder but an honest one that we see all around us even today. We see it in the racial inequities of banks’ lending habits. In the treatment of refugees of colour compared to white refugees fleeing Ukraine. Or the world’s reactions to the Israeli apartheid and colonization of Palestine. I see it every time I’m stopped for a “random” inspection at the airport despite having TSA Precheck.
Pachinko reminds us that just as the women whose stories we are watching are alive alongside us, so are their oppressors. The hatred and violence they enacted in the name of racial and ethnic supremacy haven’t been rooted out. No, it’s cultivated and nurtured with the utmost care so that we don’t spot it against the other foliage we see as we go about life.
Even in its final moments, Pachinko remains humble and honest in its goal, to tell the stories of real people. Just before the credits roll, Ri Chang-won (95), one of the stateless Korean women living in Japan who was interviewed for the series, says, “I’m sure it must have been boring, but thank you for listening.”. I doubt this letter will ever reach her, but I hope it does because I want her to know that this series means more to me than she could ever imagine. She and Pachinko gave me a piece of my history, my truth, and I’ll be eternally grateful for that.