Words by Teena Apeles
Mixed Love: A JoySauce column about interracial/intercultural relationships within the Asian diaspora experience, and how these unique love stories make our lives fuller, funnier, and more interesting.
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I can’t imagine what my family’s life would be like without my longtime neighbors, Aurora and her mama, Abuelita. Besides sharing a street, our families have other things in common because of their Cuban heritage and our Filipino roots, including very close relationships with our parents, a large extended family (that loves to party), and a Catholic upbringing. But it was when I became a parent in 2010 that my relationship with Aurora started to deepen, and even more so in the last two years over an unexpected shared interest: our mutual love of Asian dramas. These fictional dramas set thousands of miles east of us have helped us weather the pandemic, the challenges and joys of raising kids (and grandkids, in her case), the stress of family and work, and have ultimately brought us even closer together.
“You don’t understand how these saved me,” she said to me months ago, referring to the numerous primarily Korean and Chinese dramas she has watched. Hollywood films have long been exported widely around the globe, but now, here were romantic Asian dramas being consumed with subtitles, playing around the clock just next door. This was helped by the Korean wave (Hallyu) reaching America, with easily bingeable programming via several streaming platforms. The popularity of these Korean programs has, in turn, introduced American audiences to TV dramas coming out of other Asian countries as well.
I wasn’t always a fan of Asian romantic series. During my 20s I pored over indie treasures by directors such as Wong Kar-Wai, Yi-Mou Zhang, and Ang Lee. I didn’t get my first taste of the highly addictive K-drama TV genre until my 30s, when my Korean American friend Sabina spent the night, and over the course of two days, we binged the 2005 South Korean hit drama My Lovely Sam Soon. Starring Sun-ah Kim and Hyun Bin, it is about an average-looking (at least, by the producers’ standards) and spirited woman from a modest background working as a pastry chef, and the love-hate relationship she develops with the handsome, rich restaurant owner. The wealthy guy/working-class girl rom-com plot is a familiar one, but we reveled in 16 hours of seeing people who looked more like us, with values and customs that were in many ways less “foreign” than the ones dominating American pop culture. Even seeing characters taking their shoes off before entering a home, then putting on slippers, reaffirmed our lived experience. It made sense that Sabina and I were watching these; those of Asian descent largely made up the audience then.
Fast-forward to 2020, after a decade-plus-long break of watching such programming (punctuated by the occasional Filipino teleseryes when my mom was over), I started binging Asian dramas again because of my unexpected “free time” during the pandemic. I could never have imagined that I would be in Aurora’s living room, trading Asian drama reviews and recommendations—even more than I did with my Asian American girlfriends. Seeing Asian people on American television is still such a rarity, to see them on-screen on Aurora’s TV always feels like an event.
We talked about the cute Chinese series Accidentally in Love, and our love for the epic South Korean romantic drama Crash Landing on You, starring that same My Lovely Sam Soon actor, Hyun Bin, with co-lead Son Ye-Jin, whose performances and chemistry have captivated multiple generations internationally. The story of a North Korean soldier from a prominent military family getting entangled with a South Korean heiress, after a paragliding incident sends her into enemy territory, is a refreshing twist on forbidden romance, with an extreme clash of classes, political views, and countries. (I’m playing the series’ emotionally charged soundtrack as I write this.) Aurora, too, fawned over the leads, production value, the Seoul locations’ lush interiors, and the incredible fashion, especially for the men.
In this case, our realities were so far removed from the characters’ lives, the ultimate escapism Aurora and I needed from our own, especially at the isolating start of the pandemic. For me, I just wanted to flood my days with Asian faces during a time when violent anti-Asian hate attacks were reported every week—the only representation Asian Americans were (and are) seemingly getting on mainstream media. But why did Aurora?
“When I am sad or can’t sleep at night, I just turn on the TV and watch them,” she shared, and then leaned in to say in my ear in a bit of a whispered, surprised tone, “I didn’t know the men were so good-looking!” (I did.) The rom-coms’ primarily G-rated content is one of the main draws for her: “I can watch them with my young granddaughter,” noting how there isn’t foul language or gratuitous violence or sex scenes compared to American series and films. In Korean and Chinese romantic comedies, it’s not unusual that the leads’ much-anticipated (intentional) first kiss doesn’t happen until much later in the series or even the last episode. “I started looking for American movies with students on Netflix, and I didn’t feel that that’s what I wanted to see. I wanted to see more ‘pure love’ in high school settings…things that were more with the way I am,” Aurora expressed, perhaps referring to her generation’s dating rituals and concerns. “That’s how I started, and then I got hooked. I kept going and going and going and going, until sometimes I even watched the same drama twice.”
Aurora then rattles off other aspects of the dramas she’s drawn to: “The offices and the furniture…I love everything…and the landscape and the buildings.” She even calls out the characters’ voices and “their skin…oh, my Lord! Even the older people’s, it’s amazing. And the food,” she laughs, “Sometimes I get hungry.” This unexpectedly leads into Aurora sharing some history I wasn’t aware of:
“In my country, Cuba, there were a lot of Chinese families. A long time ago, it was famous for a lot of jobs opening. Just like my father-in-law came from Lebanon to Cuba looking for a better life, there was a Chinese family that owned a store. They left their country, getting away from the Communists. We had so many good memories with this one family. My father even named my younger brother after the shop’s owner, Raphael, his close friend. So I kind of was attracted to Asian culture.”
I have been living next door to Aurora since 1997, on a semi-quiet street in a neighborhood just east of Hollywood, though our families overlapped briefly in 1980, before my parents moved us to the South Bay. When I returned to my childhood home as an adult, I shared the home with roommates, who would scream, “Be quiet!” at Aurora’s family’s parrot, Cindy, who would sing the Cuban song “Guantanamera” loudly throughout the day. Back then and now, I’ve appreciated the many families on our street who are immigrants—Cubans (Aurora’s family), Filipinos (ours), Armenians, Russians, French, and Koreans—who were raising first-generation Americans like my parents had, and where I’m now raising my daughter, Dominie, who’s 10. And ever present through the years of our visits to Aurora’s home has been her mom, 102-year-old Abuelita, who only speaks Spanish, usually sitting contently in her wheelchair in front of the family room’s TV, watching whatever is on. Dominie and I always greet her with a kiss, just as we would our Filipino elders.
During my monthly catch-ups with Aurora, even Dominie has chimed in with her own drama reviews and the essential ingredients in a hit Asian drama: leads from different social classes, a fake love contract, a forgotten first meeting, someone going to the hospital, a fireworks scene, hilarious drunk scenes, and an accidental first kiss—the 2020 Chinese drama Poisoned Love has the most original one that includes a goose in the bathroom. Their predictability is part of the appeal, no doubt, and largely happy endings, just like Hollywood rom-com films, but with Asian dramas, we get to see the love unfold slowly over 16 or more episodes.
“If I read about a drama, and there’s something sad in it, I can’t watch it,” Aurora said recently, after I told her I loved the 2022 K-drama My Liberation Notes, which follows a family with three kids (like both of ours), but starts off quite dismal. “I need a happy ending, I want to enjoy what I’m seeing and not suffer. I have enough worry in my life.”
“You don’t understand how these saved me,” Aurora said to me months ago.
Always interwoven through our conversations are updates on our own family dramas, sometimes similar to the ones we’ve seen play out onscreen: a love triangle her granddaughter experienced, family members or ourselves being rushed to the emergency room, business disputes, national and international crises. As I’ve become closer to Aurora through our talks and what led to her living next door, I have unexpectedly come to better understand the immigrant experience of my parents.
Aurora was 20 when she arrived as a refugee in 1964, leaving Cuba after her father and brother were killed under the Castro regime. That history significantly shapes her political views. My parents followed my lola and lolo (a Filipino WWII veteran) when they moved most of their family to the States in 1969, just before martial law was enacted during the Marcos regime. Aurora and her husband, Pablo, and my parents both sent their three kids to Catholic school—even the same one, a couple blocks away, at different times—and went on to become successful entrepreneurs: Aurora, as a realtor—“my clients were always foreigners, a lot of Chinese and a lot of Armenians,” because of their shared experience—and later a commercial property owner; my dad, a diversity-hire gas sales rep, who went on to own his own gas stations. Their American Dreams realized. (Check out Start-Up for a modern Korean success story.)
While I may feel differently about current affairs locally and on the national level than both of them, Aurora has helped me see other sides of issues that I hadn’t considered before, because I grew up in very different circumstances. There’s also willingness and patience on my part to listen to her and have conversations that I can’t have calmly with my parents.
“What is your favorite Asian drama?” is among the more light-hearted questions I asked Aurora the other day. (The Rookie Historian is currently mine, as it spurred discussions with Dominie about banned books and social inequalities.) “Boys over Flowers,” Aurora immediately replied, prompting Dominie to burst out singing the catchy theme song in an animated fashion: “Almost PARADISE…”
In this case, our realities were so far removed from the characters’ lives, the ultimate escapism Aurora and I needed from our own, especially at the isolating start of the pandemic.
The 2009 release, an adaptation of a popular Japanese manga of the same name by Yoko Kamio, features the roller-coaster relationship of a handsome, temperamental, and wealthy teenage boy and, of course, a working-class, (supposedly) average-looking girl, at a private school for elite South Korean families. I ask Aurora if she watched the Chinese take on the same story, 2018’s Meteor Garden, and she gives me an “Mm-hmm,” practically daring me to come up with a title she hasn’t seen. We laugh about this.
Of course, these rom-coms have their own occasional issues of misogyny and domestic abuse, but we don’t go into that. Instead, we embrace the dramas’ intergenerational relationships that make us feel seen. Most of the Asian dramas have large casts that include elderly characters who are fully formed, integral to the family structure, and are ever present. This is a reality Aurora and I share and treasure. And while my parents don’t live with us, we always feel like we have family next door. And that’s a Cuban Filipino American intergenerational story that may never be depicted onscreen, but has been going strong for more than two decades.
Published on August 4, 2022
Words by Teena Apeles
Teena Apeles writes about art, culture, design, activism, and history, and edits books on an even wider range of subjects. Her latest book, 52 Things to Do in Los Angeles, is now available from Moon Travel Guides. She is also the founder of the creative collective Narrated Objects, which produces books and experiences to showcase the diverse voices of Los Angeles.
Photography by Samanta Helou Hernandez
Samanta Helou Hernandez is a multimedia journalist and photographer covering culture, identity, and social issues. She's published with LA Times, Playboy, and PRI "The World," among others. In 2017, she launched "This Side of Hoover," an ongoing visual archive of gentrification and resilience in East Hollywood. Her work has been exhibited at The International Center of Photography in New York City and The Mexican Consulate of Los Angeles.