Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (Profile, £9.99) is a tetchy, funny mix of memoir, polemic and cultural criticism: she inveighs against a Korean-American psychotherapist who rejects her as a patient, praises Richard Pryor, investigates the rape and murder of the artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, considers Black-Asian relations and reflects on her immigrant family’s stereotypical embourgeoisement. Better known as a poet (she teaches at Rutgers), here she uses prose to ask why Asian Americans, despite a history in the US stretching back to the early 19th century, still ‘inhabit a vague purgatorial status: not white enough nor black enough; distrusted by African Americans, ignored by whites’?
Her book appeared in the US just as Covid began to take hold. Donald Trump blamed China, the Chinese, and Asians in general; many of us who look ‘Chinese’ began to fear reprisals more than getting sick. Shopowners in New York’s Chinatown reported a 70 per cent drop in business even before Trump started talking about the ‘Chinese virus’ and ‘kung flu’. There were echoes of the Yellow Peril, of the fearmongering and pogroms that drove Chinese immigrants out of US cities in the 19th century. Scattered news of attacks on Asian Americans appeared in tabloids and on social media. A teenager attacked a Burmese man and his two young sons with a knife at a store in Texas. He told the police he assumed they were Chinese and ‘infecting people with the coronavirus’. A man poured acid on an Asian woman outside her home in New York, burning her face, neck and back. It was widely called a hate crime, although there was no evidence of racial animus. Video clips and social media posts relayed mundane incidents of casual racism – disapproving looks or being told to ‘go back to China’. But did anyone who isn’t Asian notice or care?
Hong’s book is concerned with the ‘minor feelings’ occasioned by the ‘everyday racial experience’ of Asian Americans. Minor feelings don’t have to be small, she said in a recent interview, nor do they have to result from direct discrimination: ‘My parents, for instance, experienced the Korean War … But then you come to this country and no one remembers it. No one cares about it. No one has any understanding of it.’ I don’t know of many non-Asians who have read Hong’s book, but my Asian American friends and colleagues discussed it intently. I noticed that nearly every review of it had been written by an Asian woman, which seemed to confirm the insularity – or marginality – Hong discusses. Many, especially readers new to ethnic studies discourse, have embraced the book as a sort of manual. There are Minor Feelings read-alongs that function more as support groups and even a forthcoming art show in San Francisco.
The word ‘Asian’ in the US has traditionally been used to refer to East Asians – those originating from China, Japan and Korea – but occasionally expands to include South-East Asians (Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and so on), South Asians (the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka) and even Pacific Islanders (Guam, Samoa and other places colonised by the US). ‘Asian American’, much like ‘Black’, ‘Native American’ or ‘Latino’, is a synthetic category – an attempt to describe life in a messy multicultural society. It was first used in 1968 by Yuji Ichioka, a Japanese-American activist and postgraduate student at Berkeley, in the context of Third World resistance to the Vietnam War. Just three years earlier, the US had reformed its immigration laws to admit people from countries outside Western Europe. As a result, the US population is now 18.5 per cent Latino, 13 per cent Black and 6 per cent Asian. More than a tenth of US residents were born in another country. ‘Asian American’ is no longer the anti-racist, post-colonial signifier Ichioka and his fellow internationalists imagined: the term is vague enough to encompass Taiwanese Trump voters, Hindutva Desis, Cambodian refugees and Singaporean billionaires.
If we accept this approximate classification, something called ‘Asian American history’ emerges. Until 1965, the US tolerated periodic and provisional migration from Asia, to meet labour shortages. This chronology is well known to Asian Americans, but seems to be unfamiliar to Americans more generally. As Hong writes, with some impatience, ‘a history lesson is called for, a quick rundown of how the Chinese were first brought in as coolies to replace slaves in the plantation fields.’ Japanese and Filipinos worked the fields in Hawaii; Chinese indentured labourers laid railroad tracks. But when the presence of these ‘Orientals’ became inconvenient, the federal government tried to deport them and shut them out. The Page Act of 1875 prohibited Chinese women from entering the country, on the ‘moral’ basis that they were coming to provide sexual services to Chinese men, but in fact out of concern that if the men had wives in the US they wouldn’t ‘go home’; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 did just as its name suggests and more. In 1885, white mobs torched the houses and businesses of Chinese immigrants in my hometown of Tacoma, Washington. ‘The Chinese are gone,’ the local newspaper proclaimed. ‘We rejoice.’ During the Second World War, the US army herded Japanese American citizens into prison camps. After victory over Japan, the US helped liberate Japan’s many colonies – and then took its place, installing tens of thousands of soldiers in South Korea, the Philippines and Okinawa, where they remain to this day. Survivors of the Korean and Vietnam Wars arrived en masse after 1965, both as ‘economic migrants’ and refugees – survivors of indiscriminate killing by US troops.
‘I have a hard time embracing the 19th-century history of Chinese America as my history,’ Hong writes. ‘My ancestors were still in Korea.’ In his new book, The Loneliest Americans (Crown, £22.50), Jay Caspian Kang (with whom I host a podcast) argues that ‘Asian America’ is a fanciful concept, meaningful only to liberal Third Worldists. Most immigrants, he points out, see themselves discretely, in national and subnational units. In February, in San Francisco, a Black teenager pushed an 84-year-old Thai man to the ground, killing him. In March, in Manhattan, a Black man who had been convicted of killing his mother shoved a 65-year-old Filipina and kicked her repeatedly in the head, yelling: ‘You don’t belong here.’ The video footage of these attacks lent coherence to a notion of Asianness and at the same time troubled the assumption of progressive Asian Americans that ‘all people of colour’ were united against white supremacy. Relations between racial minorities have always been strained, especially in urban areas with high unemployment rates (Exhibit A: the LA Riots). But, in the time of Black Lives Matter, was it wrong – or, specifically, anti-Black – for Asians to point out the race of the perpetrators of such attacks? If we, as progressive Asians, didn’t push for stronger policing and the prosecution of hate crimes, were we suppressing our ‘minor feelings’?
A week before the Manhattan attack, a white man with a newly purchased gun opened fire in three Asian-owned spas in Atlanta, Georgia. Six of the eight people he killed – Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng – were Chinese or Korean immigrant women. They had been a source of sexual ‘temptation’, he later said. This massacre, more than any other ‘anti-Asian’ crime of the past year, appeared to awaken the media to the fetishisation of Asian women and Asian ‘massage parlours’, Asian ‘war brides’, the legacy of the Page Act, and ongoing abuses by US soldiers on overseas bases in Asia. According to Ellen Song, a former lecturer at Harvard, Asian Americans felt more comfortable with this narrative because the shooter had been white.
Labour organisations such as Butterfly in Toronto and Red Canary Song in New York, which represent low-paid massage-parlour workers, issued abolitionist statements, warning Asian Americans not to let their sorrow turn into support for more cops. In some cities, police departments had already increased patrols in Asian neighbourhoods. The white sheriff in Atlanta announced that the shooter had not been motivated by a hatred of Asian women but an addiction to sex and the psychic toll of a ‘really bad day’; the same sheriff had posted a photograph on Facebook of a T-shirt with the words on it: ‘Covid-19 IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHYNA’. As the novelist Steph Cha wrote in the Los Angeles Times, when the ‘face of anti-Asian violence’ was white instead of Black, the police seemed much less able to ‘find the racism’. In the picture that accompanied her essay, Cha was holding an open copy of Minor Feelings.
‘What’s harder to report is not the incident itself but the stress of its anticipation,’ Hong writes. ‘I sometimes avoid reading a news story when the victim is Asian because I don’t want to pay attention to the fact that no one else is paying attention.’ Many people are now paying attention to ‘anti-Asian violence’, just as they have at different points in the past acknowledged anti-Muslim violence and anti-Jewish violence and anti-Latino violence. Stop AAPI [‘Asian American Pacific Islander’] Hate, a new database of Covid-related ‘incidents of hate, violence, harassment, discrimination, shunning and child bullying’, collected around nine thousand ‘hate incidents’ between March 2020 and June 2021, the vast majority categorised as verbal insults or physical avoidance. Nevertheless, its crowd-sourced numbers are cited in nearly every article about ‘anti-Asian hate,’ fuelling the belief that there is an epidemic of violence against Asian Americans.
For people who feel defined by their minor feelings, the rhetoric and promise of increased punishment for racially motivated acts is especially seductive. If, as Hong argues, Asian Americans are used to doubting our own experiences, what better source of affirmation than a cop or a politician saying publicly: ‘Yes, you’re right, this happened to you because of who you are.’ Hate crimes laws in the US, which date back to the late 1990s, promised official rights and recognition to minority groups. As Erin Khuê Ninh, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes in Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature (2011), Asian America has a tendency to ‘generate political value from its hate crimes, auditing with solicitous care its bodily or spectacular losses’. To ‘prove’ ourselves in relation to the weightier, more legible history of Black America, we have gone to great lengths to assemble a litany of trauma.
The first hate crimes statutes were forcefully promoted by Jewish, gay and Asian American communities. These laws were said to confer rights and visibility, but they were distinguished only by their attempt to criminalise thought. Shooting someone was a crime; shooting someone while mumbling a racist or homophobic or antisemitic word was somehow a worse crime. Policing and prison time increased, without any accompanying decrease in racist, sexist or anti-gay violence. A recent report found that ‘penalty enhancements have an at best inconclusive deterrent effect.’ A Seattle attorney once told me that nearly all the clients he saw charged with hate crimes were Black and minority men. Nevertheless, prominent Asian Americans continue to push for equality through law enforcement. In late April, the Senate, not known for its bipartisanship, passed the Covid Hate Crimes Act by 94 votes to 1. The bill, sponsored by the Japanese-American senator Mazie Hirono, is intended to provide funding for police departments to identify hate crimes against Asian Americans. A few days later, a Chinese-American cop in New York sued a Black protester who had taunted him for being Asian: racial grievance dislodged from a critique of power.
‘Right now, we need to continue amplifying these hate crimes,’ Hong said in a recent interview. ‘But I don’t think policing is the answer. Asking for more policing is not going to solve anti-Asian hate crimes and bias incidents.’ Can these two injunctions co-exist? The Black Lives Matter movement has argued that increased law enforcement doesn’t solve anything; and as Dylan Rodríguez, who studies US prisons, wrote in April: ‘What if anti-Asian violence is not reducible to hate, and is in fact a persistent, unexceptional presence in the long historical, civilisational terror-making machine that is the United States?’
In Minor Feelings Hong describes growing up in LA’s Koreatown in the 1980s.
Black and brown kids were casually racist. Korean kids were casually racist. It didn’t hurt so much when a non-white kid called me slant-eyed, because I had a slur to throw back at them, but it would be wrong of me to say we were all on an equal footing … In K-town, Koreans worked the front and Mexicans worked the back.
When Hong asked why she was forbidden to play with a friend, her mother said it was because the girl was Mexican. ‘I can’t play with you because you’re Mexican,’ Hong told the girl. ‘But I’m Puerto Rican,’ she replied.