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A Minor Success

Jay Caspian Kang challenges the usual narratives about Asian Americans

The Loneliest Americans by Jay Caspian Kang. Crown, 272 pages.

My apologies to Jay Caspian Kang, as here I am: yet another Asian American writing about The Loneliest Americans, his foray into the recent niche of memoir-cum-history-cum-pop theorization of our race. A novelist, magazine writer, and host of Time to Say Goodbye, a popular podcast loosely about Asian issues and the left, Kang is also one of the New York Times’s newsletter authors in their new experiment in Substackery. Within a month of his book’s release, he denounced smartly to his subscribers the editorial practice of assigning book reviews in a “defensive matching game,” in which critics are paired with authors by identity to confirm “lived experience” for outsiders. Nevertheless, his book’s authenticity has been confirmed by the Asian American Review Corps. 

To recapitulate Kang (and my fellow conscripts’ recapitulations): “Asian American” is an impossible category, comprising too many origin countries and immigration statuses, and yet willed by use at this point to signify something. We’ve faked it until we’ve made it, though we’re a bit unclear as to what it is. Are we marked by moneyed privilege? Authentic ethnic suffering? To put it another way, are we white? Of color? (Like, of color?) Maybe something like the Jews? These authors self-flagellate a bit—forgive me fellow POC, as I have whitened—without answering the question definitively, and tend to close with an aspirational appeal to some coming intersectional solidarity.

There are remarkable similarities between Kang’s book and the other recent tome in its genre. As all the reviewers have, I’m referring to Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. Both Kang and Hong are Korean Americans who grew up during the eighties; both went to elite liberal arts schools (Bowdoin for Kang, Oberlin for Hong) and then high-end MFAs (Columbia and Iowa, respectively). Both have the sense that they’ve been sold a false bill of goods despite—or because of—reaching creative class success. Both worry they’ve either fallen into or have been ascribed with whiteness, a charge made easier by their white spouses and half-white kids. 

Kang’s book is then in part a narrative of how he ended up with this puzzler of a child.

The Loneliest Americans in fact begins with the birth of Kang’s daughter, five days before Trump’s inauguration. Heady times to have a partially Asian child if you were worried about xenophobia and forced to consider, as Kang writes, “what it meant to have an Asian-looking baby in America as opposed to one who could either pass or, at the very least, walk around with the confidence of some of the half-Asians I had met.” To his credit, Kang undercuts his fear immediately, listing the markers of upper-middle-class life his daughter would have grown up with if they’d stayed in Brooklyn rather than moved to Berkeley in early 2020: the prewar apartment with good bones and weekend visits to the white in-laws in Newport. How scared could he actually be, his daughter being part of the “the fastest growing demographic in New York City’s wealthiest schools, half Asian and half white”?

Kang’s book is then in part a narrative of how he ended up with this puzzler of a child. In a self-aware move, he gives the outlines of how the story might have been written. Kang could have opened with his mother’s birth during the liberation of Seoul by General MacArthur; or the day his parents landed in Los Angeles with two suitcases; or the Cambridge housing development in disrepair he grew up in. The book would have proceeded with a three-act structure, as Kang discovered the reality of race in America by way of black childhood friends, white grade-school bullies, and the injustices visited upon him after the family moved South. Kang piles up the chits of his history—a refugee family chased from South Korea by U.S.-backed dictator Park Chung-Hee’s vindictive treatment of North Koreans (stirring), graduate-educated parents who didn’t manage the executive suite but still ended up wealthy (a little less so)—and then denies, poker-faced, that the reader should find his life story sympathetic at all. After all, the white baby.

This tone, a little droll, a little troll, is what I suspect many of Kang’s detractors have found irksome about The Loneliest Americans. But consider it as a counterweight to Minor Feelings, in which related grievances about bamboo ceiling discriminations and personal journeys of decolonization are marked by a rather major tone that struck me as an off note. To quote Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings (2005), the namesake of Hong’s work, the frustrated affects of the (usually racialized) subjects of however you want to periodize this era of capitalism are “explicitly amoral and noncathartic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release”—which is to say, so vexingly ambivalent as to resist any “counter-valorization as therapeutic ‘solutions’ to the problems they highlight and condense.” Kang might be truer to Ngai when he gives his smirking version of the racial litany. There is something pleasant in being told you don’t have to feel for him and his ilk. 

Chinese New Year in New York, c. 1940. | New York Public Library.

Who does Kang respect? Not, I’d guess, the people who write about being Asian American the way he does, nor those who received the schooling he has, or even the schooling he didn’t. (Pretty much all schooling is bad, in his view.) His distaste can even rise to something like contempt: not for those who cobbled together a pastiche of New York white writer culture (as Kang did and for which he makes no excuses), but one of Asian American suffering. This is something Kang sees common to second generation Asian Americans, who rebel against their immigrant forebears as “the meek who accept the abuse and squirrel their cash away.” 

His sympathies rather seem to lie with the immigrants he can generalize as meek: those who arrived to this country without a racial consciousness, for whom assimilation is “a blinkered and ultimately faceless vision of progress.” That’s not to say they are innocent of some brutal past. One thinks of Jay’s mother, for instance. The Korean War left her father a scavenger and her brother a casualty of typhus; the members of her family who survived the malnourishment of those years then faced the dictator Park’s aggression. She knows Korea too well to have “Asian” mean much to her as an identity marker; and America is the reason she grew up in a war zone as well as got out of there.

This kind of background is shared by many immigrants who came to America following the passage of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, Kang notes. The legislation opened up immigration after a period of restrictive visa systems and outright bans for those coming westward from Asia. It was hard-won against popular sentiment holding the United States as “the last hope of western civilization,” to quote Democratic senator Patrick McCarran, in his presentation of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act to Harry Truman; that act ended the outright ban on those countries in the “Asiatic Barred Zone” but placed significant constraints on Asian immigration. “If this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated, or destroyed,” McCarran continued, “then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished.” A decade later, Hart-Celler’s advocates tried to assuage the nativist opposition by downplaying the act’s consequences. The act, Lyndon Johnson himself argued, “does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives.” 

Hart-Celler is Kang’s challenge to the usual narratives about Asian Americans.

This was a remarkable whiff of a prediction. Instead, the nativists were right in a certain way: Hart-Celler opened the country to millions upon millions of immigrants, who brought their relatives along on family sponsorships and green cards, changing the makeup of a country that in 1965 was more than 80 percent white. A significant portion came from Asia, arriving to discover they had next to nothing in common with those already here, sharing little even with other Asian Americans, besides, as Kang puts it, “some well-worn threads of culture, whether food or holiday rituals, and the assumptions of white people.”

Hart-Celler is Kang’s challenge to the usual narratives about Asian Americans. Most histories begin with the coinage of “Asian American” by graduate student groups in late sixties Berkeley as an appeal for solidarity. The Loneliest Americans, however, goes beyond celebrating groups like the Asian American Political Alliance and the Third World Liberation to actually consider their political track record. Kang finds it spotty, only minorly successful. For instance, members of the AAPA moved into the basement of the I-Hotel, a low-rent boarding house whose working class Asian tenants, mostly older Filipino and Chinese men, were struggling against eviction. Despite their best intentions, the students found themselves fighting with each other, divided along ethnic lines—Chinese groups splitting from the Filipinos, for instance—and, in typical left tradition, over political issues that had little to do with the tenants, for whom the hotel was rather distant from the problem of Cuba. Kang also touches on the absurdity of young Asian Americans carrying around Yellow Peril Supports Black Power signs, a slogan popularized by Japanese American Black Panther Party member Richard Aoki—that is, noted FBI informant Richard Aoki.

Martin Wong, Canal Street (1992). | New-York Historical Society

If Hart-Celler gives Kang clarity on how he ended up so confused, the book also considers less bewildered alternatives. There are Asians in America who have done well for themselves without feeling any particular desire to become white, or suffering any neurosis about becoming so. Kang surveys the life of Huang Jong-Loui, the son of a successful Taiwanese businesswoman who immigrated to Queens in the 1970s and accumulated wealth in real estate. Known as the “Asian Donald Trump” for his ugly business tactics, Huang steered the white middle-class neighborhood of Flushing from becoming a ghost town after deindustrialization, turning it into a booming immigrant haven. To wit, Flushing as it stands now: seventy percent Asian, with a significant political presence in the city, and so flush with money that poorer Asians who moved in over the past half-century are being booted out. 

Kang runs through the explanations. Asian immigrants have better access to capital and political clout because of their proximity to whiteness, goes the liberal line; Asian immigrants make it clear that race doesn’t matter as long as you work hard, declares some conservative. Kang himself sees them holding onto an ethos of insularity and a deep-seated belief that none of the institutions designed to help the poor and suffering would ever help them. Whether this is true doesn’t really matter to the immigrants themselves, who have placed their faith in local organizations, both institutionalized and informal, that rarely extend beyond the neighborhood. 

The idea of equating merit or achievement with whiteness isn’t apparent to all immigrants, who are aware they’re not white, and also want something like comfort, something like power, even if they’re not going to live in a prewar apartment with good bones. A parallel narrative to Kang’s family’s in the decades following Hart-Celler, it has new iterations now. Waiting for a table at a restaurant with Eddie Huang in 2013, Kang marvels at a group of young Chinese men, replete in fancy clothes and affectations mimeographed from their Black sources (fade haircuts, International Hip Hop Scowls, the lingua franca of Supreme). Speaking in Mandarin, they possess “a sense of belonging that almost felt foreign” to him. These cosmopolitan Asian Asians in America have gathered in Flushing and suburban Seattle and anywhere else Asiatic wealth from overseas has flowed in, flummoxing Kang with their freedom. “They could succeed in America without the neuroses of not quite fitting into the country’s racial calculus,” he writes. “The personal had been rendered irrelevant—they were structurally white, sure, but they did not care about being accepted as such.”

Nor do they necessarily care, one imagines, about the guilt Asian American liberals have expressed following reports of violence against Asians. If you don’t consider yourself within the white-Black binary that defines American racial relationships, it might strike you as absurd when you hear that Asians are being attacked, sometimes by Black people, and are subsequently told you can’t talk about this forcefully without contributing to anti-Blackness or the carceral state. Shouldn’t it count when a hate crime is committed against us? Kang describes being conditioned to suppress these thoughts, something he reckons the poorer are less likely to do. This is a simplification, though, by his own analysis. There certainly are working Asian poor who “do not feel the need to launder themselves in this bizarre iteration of guilt,” knowing they’ll never be honorary whites. Yet there are also enough rich Asians—the Asian Donald Trumps and the fuckboys in Supreme—who don’t feel the need to partake in liberal handwringing because, to put it bluntly, they were never going to end up with the half-white kid. 

For each MRAZN wanting a Yellow Panther Party, I imagine there is another frustrated Asian American allying with white conservatives.

This also isn’t simply the condition of the insular, those immigrants who remain among their own. Consider the MRAZNs, a roving horde of furious Asian men birthed from subreddits and lifetimes of feeling lesser than, often in the same white institutions Kang has apparently thrived in. Named for their participation in the online manosphere that’s grown over the past twenty years, these Men’s Rights Asians hate assimilationist Asians as much as the whites. Their ire, it should be noted, is directed most viciously at Asian American women, particularly those in White Male Asian Female (WMAF) relationships.

Kang sees this tendency growing into a not-insignificant portion of Asian American politics. No longer satisfied by harassing Asian women online, the MRAZNs now parrot the language of radicalism, calling for solidarity with Black liberation as they cite Marx and Fanon and disparage those “assimilated, upwardly mobile Asians who melt into whiteness.” This marriage of sputtering misogyny and freshman-seminar leftism certainly seems possible. Still, I wished Kang had addressed a less gonzo option, i.e. the position of being an Asian chauvinist who remains unremarkably reactionary. For each MRAZN wanting a Yellow Panther Party, I imagine there is another frustrated Asian American allying with white conservatives in questioning why we should pass over the Blackness of assaulters pushing our elders to the concrete or down subway stairs.

Kang treats Blackness as an innate condition, others have complained. He does describe it as “intractable” at one point; how Afropessimist, I thought momentarily. The wording is unfortunate, given that Kang usefully analyzes the media’s production of Blackness as image. Drawing from his time as a Vice News Tonight correspondent on the “civil rights” beat, he describes the formulaic coverage of police shootings and attendant protests in recent years. Kang doesn’t much like activists and organizers, which doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect them. Pundits can debate efficacy and critics can nitpick tactics, but there’s a there there to activism, as millions of people witnessed with their own eyes during the protests against police brutality.

Of course, Kang is also skeptical of the policing tendencies of the youthful segment of the left that I suppose would most easily be described as “woke”—though he remains self-aware as ever. “I have no idea if a movement that requires its leaders to constantly correct people’s best intentions . . . can grow beyond the sloganeering limits of social media,” he writes, “but those who can only see vanity in these rituals have missed the point or, at the least, underestimated the earnestness of the demands.” Kang doesn’t extend such sympathy to the Asian Americans who wrote public letters to their parents during the George Floyd protests, chiding them for anti-Blackness. He only sees vanity in their rituals, public displays of cringe aping white liberal allyship. 

Is Kang being a dick? One person’s petty is another’s earnestness. And the ugliness of his feeling rings truer to me than social media-optimized solemnity. I fear fatherhood is only souring him further: he observes that his daughter’s $2,450 a month private school education consists of lessons any three-year-old could glean from the civil rights movement. “During all these moments, surrounded by other biracial kids,” he writes, “will she identify with the oppressed or the oppressor?” Kang speculates on what will happen when she grows up: maybe she’ll stage Brecht plays in creative class living rooms, or become a surgeon as a fuck you to her father’s aesthetic wankery, or even follow the quarter of her that’s Jewish to go kibbutz. 

He seems dour on these prospects—again, a novelty. How often does a new parent shit-talk their child publicly? Kang obviously loves his daughter, but he also thinks she might be a massive pain in his ass, and a pretty white one to boot. By the end of the book, he is back to puzzling over his kid. She’ll have even less of a connection to Asian American history than he did. Knowing about Hart-Celler and the Korean War won’t anchor her to some authentic racial identity. It didn’t help her father much either.

Why wouldn’t the whites get a little more Asian too?

And her mother? Not much is mentioned of her, even though the simplest answer to how you ended up with a biracial kid is that you had one with your white wife. There’s certainly an awareness of the sort of couple they make, however. At soccer practice in Brooklyn and ballet class in Berkeley, every stumbling toddler seems to have a white father and an Asian mother; the Asians, Kang notes, “regarded one another with the same measured silence while our spouses gabbed freely in the best, multicultural way.” Yet if Blackness is wrongly essentialized, there’s a flip-side: whiteness isn’t innate or intractable either. 

Kang certainly knows this. The book frequently invokes Noel Ignatiev, who taught Kang at Bowdoin. The author of How the Irish Became White, Ignatiev showed how white chauvinism hampered the development of class consciousness. As the Irish went, so might Asians—an idea that seems patently absurd when we look at ourselves in the mirror, but less so when you consider who Kang actually means when he invokes the whites. This is not a gotcha. I know Kang’s talking about liberal white elites, as does he. We both know they love self-flagellation. They love Asians. (They even read these books.) They certainly lose their minds over having multiracial children. These predilections suggest “the extent to which the narrative on which many of us grew up no longer applies”— to repurpose the book’s quoting of Didion. The whites are done with Springsteen and the beatniks, who Kang confesses to adoring. No one has to do that white shit anymore, certainly not the Caucasians. In any case, Springsteen has Irish roots going back to County Kildare, and Allen Ginsberg, what a Jew. Why wouldn’t the whites get a little more Asian too?