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Searching for Coherence in Asian America

Searching for Coherence in Asian America

Near the beginning of his new book, “The Loneliest Americans,” the journalist Jay Caspian Kang imagines the memoir he could have written. It would begin with his parents arriving at the airport in Los Angeles, or unpacking boxes in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Kang’s father completed his postdoctoral research in the eighties. If brevity were of no concern, he could start even earlier, with “General Douglas MacArthur’s liberation of Seoul,”and with “some line like ‘On the day my mother was born, the skies over the 38th parallel lit up red.’ ”

The story would then wind through the affluent college towns where Kang grew up and experienced minor racial traumas and revelations—maybe we’d see him shoved on the playground by white kids, or glimpse his friendship with a Black boy who lived down the hall—and eventually deposit us into the present, where he writes for national publications, signs a lease on “the prewar apartment with the good bones,” and gets his child into private school. The plot would adhere to a particular logic, in which these “spoils of assimilation” justify the sufferings of the past. “You might find it edifying,” Kang writes, “to see that the gears of upward mobility in this country can still grind out someone like me.”

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Kang describes this largely untroubled narrative in a detached, ironic frame because it has the rather embarrassing distinction of being true. The subject of “The Loneliest Americans” is the broad incoherence of Asian American identity, but what Kang writes about most lucidly is the way that upwardly mobile Asians like him—the ones who were raised and educated in the U.S., and are now queasily enjoying the lives that their parents always wanted for them—have made it so.

Alternating between anecdotes from history and Kang’s life, the book makes the argument that such Asians have hijacked the Asian American project, stripping it of material concerns and saddling it with their corny consumer interests and professional neuroses. If one pole of Asian American politics is parochial and conservative, focussed on achieving stability through the American meritocracy, the other seeks a squishier kind of worthiness: cultural prestige, historical significance, and representation in a highly educated, multiracial élite. Kang is a beneficiary of the latter approach, and also believes that it should be discarded. “The Loneliest Americans,” then, is something of a circular project—a book by an Asian writer about how the Asians who write books should cede control of the story—and Kang is its reluctant protagonist.

The term “Asian American” emerged from the radical student movements of the late nineteen-sixties, most notably at San Francisco State College and the University of California, Berkeley. The activists, modelling their work after Black and Latinx liberation movements, hoped to create a pan-Asian coalition that would become part of an international struggle against empire and capitalism. Organizations like the Asian American Political Alliance and the Third World Liberation Front participated in historic direct actions, such as the occupation of the I-Hotel, in San Francisco, and the months-long San Francisco State student strike. Soon after these movements began, though, the shape of the country’s Asian population changed dramatically. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson passed the Hart-Celler Immigration Act, which overturned the practice of restricting immigration based on country of origin. The law made way for a new era of mass immigration to the U.S., with an emphasis on admitting skilled professionals and reuniting families. Millions of Asian immigrants, many of them degreed individuals like Kang’s family members, would arrive in the following decades.

In “The Children of 1965,” the literary scholar Min Hyoung Song writes that this seismic demographic shift created “a mainstream within Asian America.” Kang claims that it snuffed out the radical potential of the moment. While many of the Asians who agitated in the sixties came from families that had been in the U.S. for decades, and were subjugated under Japanese internment and Chinese exclusion, the Asians who would arrive later, in Kang’s estimation, “had no experience with American racism or oppression.” And so, he says, the dream of a pan-Asian struggle died—not because the protesters lacked sincerity but because they were suddenly outnumbered by people who seemingly had no interest in joining them. “Their vision of Asian America—defined by ‘unite all who will be united’—failed,” he writes.

This brings Kang to his real subject: the various attempts of his cohort, “the children of Hart-Celler,” to revive the Asian American narrative. (Throughout the book, he deploys “the children of Hart-Celler” as shorthand for second-generation Asians who are annoying.) While immigrants like Kang’s parents seem “perfectly content to live as either Koreans or Chinese or Indians or Vietnamese in America,” Kang writes, their children, starved for meaning, have tasked themselves with crafting the perfect “hyphenated identity.” Asian America’s narrative problem, then, is not just about plot but about authorship: the “race-making narratives” are overwhelmingly propagated by those who, like Kang, have had comparatively fortunate experiences. Song, in “The Children of 1965,” notes that the work of Asian writers started winning major American literary prizes in the mid-nineteen-nineties, when the children of Hart-Celler began publishing books.

Kang is unimpressed with the results. In one chapter, he studies how Asian American identity was tested by the anti-Asian violence that occurred during the pandemic, which included dozens of street assaults and the shooting, in March, of six Asian women in Atlanta massage parlors. The attacks sparked a national response: companies offered their unsolicited allyship to the Asian community; curricula and reading lists were distributed with haste. Somehow, the most durable slogan to emerge was “Stop Asian Hate.” (Was this a call to action for allies, who might intercept the hate, or a last-ditch appeal to those whose hate needed to be stopped?) Op-ed pages and cable news shows brought on people who could talk about other Asians who were hated, at other times.

This exercise in history-making, which drew links between incidents of violence against different Asian ethnic groups, across many decades, seemed to be less about coalition-building than about satisfying the needs of a race-explainer content apparatus. The tactic, in Kang’s view, was a “pale imitation” of Black movements, which place present-day racism in a lineage that includes “slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement.” Asian Americans lack such a lineage; most of the people citing Japanese internment, or the murder of Vincent Chin, had no real contact with the suffering invoked. And it didn’t take long for the children of Hart-Celler to trivialize the conversation, lamenting how they felt like outsiders at school or in white-collar workplaces.

Kang doesn’t seem to believe that Asian American history is a fiction; he knows that any story is a bid for coherence, and naturally requires elisions and omissions. His point is that Asians could be making better narrative choices. Kang is intensely skeptical of what he sees as “silly connections,” and he’s frustrated, even mortified, by the suggestion that there’s common struggle between the children of Hart-Celler and the Asian working poor. “These narratives of trauma are ultimately nation-building exercises, a way for ‘Asian American’ to mean something more than ‘someone from the continent of Asia,’ ” Kang writes. “But they also work to erase the more meaningful differences between the most upwardly ascendant, educated people and the sometimes undocumented working-class people who are at the highest risk for this sort of violence.”

A metaphor that recurs in Kang’s writing on race and social justice is the meticulous tallying of “credits and debits” in order to determine a person’s exact place on the axes of oppression. In the book, Kang details his own ledger, as a Korean born to academic parents who moved to the U.S. when he was young. In a 2019 Times Magazine piece about Asian Americans and college admissions, he describes an Ivy League applicant as follows: “Alex is a first-generation (considered a plus), middle-class (minus) Chinese-American (minus, arguably) with two college-educated parents (minus) from a major American city (minus) with aspirations to study either computer science (minus, given all the Asians who want to go into STEM disciplines) or political science (plus).”

But such tedious accounting, Kang argues, doesn’t necessarily evince a definitive balance. Although Asians are the fastest-growing demographic in the country, race, in America, still revolves around the Black-white binary. This puts Asians in an awkward position. If our difference is to be taken seriously, we need to describe ourselves using terms like “people of color.” And yet the gains of assimilation—high levels of education, economic security—increasingly set us apart from other non-white groups. Kang identifies a kind of desperation in the way that Asians, including himself, plead for their place at the margins: “We know we don’t have it as bad as you, but we also aren’t white and need a way to talk about it.”

Kang’s intellectual lodestar is the Marxist historian Noel Ignatiev, who taught him at Bowdoin and wrote the seminal text “How the Irish Became White,” from 1995. Ignatiev argued that the Irish, who were originally seen as poor minorities, came to be viewed as white by aligning themselves with white capitalists to oppress Black workers. Kang sees a similar turn in his own community, as upwardly mobile Asians, ensconced in cozy neighborhoods and low-stakes cultural debates, “attain the whiteness that matters,” while millions of Asian workers sink further out of sight. “What does it mean to be Asian American,” he writes, “if some of your people are using it as a stopping point on a path toward whiteness, while the poorest and most vulnerable get stuck with the bill?”

For Kang, the solution is to “drop our neuroses about microaggressions” and “fully align ourselves with the forgotten Asian America: the refugees, the undocumented, and the working class.” This is a comforting thought, if a somewhat abstract one. There’s a friction between Kang’s vision of solidarity and his seemingly fatal allergy to connection. He writes admiringly about Ignatiev’s radicalism, which “was always tethered” to specific working-class people, who inspired a sense of kinship. But, throughout the book, Kang displays a certain paranoia about fraudulence, and voices his skepticism of the élite Asians who presume to share a bond with people unlike them. Reflecting on recent protests, he writes, “I know that so many of our problems would be solved if we stopped mewling about identity and simply took the time to show up.” Yet it’s not clear what he pictures us—the sell-out children of Hart-Celler—doing once we arrive.

Much of the book’s texture is supplied by the character of Jay Kang, who bristles at the prospect of being a character at all. In some moments, Kang presents himself as an abject figure, the unmoving target of his own ire; in others, he’s slippery, trying to dart off the page. He comes into sharpest relief during an encounter with Al, a minor Internet celebrity who functions as an emissary from an alternate time line. Like Kang, Al came of age in a university town with few Asian people, was a bit of a scrub during his adolescence, and “tried out different selves before settling on a relatively unpleasant one.” While Kang drifted through his twenties in fits of addiction and solitude before arriving at his current state of ambivalent good fortune, Al’s wandering found its terminus in the putrid trenches of Reddit, where he became an intellectual godfather for Asian American “men’s rights activists,” who claim that white people—with the help of traitorous Asian women—are conspiring to castrate them. As reprehensible as Al’s politics may be, Kang knows he might have ended up just like him. “Helplessness and confusion . . . had resulted in an angry, largely incoherent, and shallow radicalism,” Kang writes. “Mine just found a different outlet.”

This moment of recognition—with one of the book’s least sympathetic characters, no less—is moving, especially because Kang spends so much of the book strenuously distancing himself from the people he describes. His emotional pitch scarcely modulates. It’s animated by nothing as straightforward as anger or sadness but by their sideways cousins: embarrassment, annoyance, suspicion, disdain. (These are the minor feelings of “Minor Feelings” fame.) Throughout the book, Kang jabs at Asians who hang out only with Asians—the denizens of the Asian lunch tables, the engineering students in the library “who grimly stare into their laptops”—for their “banal and unwarranted” insularity. (Since he doesn’t appear to interview them, he seems to be making these judgments from afar.) He also claims not to understand the cheesy impulses of his liberal peers—why they fixate on the times when white classmates made fun of their homemade lunches, for example—though surely, of course, he does.

But Kang is as skeptical of himself as he is of others, and his perpetual self-doubt makes the book crackle with life. He preëmptively swipes at his own realizations; he walks to the precipice of epiphany and backs away. This defensive posture can become a full-body cringe. Describing how Ignatiev shaped his “thinking about race,” Kang writes, “I can’t type the phrase without feeling a flush of embarrassment in my cheeks.” Later, recounting the conversation in which Ignatiev first asked about his experiences as a Korean, he writes, “A panic that could best be described as a fight-or-flight reflex took over my body.”

Kang’s anxiety over identification is heightened when writing about his three-year-old daughter, Frankie, who is white on her mother’s side. Frankie has spent her life in Brooklyn and Berkeley, taking classes in a preschool decorated with the effigies of civil-rights icons, playing at billionaire-funded “edutainment” centers, and learning ballet at a “tastefully bare” studio among other half-Asian children. Kang is haunted by the possibility that she’ll inherit his angst about race, but equally daunting is the possibility that she won’t think about her identity at all. A “paradox at the heart of immigrant strivers,” Kang writes, “is that we work so that our children will become the spoiled children we despise.”

Even so, one of the most significant provocations of the book is that we can ground our political commitments in something besides self-recognition. Kang’s compulsion to erase himself might be best understood as a resistance to the broader cultural tendency to treat every surface as a mirror, to see oneself in everyone and everything. In this way, his relentless self-alienation seems to serve as both a hindrance to solidarity and a precondition to it. The lasting achievement of “The Loneliest Americans” is that it prompts Asian Americans to think about identity in a framework other than likeness. It asks us to make meaning in ways beyond looking out for our own.

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Searching for Coherence in Asian America