Saturday, May 9, 2020

Minor Feelings and Asian American Identity

I have seldom read a book that has caused me to pause so many times to reflect on my life as a racial minority in the United States. This is the reason I appreciate Minor Feelings by Korean American award-winning poet Cathy Park Hong.*

Several days ago, my spouse and I went to a supermarket to buy groceries. To space out the customers because of Covid-19, the store put red tapes 6 feet apart in the checkout lane. As my spouse lined up to pay for the groceries, the white woman in front of him demanded that he moved back several steps further to about 9 feet behind her. Did she do this because he is Asian?

This incident reminded me of the “minor feelings” Hong describes in her book: “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed” (p. 55).

Hong grew up in California with immigrant parents, who have worked hard so that their children would have better lives. Her book is not a coming of age story or a story about survival and self-determination. It is an honest reckoning of the psychic life of an Asian American woman struggling to gain her voice when racial identity can box one in.

Hong does not mince words when talking about Asian Americans’ habit of seeking white approval. Before reading the book, I knew that it is not easy to be a poet. But I didn’t know that a poet needs to win prizes and fellowships and be validated by (white) prestigious institutions to make a living or get a teaching position. Yet Hong is tired of writing her life script using the alphabets provided by the white world.

Her ruthless honesty makes her Asian American readers ponder the prices we have paid (or are willing to pay) to be “successful” in a white dominated world. What makes Asian Americans willing to be “the carpenter ants of the service industry, the apparatchiks of the corporate world” as Hong says? Why do we step on each other to become cogs in the money-making machine?

It is difficult to live with the ambivalence, if not self-hatred, one feels about oneself. Hong writes, “Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death. You don’t like how you look, how you sound. You think your Asian features are undefined, like God started pinching out your features and then abandoned you. You hate that there are so many Asians in the room. Who let in all the Asians? you rant in your head.” (pp. 9-10).

We are hard on other Asians: we cringe when we hear other Asians speak with an accent or make grammatical mistakes; we frown when we see an Asian woman too fat or wear a dress too short; we burn with envy when our Asian friend gets a coveted fellowship or award.

Hong is merciless in shredding the “model minority” myth. I am surprised and impressed by her willingness to air dirty laundry in the open and pay little attention to cultural taboos. Her mother beat her and her sister. Her father learned to speak in a pleasing way to his customers and clients. In graduate school, she thought writing about Asian identity is “juvenile” and uncool. While many revere the pioneering Korean American author Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, the author of Dictee, Hong traces the story of Cha’s rape and murder. Filial piety is a cardinal virtue for Koreans, but Hong makes no secret of the burden of having to feel indebted to one’s parents all the time.

Living with contradictions and pulled from all sides, Hong finds solace in poetry and literature. The poetic form allows her to conjure up worlds by stretching language to its limits. She introduces me to many authors I have not known before. She pays attention to how narratives illumine realities and fashion lives. In doing so, she invites theologians and religious scholars to be keenly aware of how religious narratives shape our worldviews and aid or hinder our meaning-making process.

Minor feelings is not an easy read. The book elicits many mixed feelings but does not offer any easy resolution. The best thing from reading the book is that it allows you to feel messy, less perfect, anguish, complicit, and not always in control. It is OK to have these minor feelings because relationships are so racialized and we are constantly conscripted to serve the white world. In reckoning these minor feelings, we can better comprehend the depth of precariousness of the lives of racial minorities, despite appearing successful in the eyes of the outside world. It is only then that the long process of racial empowerment and healing can begin.

*Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (New York: Random House, 2020) Kindle edition