‘Minor Feelings’ and the inarticulability of Asian American identity

Sept. 30, 2020, 5:43 p.m.

Cathy Park Hong’s first essay collection “Minor Feelingsis named after “the racialized range of emotions” built from “the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” Based on theorist Sianne Ngai’s “ugly feelings,” they are often interpreted as “hostile, ungrateful, jealous, depressing, and belligerent” to non-marginalized people, persist for long periods of time and never lead to catharsis. Cathy Park Hong, a Korean American who was raised in Los Angeles, is the author of three poetry collections and teaches at Rutgers University. “Minor Feelingscontains seven essays, each simultaneously memoir and criticism, personal and general. Within these essays, Hong launches an honest investigation into the minor feelings that plague her life as an Asian American, straddling the line between shame and unapologetic pride, privilege and powerlessness and the multiplicities that form an ever-changing and imperfect perception of her Asian American identity. 

Minor Feelingsis a serialization of Hong’s racial angst, which sometimes manifests in her constant doubt of the validity of this very book. While writing “Minor Feelings,” Hong admits that the “lie that Asians have it good is so insidious that even now as I write, I’m shadowed by doubt that I didn’t have it bad compared to others.” Hong recalls that among non-white people in Koreatown, despite the fact that everyone was casually racist, “Koreans worked the front and Mexicans worked the back.” 

Hong also wonders if her experience as an East Asian, atheist, cis female, professional could speak properly to “a racial group that remains so nonspecific,” wondering if “there was any shared language between us.” She catches herself questioning whether there is any shared ground between her and the 14-year-old Vietnamese boy doing her nails at the nail salon. In writing “Minor Feelings,” Hong admits that because she can only “speak nearby” the Asian American condition, she struggled with choosing the right literary form. Poetic lyric felt too much like a form in which Hong would have to point out what she wasn’t more than what she was. 

She chose to write a short essay collection instead because its “exit routes permit [her] to stray” but “always return, from a different angle.” Within personal stories about feeling incompetent in art school, developing a tic in her eye and being a depressed poet in New York, Hong carries glints of truth on the shared Asian American experience. 

Despite her doubts, Hong acknowledges the need for both a new literary and social precedent for Asian Americans. She emphasizes that “the problem is not that [her] childhood was exceptionally traumatic but that it was in fact rather typical,” and highlights the need to “balance multiple truths,” when talking about Asian Americans’ relationship with other minorities. Hong finds common ground among Asians in how we’re perceived by others. Asian Americans, often seen as not Black or white enough, “inhabit a vague purgatorial status” where we’re ignored unless utilized as political or racial weapons; have access to economic comfort, yet are barred from positions of power and are seen as calm and impassive, when in reality we’re working very hard to stay afloat. Silence and invisibility define us until “we’re so post-racial we’re silicon.”

I initially found “Minor Feelings distant from the Asianness I had known. Most of the other Asian students at my high school never talked about being Asian apart from complaining about their parents or making boba jokes. Apart from being called the occasional racial slur on the street, I could not relate to the blatant racism or hardship Hong or the Koreans she knew faced in Southern California, and I felt as if I didn’t deserve as much space as they did. However, despite the distance between our experiences, I understood the importance of “Minor Feelingsin shattering the idea that a single story can define and reduce the Asian American experience. 

Minor Feelingscomplicates with brutal honesty the previously monolithic expectations of what it means to be both an Asian American and an Asian American artist. At her graduate writing program, Hong noticed that “Asian identity itself was insufficient and inadequate unless it was paired with a meatier subject, like capitalism” and that all the other writers of color who didn’t want to be “branded as identitarians” were Asian. On the other hand, Asian American literature that focuses on race has too often set Asian American trauma far away from the reader “to ensure that their pain is not a reproof against American imperial geopolitics or domestic racism.” Hong asks, “Will there be a future where I, on the page, am simply I, on the page, and not I, proxy for a whole ethnicity, imploring you to believe we are human beings who feel pain?”

With Hong’s own personal shame, “Minor Feelingsfights against the creation of an Asian American identity that white publishers want “to be siloed because it’s easier to understand, easier to brand.” Her work stands in contrast to the previous template of ethnic literature where Asian Americans are portrayed as obedient, hardworking and therefore ultimately successful. Hong turns the Asian American invisibility, indebtedness and guilt that feeds on silence on its own head. She’s not afraid to display her messiness, complexity and by extension, humanity. After getting rejected by another Korean American therapist, she writes an angry review on RateMyTherapist exclaiming that “Koreans are repressed! Rigid! Cold! They should not be allowed to work in the mental health care profession!” She tells the story of her father, a poor South Korean boy turned middle-class American business owner, without triumph. She starts performing stand-up at poetry readings after watching comedian Richard Pryor, noting that in her search to write honestly about race, she wanted “to comfort the afflicted, but more than that … to afflict the comfortable.” Once ashamed of speaking broken English, Hong now incorporates it into her poetry “to make audible the imperial power sewn into the language, to slit English open so its dark histories slide out.” 

It is my own observation that the more privileged the Asian is, the deeper and the more insidious their shame. While I was reading “Minor Feelings,there were Black Lives Matter protests in my city every week. I felt much of the shame that Hong detailed poking me everywhere. Isn’t it indulgent for Asians, a minority that has been handed advantages over others, to take up so much space? It was the same shame I felt in high school, when we read “China Boyby Gus Lee, the same shame that led the Chinese boys in my class to ridicule the idea of a Chinese culture club when it was announced in math class, the same shame Hong tries to dismantle throughout “Minor Feelingsand the shame I realize now must be destroyed if we hope to take up more than just apologetic space in the American racial landscape. In my opinion, it is impossible to work towards anti-racism in America without reconciling ourselves with our own shame first. 

Hong looks to the history of Asian American activists and asks whether there is a collective way for Asian Americans, a term in itself Hong finds “unwieldy, cumbersome, perched awkwardly upon [her] being” to help dismantle systemic racism. She questions whether it is enough to obtain financial success in order to combat white supremacy, as modeled in movies such as “Crazy Rich Asians.She wonders how to write about her identity in relation to other minorities without “steeping [herself] in guilt.” She offers the story of Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American activist who worked closely with Malcolm X as a model for how Asian Americans may work in anti-racism, but she is unsure if we will unite, or be further split upon who is “brown” or “foreign” and who may “pass into whiteness.” She asks more questions than she can answer. However, despite the uncertainty that riddles the future of the Asian American community, Hong’s essay collection sets an example of how we may “overhaul the tired ethnic narratives that have automated our identities; that have made our lives palatable to a white audience but removed them from our own lived realities — and stop spelling ourselves out in the alphabet given to us.”

Contact Cindy Xin at cindywxx ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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