If you have read any of my writings, you may be aware that quite often I openly and unabashedly cross those lines between personal experience and what I understand as structural racism, classism, sexism, and privilege. I do this to offer my take on issues that affect us all, but I mostly do it to understand my own demons. Those demons (or my muses, as I’ve come to know them) were let loose while watching the widely-acclaimed Korean film and multiple-Oscar winner, Parasite.
Bong Joon-Ho’s film explores what seems like a symbiotic relationship between two families, the Parks and the Kims, the wealthy and the destitute, the host and the parasite. I must warn you, there are going to be some spoilers, so if you haven’t watched it, you may want to stop reading.
*Note: Spoilers ahead.*
It takes quite a while for the film to turn dark. At first, it seems like an exposé of what the poor do to survive and of how disconnected the rich are. To survive and barely earn starving wages, the Kims resort to a lot of hard work, ingenuity and chicanery. Yes, deception is part of what the poor, as exemplified by the Kims, have to do to do more than just survive—because hard work and education alone are not cutting it. Understandably, they want to be in a better position than literally existing barely above ground (or above water for that matter), and they do this by posing as others.
Posing, however, doesn’t truly describe what the Kims are doing. Yes, they are pretending to be other people and to have experience and degrees they don’t have. But in their new roles, they perform rather well because they have become experts at “passing.” They are posing (and in turn “passing”) as people from a class slightly above them (the destitute Kims) so they can be employed as the Parks’ help.
The Kims can pass as “better” versions of themselves because they understand the needs of the wealthy; because they are smart (perhaps even brilliant); and because they work extremely hard. They have to be exceptional just to pass.
As the story develops, the Kims are not presented as heroes and in many instances, they cross the line into villainy, or so it seems. Even taking into consideration how the film portrays them, it is hard not to identify with the Kims. Initially, I thought the film’s portrayal of the Kims was a flaw in the story because it may give some viewers the impression that the true parasites are the Kims. But on second thought, I now believe that is exactly where the brilliance of the film lies. It is not just the ambiguity and nuance —of which there is plenty— it is leaving the door open to many interpretations what makes the film an instant classic and perhaps the best medium to expose extreme wealth inequality.
In my understanding of the film, I’m the Kims, I have been them. I’m the Parasite.
The Kims live in a world of macroaggressions. Not the “micro-aggression” of when you go to Starbucks and an overworked minimum-wage worker misspells your name or flirts with you asking you where you are from. No, I’m talking about the aggressions that have palpable consequences on your daily living: being docked pay for imaginary infractions, being distrusted, observed, policed, always tested, and thought to be inferior —even if slightly considered “better” than those from your class and below— barely good enough to be employed by the Parks or the Garcías. It is the macroaggression of being thought of as having a perverted sexuality and the inability to control it, a temper to match but no brains of moral fortitude to temper them.
In the Puerto Rico I grew up in, (and in the one of today, I suppose) many of us were the Kims. You learn to pass to hide your origin. You invest in clothes you can’t really afford, you pose as a better version of yourself to gain admittance into a world that will never really welcome you unless you completely renounce your true self. And you do all of this because of hard work, studying—and never breaking the law is not enough.
I’m “fortunate” that I learned to pass very early… I guess. But there is a problem with that. In the film, the Kims start to hear things no one should ever hear about themselves such as the smell of the poor. These macroaggressions are the salt on the wound. They are the slow drop of low-intensity violence that eventually fills up your cup. They are added insult to the socio-economic injury perennially perpetuated on the Kims of the world by a system that makes them servants of the wealthy.
Unlike the Kims, however, I didn’t hear these things by eavesdropping. I heard them when I was “in;” when I was studying and hanging out with people whose social class was well above mine; when I was dating or having sex with women from a social class used to have people like me cleaning their houses. Yes, I could pass but just like the Kims living in terror of being discovered, so I feared being caught. I never told anyone a lie about who I was, I just avoided the question and lived well beyond my means, or at least appeared to be. And it came naturally because people found me smart, educated, easy to talk to, and “well-spoken,” add the right clothes and I’m in.
As the Kims camped in the living room of their hosts, I felt anxiety way before anything happened and all went to shit. All I could think was “Fuck no, they are getting caught, leave now, save your dignity, don’t go through this humiliation.” I have not been in their exact situation, but I have been in that space because even though passing came easy to me there was always the fear of being found out. In the film, they barely get away just to see all get ruined soon after. And yet, this wasn’t even the most triggering of Parasite’s eye-opening scenes.
What really brought it home for me was the Parks simultaneously being disgusted because their driver apparently had sex in the master’s car. To them, his car had been defiled not because of the sex but because of the people having sex in it. They even mocked the panties worn by a lower class woman whose identity they don’t even know (and perhaps the best pair owned by the young woman of the destitute, Kim Ki-jung, who left them there to frame the driver and get her father that job). This whole story goes into the survival of the poor vying for jobs, oblivious to class solidarity (because food comes first), a topic that is recurrent in the film.
The Parks finally used the panties they mocked and the “incident” in their car to have sex just as they imagine the poor do it. The people they maligned for their lack of morality are fetishized as they play their sexual fantasy; fucking like the poor, which ends up being the Parks ultimate aphrodisiac.
A lost memory from college resurfaced during that scene. How to forget that in Puerto Rico we often hear “como puta de caserío” (like a “whore from the projects”) for so many things, and from people who could not name a single person from the projects. It is even common among the poor—because just as Parasite shows, when you are surviving, it is hard to have class solidarity. So, the caseríos in the Puerto Rico I grew up are under the parcelas, these under the barrios, and those under urbanizaciones (developments), and these under gated communities and mansions Everyone oppresses those thought to be below them. (Before I mislead you, I wasn’t from the projects, but many of my classmates, friends, and girlfriends were.)
I have known this before I started studying it in an attempt to understand it because I have experienced it way too many times. And this one time in college, to get back to the point of it all, I’m in a friend’s apartment “from a good family” with girls from “good families.” I’m in one of the rooms with one of the young women and in the middle of it she tells me “me tienes bellaca como puta de caserío” (you make me as horny as a whore from the projects), and I had to stop. I barely remember what excuse I gave her—perhaps that I was getting a drink or a cigarette. I never got back to the room.
My friend from “the good family” eventually came into the living room to get himself a drink and saw me there drinking and smoking He inquired why I wasn’t with the “other girl.” And though I wanted to explain why, I couldn’t because I knew I was out of place and I would be caught like the Kims in a living room that wasn’t my own. Or maybe I was still confused about what made me stop having sex with a young woman I liked since I first saw her a few months back. Was it class consciousness? Had I had enough? Or was it that I thought she read me, that she saw me—and that scared me?
I’ll let you know if I figure it out. The thing is that I stopped trying to pass because it is not worthy, and I have been making sure that people don’t get confused about who I’m and where I come from ever since.
And as the film is coming to an end, my son tells me, “Wow this is intense,” and I could only laugh and respond, “And you don’t know the half of it.”
Harry Franqui-Rivera, Ph.D. is historian and author of Soldiers of the Nation: Military Service and Modern Puerto Rico, 1868-1952. He tweets from @hfranqui.