The term “Asian American” is like a balloon: weightless, hollow, all skin. It seems ready to burst at any moment, and yet refuses to be tied down. Coined by UC Berkeley students in 1968 and inspired by the Black Power movement, “Asian American” was once a term of hope and revolution. Replacing words like “Oriental,” this new identifier was created to form a political coalition across Asian ethnicities. But in its contemporary usage, the term has instead consumed and smoothed ethnic and class differences among Asian Americans. What is left is an imagined monolith. To the extent that “Asian American-ness” is something that Asian Americans can experience at all, the term feels like a reminder of its own emptiness.
Melding criticism, theory, history, and memoir, poet Cathy Park Hong’s essay collection Minor Feelings presents a fraught and considerate attempt to say what it means to be Asian American today. Borrowing a framework from filmmaker and theorist Trinh Minh-ha, she avows not to “speak about,” but to “speak nearby,” an approach that acknowledges the difficulty and folly of aiming to represent everyone.
Through a series of seven essays, Hong “speaks nearby” Asian Americans, but she also “speaks nearby” all those Americans who are subjected to racial experiences. She confronts how the Asian American experience has been mythologized through the figures of the model minority and grateful immigrant, but she also understands how whiteness has come to serve as a universal lens through which all other experiences have been refracted. In this way, her essays offer a nuanced understanding of the Asian American psyche, not in isolation, but relative to its place in America.
In one essay, Hong recalls seeing an installation by Carmen Winant at the Museum of Modern Art in 2018 that was hailed by reviewers as a “radical exposure” of birth, as “mind-blowing” and “universal.” The exhibit featured images, culled from books and magazines published over three decades, of two thousand women giving birth. Hong was struck, not just by how nearly all of the women were white, but by how eagerly their whiteness was presented as universal. It was the kind of moment where what Hong refers to as “minor feelings” begin to build.
“Minor feelings”—distress, guilt, shame, anxiety—are those that accumulate “from the sediments of everyday racial experiences,” the moments of subtly coded racism, the indirect comments, the insistence that anyone can make it in America with enough hard work.
The collection is a wide-ranging exploration of Hong’s own minor feelings. In her essays, she describes her confrontations with the nuances of everyday racism, from the men who call her “chink” as an adult and her friend’s white tears that follow the incident, to the white children who respond by saying “Herro” when Hong’s grandmother offers to shake their hands. (One of these children even kicks her grandmother—a violent act served up as “entertainment.”) She also discusses her family’s stories of the Korean War, and deadpans that one of the most Korean things is an “intense desire to die and survive.” Hong doesn’t dodge the specificities of her life as a Korean American, which allows her work to rupture any idea of a singular Asian American experience. By recounting these interactions, Hong’s writing makes all of these minor feelings expressible; the invisible effects of racism on individuals can be made visible.
While I first read Minor Feelings, I found myself recalling Ken Chen’s n+1 essay “Ethnicity as Counterculture,” where he asks, “How can we create a universal moment that also recognizes difference?” Minor Feelings is one answer to that question. As much as Hong acknowledges the specifics of her personal experience, she refuses to offer her story as either singular or universal.
Instead, she looks for methods to speak across divides—to find ways to unite the experiences of other people, artists, and communities of color. In comedy, Hong finds one such method: a transparency that she failed to find in poetry. Comedians, she writes, have “nowhere to hide,” and so they are forced to “acknowledge their identities.” But white writers are able to, as Roland Barthes describes, use their writing as “the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes it.”
Hong experiences a “shock of recognition” when first watching Richard Pryor’s Live in Concert. By exposing his shame to the audience and imbuing his jokes with melancholy, Pryor reminds Hong of the Korean han:“a complicated combination of bitterness, wistfulness, shame, melancholy, and vengefulness, accumulated from years of brutal colonialism, war, and US-supported dictatorship.” So much of han lies in the way certain feelings are carried in the body and soul, ever-present, and Pryor exposes the darkest part of his traumas onstage. She feels this connection despite the fact that han is rooted in Korean culture and Pryor’s performance speaks distinctly of being a Black man in America. Each perspective bears bitterness, shame, and rage, and can speak nearby the other, even as the difference between them remains. If “to be Korean is to feel han,” then to be a person of color in the United States is to experience minor feelings.
In Pryor’s work, Hong sees what it looks like to inhabit a racialized body, how to wield it, and how to turn shame into power. Pryor refuses palatability—rather than pandering to a white audience, he revels in turning them “into a spectacle.” Hong, on the other hand, is never able to transcend her identity as an Asian American woman. Instead, she and other writers of color become part of the ethnic literary project—a means to “prove [writers of color] are human beings who feel pain” to a majority white audience. As Hong puts it: “I don’t think, therefore I am—I hurt, therefore I am.”
Being racialized in America is so often filtered through language, and Hong does combat where writers must: on the level of language itself. Hong’s own relationship with English, specifically “bad English,” becomes another way for her to see herself relative to other racial experiences, and a means to unite communities of colors on a linguistic level. This is what allows Hong to write nearby other writers whose relationship with English is fraught—like Rodrigo Toscano, who, at times, writes in Spanglish. Hong knows that she is not in the position to speak for the Latinx experience, but she can write her “bad English nearby Toscano’s bad English while providing gaps between passages for the reader to stitch a thread between [them].” And perhaps the more bad Englishes appear alongside each other, the more the monolith of white speech can be undone.
Again and again, Hong does something that should not still feel revolutionary, but does: when she speaks about the Asian American experience, she presents it as the experience of a community of color, among other communities of color.
In doing so, Hong reaches for solidarity, without ignoring the sources of shame between Asian Americans and other communities of color. (In K-town,” she writes, “Koreans worked in the front and Mexicans worked in the back.”) Hong also covers the 1992 LA riots, which were prompted by two unjust verdicts: the acquittal of white officers who chased, tased, kicked, and beat Rodney King; and Soon Ja Du’s sentence of five years’ probation and community service for murdering the Black 15-year-old Latasha Harlins. Hong is direct: “I am ashamed of the anti-Blackness in that Korean community, which is why I must constantly emphasize that Asians are both victims and perpetrators of racism. But even that description of victimization and incriminalization is overly simplistic.”
Acknowledging anti-Blackness, as well as inequity within and among communities of color, is only one step. Hong also acknowledges the need for a realignment, and for an allyship that supports and fights for Black lives, Indigenous lives, and all communities of color. For so long, Hong writes, “Asian Americans have yet to truly reckon with where we stand in the capitalist white-supremacist hierarchy of this country.” And as a “model minority,” many Asian Americans believe that race “has no bearing on their lives, that it doesn’t ‘come up.’” But Hong reminds us “the status of [a] model minority can change.”
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian Americans have been recast as foreigners. The president calls coronavirus the Chinese Virus and the Kung Flu, and tells Chinese American reporters to ask China their questions. There are countless accounts of verbal and physical assault against Asians. Whatever ideas might have existed of Asian Americans easily assimilating into whiteness seem inaccurate and insufficient now. Hong notes that “even if we’ve been here for our generations, our status here remains conditional; belonging is always promised and just out of reach.” Minor feelings that have slowly been accumulating are now being voiced with greater frequency and urgency.
Though it should come as no surprise, COVID-19 has once again shown the vast disparities of life in America for individuals of different races and classes. At the same time that assaults on Asian Americans during coronavirus continue, the death toll is highest in brown and Black communities in New York and many other states. But even in the midst of a pandemic, people have taken to the streets to protest against police brutality and support the Black Lives Matter movement. I keep thinking about the man who told Hong what his racial-awareness mediator said, that “Asians are the next in line to be white.” In response, she thinks, “I didn’t know whether to tell this guy to fuck off or give him a history lesson.” Right now, we need a bit of both.