Good Luck Soup (USA, 2016)
Among the crew of teenagers I hung out with to make the Cleveland exurb of Berea, Ohio tolerable in the 80’s were two friends who were (uhm, and still are) part Asian American. As the only two Asian Americans of mixed heritage in the town, they often had to deal with the stereotype of folks mistaking them for the other. This was terribly frustrating for one of them, the artist Oliver Warden, because more often than not, he was mistaken for the other friend who was a year younger. It didn’t matter to most folks in Berea that they looked nothing alike. Oliver is part Japanese, whereas the other friend, with whom I’ve lost touch, is part Korean. The rest of us in the crew found this constant mistaken identity hilarious. The rest of us in the crew were white. Eventually I considered how Oliver hated this persistent micro-aggression and how our laughter worsened matters. I am now ashamed that I laughed at rather than listened to my friend about this recurring racism that greatly impacted his life and that I contributed to. By the time I entered college, I knew enough to never tell an Asian American they looked like another Asian or Asian American. Call it ‘political correctness’ if you like. I call it showing respect by not perpetuating everyday racist bullshit.
The last time Oliver and I hung out, he told me another story related to growing up part Japanese American in Berea. During an art exhibition featuring the work of the great late American sculptor Ruth Asawa, Oliver met some of Asawa’s adult children. This chance meeting provided Oliver with an epiphany. “Adam, these were the first half Japanese American people I’ve ever met that were older than me.” Throughout his time growing up in Northeast Ohio, Oliver never recalled meeting a fellow Japanese American elder of mixed heritage. Oliver’s realization was another moment where I had to take stock in the privilege of my position in Berea. As a white male, as the perceived ‘norm’, I never needed such an epiphany. Even if I hadn’t had an older brother, as a white kid, I had a large pool of older folks who resembled me. Heck, I had my dad who I knew I would eventually look like since pictures from when he was a child reveal I am pretty much his clone. (As I said during the eulogy I gave at his funeral, “I have the benefit of knowing that as I grow older, I will continue to get more and more adorable.”) As a friend, I’m disappointed in myself for not sensing this aspect of Oliver’s world. But Oliver wasn’t attune to this either until he met Ruth Asawa’s progeny. I hope that says more about why I wasn’t picking up this vibe since Oliver wasn’t sending any unconscious signals. But even if Oliver had been thinking about the lack of representative elders during his teenage years, I would have probably been as oblivious as I was to how Oliver’s mistaken identity wasn’t funny at all.
This ongoing friendship with Oliver is part of why I was interested to see Matthew Hashiguchi’s Cleveland-based documentary Good Luck Soup when I stumbled upon it as part of the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF) schedule in 2016. Good Luck Soup is a documentary primarily focused on Hashiguchi’s wonderful Japanese American grandmother Eva and her memories of being imprisoned in the US internment camps and settling in Cleveland upon her release. Through retelling her life, director Hashiguchi also reveals his own personal thoughts on his Italian/Japanese American identity through interviews with his siblings, parents, cousins (those interveiwed are Japanese/Polish) and aunts and uncles. I couldn’t head out to Cleveland to watch the film, but I now live in the film festival utopia that is San Francisco. Every weekend a film festival is happening here on various themes from Italian films, to Japanese films, to documentaries, to my personal favorite, silent films. Such a cornucopia of festivals provides many appropriate opportunities for Good Luck Soup to screen in San Francisco. Adding to the good luck of this festival soup is that the San Francisco-based Center for Asian American Media provided funding for the documentary, practically guaranteeing it would screen at their yearly CAAMFest that focuses on films, music, and food from the Asian American experience. And Good Luck Soup was indeed part of 2017’s edition of CAAMFest. Coincidentally, another Cleveland-based documentary was simultaneously screened at CAAMFest this year, Who Is Arthur Chu? (2017). This documentary was also screened at CIFF’s 2017 edition and centers on the Jeopardy! champion who lives in the Cleveland suburb of Broadview Heights.
My Cleveland motivations to see Good Luck Soup didn’t stop with my Cleveland upbringing and my friend Oliver. A Japanese American friend of mine in San Francisco was born in Parma. Her mother Jeannie spent many years in Northeast Ohio, moving out to the San Francisco area soon after my friend was born. In that peculiar way of interacting that modern technology affords, I am connected with Jeannie through a smartphone game based on the Disney Tsum Tsum plushies. For over a year before we ever met, my sole communication with Jeannie was through the messaging app LINE, a Japanese subsidiary of the Korean internet search company Naver. Several times a day, I send Jeannie player lives in the form of ‘hearts’ and, when asked, provide her tips to get through difficult game missions. Occasionally sending her my new high score to make her envious. With the announcement that the film would be part of CIFF in 2016, I LINEd Jeannie a snapshot I took of a photo of Eva Hashiguchi from an issue of Cleveland Magazine. I was curious if she would know anyone from the documentary.
‘That’s Eva! I remember her”, she LINEd me. “Her daughter is Beverly.” (That’s director Hashiguchi’s aunt. She’s in the documentary as well.) My excitement to see Good Luck Soup was reaching epic proportions. I now had to see this documentary in the company of Jeannie. I arranged a dinner and a movie night in San Francisco with Jeannie, her Parma-born daughter, and her non-Ohio-born son with whom I am also friends. During the screening at New People Cinema in San Francisco’s Japantown, I looked over during certain sections in the documentary to see Jeannie smiling and pointing at the screen while whispering to her daughter. One scene in the documentary features old home footage of Aunt Beverly performing a traditional Japanese dance in a kimono. Jeannie is pretty sure she was at that event too.
As much as Cleveland is spoken of as a single identity, there are many Clevelands. Good Luck Soup adds to the wider mosaic by telling Eva Hashiguchi’s story, how she found Cleveland a welcoming refuge after feeling abandoned to the internment camps by California. As a former Clevelander, I found much to identify with this documentary. Sure, not all Clevelanders bowl, but ever since Lucy Perk declined to join Ralph, her husband and newly elected mayor of Cleveland in 1971, when he met President Nixon at the White House because it conflicted with her bowling night, bowling is an etched in stone signifier of Cleveland. For those who regularly hit the lanes, the scenes of Eva casually knocking down strikes will have you celebrating along with her.
Yet I also don’t want to make the mistake of overlaying my template of Cleveland with Hashiguchi’s story here. I risk the same mistake of writers who reach for universals from stories about particular histories. Canadian director Mina Shum has pinpointed the paradox – “The more specific, the more universal.” (She credits Spike Lee with the idea.) But as LA Times film critic Justin Chang noted about the Oscar Best Picture winner Moonlight (2016), sometimes calling a film universal “. . . Smacks of desperation, as if people were trying to tame into submission something that they don’t fully understand”. For example, I could reach for significant foods from various Cleveland ethnic communities that parallel the importance of zoni, the Japanese New Year’s Day ‘good luck soup’ from which this documentary grabs its title. I could make comparisons with Hungarian beigli or Parma pierogies. I could even claim as similar the first meal I always have when I return to visit Cleveland, a Roman Burger at the local fast food chain Mr Hero. But searching for a culinary connection reeks of the ‘desperation’ Chang writes of. The flavor and textures and timing of zoni is a particular Proustian madeline of meaning to Hashiguchi that is different from the taste memory of sweet nutrolls or savory pierogies, let alone a greasy (but I love it so) Roman Burger. The history of Hashiguchi’s family and its connection to wider Japanese American history and tradition is steeped in the stock of that soup and it can’t truly be connected to any other culture’s foodways. There is a great deal in Good Luck Soup that is specific to the director’s experience of being Italian/Japanese American growing up in the 90’s in the mostly Irish American Cleveland suburb of University Heights. I might come to this film with my Cleveland history, but I never want to detract from the flavors that are specific to Hashiguchi’s Cleveland history.
Q&A during the CAAMFest screening of Good Luck Soup. From left to right Mavashi Niwano, Festival & Exhibitions Director of CAAMFest; Daryn Wakasa, Director of Seppuku, the short that preceded Good Luck Soup; Matthew Hashiguchi, Director of Good Luck Soup, & Adam Hartzell, winner of one of the two academic scholarships awarded by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1989. Photo by Carmine Bai.
Watching this documentary in San Francisco, a city where over a third of the population is Asian American (2010 census), I’m curious if one scene early on had the same audience reaction at CIFF as it did at CAAMFest. While Eva gives a presentation at a woman’s club meeting, one club member attending the talk goes on and on about her time in Japan and Eva responds with ‘Oh, I wouldn’t know because I’ve never been there.’ Many Asian Americans in the CAAMFest crowd heartily laughed at this moment, Many have likely been in similar situations with white folk assuming they know something about an Asian country just because they are Asian American. Although those who are not Asian American might get the gist of the humor here, it has greater resonance amongst Asian Americans who continually run into situations where they are assumed to be ‘forever foreigners’. My friend Oliver is never asked about his dad’s heritage, with the exception of a nice Scottish woman acquaintance who is “super into Ancestry.com”.
That scene from Good Luck Soup, and the many other scenes that follow, adds perspective to the multiple identities that make up the greater Cleveland. Many Clevelanders connect with the ‘underdog’ image due to failures in our economic, political, and sports history. (Thank you Lebron James for changing that latter history.) In the documentary, director Hashiguchi lays claim to the overarching underdog narrative too. But some of this underdog city’s underdogs go unnoticed if not under-amplified. Good Luck Soup corrects some of what’s been missing underneath that oft-told Cleveland story.
If you didn’t have the good luck of your town’s film festival serviing up Good Luck Soup to you, US readers will have a chance to watch the documentary on your local PBS affiliate (while you still have one) as it will be airing as part of the WORLD Channel series America ReFramed.
My friend Oliver and I have already planned to have a phone conversation once he watches it. I’ll be mostly listening though, letting Oliver do the talking. I don’t want my perspective to get in the way of what matters most to my friend this time around.
Good Luck Soup airs on Tuesday, May 9th at 8pm as part of the WORLD Channel series America ReFramed.