The Beauty Of ‘Past Lives’ Is Its Ability to Capture The Immigrant Experience

The Oscar-nominated film shows the pain I'm still in from leaving my country and the boy I loved.
Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in "Past Lives."
Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in "Past Lives."

Among those watching the Oscars on Sunday, there will be immigrants like me who’ll be rooting for “Past Lives,” a quiet film that shows how we mourn the ghost lives that could have been had we stayed in our homeland.

“Past Lives,” nominated for Best Picture and Original Screenplay, resonates deeply with those of us who have left our homelands behind. The film is about Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), two deeply connected childhood friends in South Korea who are separated when one moves away. Two decades later, they’re reunited in New York and have to confront their destiny and the choices they’ve made.

Like Nora, the Korean American main character, I also had a childhood love in my native homeland Iran before leaving and eventually finding my home in America. He was the son of one of my mother’s closest friends ― a gentle boy with a broad smile and sea-blue eyes ― and my only friend growing up. After a quick hello to his parents, we would run up to his room; it was a magical place filled with shelves of colorful Lego creations, model planes, ships and cars. We talked about the world, about our families, about big ideas of freedom and independence.

I was as brash and opinionated as I wanted to be, not afraid of being labeled as too loud, too forward, too unladylike — something I’d been chastised for many times by my relatives. We ran around his expansive garden weaving between the cyprus trees, making each other laugh so hard we would buckle over with tears streaming down our faces. A few years later, my family moved away. I saw him a couple of times after that, but as our parents’ friendship faded, so did our visits.

My relationship with that young boy is inextricably tied to my memories of Iran. He was the only person that made me feel alive at that tender age.

I left Tehran with my family during the 1979 Iranian Revolution and, similar to Nora, went on to marry a white American man, and worked toward my picket-fence dreams. But, I’ve always wondered what my ghost life would have looked like had I stayed in Iran. I suspect many immigrants think about their could-have-been lives, even if they left under difficult circumstances.

In the film, years after Nora leaves Korea, Hae Sung finds her through social media and they explore the feelings they had for each other. Through this exploration, Nora struggles with how this connection raises questions about her cultural history and identity. In contrast to Nora, I didn’t have the opportunity to investigate those questions with my childhood friend. Tragically, he died by suicide as an adult. Along with him, I lost an untouched part of me and my past.

When questioned by her American husband about her love for him and his enough-ness in her life, Nora says, “This is where I ended up.” Even though her husband learns Korean, he understands he will never be able to fully connect with that part of her.

John Magaro and Greta Lee in "Past Lives."
John Magaro and Greta Lee in "Past Lives."

I’ve thought about that line often since seeing the movie. Like Nora, I had lofty dreams and thought of America as my salvation of sorts. The place where I could achieve things I’d never have an opportunity to experience in Iran. As I watched the movie nestled next to my Midwestern husband, I wondered about my “other” life. What did I sacrifice to “end up” here?

I remember being 8 years old and dragging my Mickey Mouse bag down the stairs of our home in Tehran. At the bottom, bulging suitcases lined up like toy soldiers. After leaving my bag, I stepped outside into the garden. It smelled of the sweet blooming apple trees.

On our car ride to the airport down Pahlavi Street, the main road stretching through downtown Tehran, the snow-topped Alborz Mountains in the distance, I remember catching a whiff from the vendors selling freshly roasted chestnuts and charcoal cooked corn on the cob.

Watching the city fly by, I was oblivious to the magnitude of the car ride or the crucial decision my parents had made to keep us safe. I didn’t know I was leaving behind an identity, a culture and a home I’d never experience in the same way again. Or that the pictures of my childhood, my family’s belongings and keepsakes my grandmother had given my mom would be destroyed when the government took our house.

We spent the next two years moving from country to country, trying to find a new home. I went to numerous schools, many times not speaking the language, or fitting in, continuously feeling isolated and disoriented.

As a “third culture kid” — a term coined by U.S. sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s for children who spend their formative years in places that are not their parents’ homeland — I became accustomed to being different.

I came to America at 14. It was where I could have the freedoms I had yearned for. I embraced my new country and left behind everything Iranian. Later in life, I started to question who I wanted to be, as Nora did in the film. I realized to feel whole, I needed to come to terms with the coexistence of my American and Iranian identities.

Even though I’ve learned to better understand these two disparate parts of myself, I’ve often wondered what I’ve left behind to “end up” here, as Nora said, in this country that has given me a life beyond anything I thought was possible.

After three decades as a U.S. citizen, I still think about what it would be like to know that the land you walk on is your land, and no one can question where you’re from or what you’re doing here. Where you’re never made to feel like you’re an intruder in someone else’s home.

The beauty of “Past Lives” lies in its ability to capture the universal essence of the immigrant experience. No matter how many years pass or how comfortably we integrate into our new homes, the film underscored that we’re forever burdened by the repercussions of leaving fragments of our identity behind when we immigrate.

Just as Nora wept in her American husband’s arms when her childhood friend left for Korea, I wept too for the loss of my friend, and the ghost life that exists only in my imagination.

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