The Loneliest American
If you’re a youngish Asian American like me, you can likely dredge up memories of being dragooned to test prep or tutoring sessions. Housed in spartan rooms with the obligatory Scantron machine, these may have been academies for the SAT, PSAT, AP, and ACT or aggressively accredited courses to give you an edge over other applicants to private or feeder schools. Acres of paper would be distributed, from pallets of practice questions to flash cards and take-home exercises. Classes were set to the metronome of drills. At some point, the instructor might airily toss off a bit of advice for the clueless: if in doubt, just bubble in “all of the above”—whatever the question, there was a good chance that was the right choice.
Journalism has its own talismanic omnivore: Jay Caspian Kang. The list of subjects Kang has covered as a writer and reporter for outlets like the New York Times, The New Yorker, and Vice would fill several Scantron sheets. He has made a career out of touching the third rail of politics: race, writing essays that are rangy, provocative, and tear through liberal pieties. Many live on the hyphen between the personal and cultural. There’s a kinetic quality—a palpable restlessness—to his writing that befits the sundry subjects he has covered, including playing golf while muttering “bastardized sutras,” surfing to ward off writer’s block, and thrilling to the balletic moves of Jeremy Lin on court. You don’t read him so much as are conducted along the live wire of his prose. His nonfiction debut, The Loneliest Americans, is an alembic of Asian American identity—both his own and writ large. If the past 18 pandemic months have offered an intravenous drip of hate crimes against Asians, Kang’s book titrates those events into a potent mix of memoir, cultural criticism, and deep reporting. The ingredients are volatile, the book, hot to the touch.
To be an Asian American today is to be “written into several narratives at once,” Kang asserts. “This creates an unmoored, almost floating sensation.” His own narrative begins by channeling Holden Caulfield: “I don’t find my family’s narrative to be particularly sympathetic, but you might disagree. For your sake, then, let’s construct a happy way to tell the story before we get into the mudslinging and betrayals.” He then has some fun positing alternate starting points: his mother’s birth in Seoul; his parents alighting at LAX “with the requisite two suitcases”; his first year in a housing project in Cambridge, Mass.—this is Kang the po-faced novelist at work, already demonstrating his vaudevillian range of voices. Flash forward forty-some years to 2020. The blast radius of COVID is gradually coming into focus and there’s an accompanying fear about anti-Asian attacks. Kang, ensconced with his three-year-old and wife in their home in Berkeley, makes calls to his parents in Seattle every night to check in on them. They reveal that people keep a large distance from them at the supermarket. His mother has stopped volunteering at the local thrift store, out of concern she would scare away the octogenarian clientele. Her co-workers, whom she considers friends, “[thank] her for being so considerate.” Such are the spoils of Asian assimilation.
From there, the book moves fleetly along as it traces that “floating” sense of transcendental homelessness unique to Asians hoping to align themselves with the white liberal elite. “This book is about that desperate need to find oneself within the narrative of a country that would rather write you out of it,” Kang states. Gauntlet thrown, he takes us through his adolescent years in Chapel Hill—full of fitful bursts of “abstract empathy for all the oppressed peoples of the world”—to the Berkeley student activists who coined the term “Asian American,” to Korean immigrants who watched their shops set aflame during the Los Angeles riots, to an online Asian incel movement, and more.
In one especially digressive chapter, Kang looks at that flourishing mainstay of Asian communities: test prep academies. He begins in Flushing, a place he has come to grow fond of ever since seeing a Black boy conversing with another child in Korean. “The scene kicked up all the warmth of multiculturalism in me […] from that day on, I spent at least one weekend a month in Flushing,” he writes. Still, he acknowledges “that there was something exploitative about making too much of scenes like this, which showed that people could, in fact, get along.” Fair point, but the only issue is that he has written about this scene—or a variation of it—more than a decade ago, with one difference. In a blog post from 2010, Kang sketched out a similar scene where the two Korean-speaking boys are both Black. Back then, he says, he wore a look of “disbelief: an ignorant outsider who was about to take a mental photo for his cultural tourism scrapbook.” In the book, he again catches himself gawking, but this time only one of the boys is Black. Well, which is it: one or two? Should this matter? Kang is ostensibly setting us up to read about Flushing as a blooming enclave of diverse Asian immigrants, but perhaps he is also setting up something else: a deliberate dyad of Black and Asian identities to help push his point. As he writes in a chapter on the LA riots that followed the death of Rodney King, “the whole Black versus Korean thing was a media creation that essentialized both groups and wiped out any nuances that might be contained within the groups.” At times, Kang's work risks its own form of essentializing, as when he writes that “Blackness is intractable” and analyzes the experience of Koreans to the exclusion of South Asians and other groups that have a claim to the label of “Asian American.”
More than anyone else, Kang tells us, a Taiwanese immigrant named Huang “Tommy” Jong-Loui had a hand in making Flushing the multicultural mecca it is today. Alternately praised and derided as the “Asian Donald Trump,” Huang in the seventies “embarked on a mission of unfettered expansion,” turning what had been a largely white middle-class community into a bustling city for the Asian diaspora. Throughout the book, Kang focuses mainly on Asian families who made their way to America on the heels of the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965. (The Act lifted restrictions on immigrant groups from Asia, Africa, and southern and Eastern Europe, bringing millions of once “undesirable” people to the U.S.) As Kang writes, Flushing “ran on 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.” Thus, numerous informal organizations sprang up to cater to the needs of Flushing’s overwhelmingly Asian constituency, including hotlines, independent schools, and tutoring outfits, or hagwons, as they are known in Korean.
Hagwons and their ilk have attracted all manner of opprobrium over the years for fostering an unhealthily competitive environment. Yet, as Kang points out, for all their association with “a type of tacky, unfair immigrant striving […] many of their students [live] well below the poverty line.” (In a rare false note, he also casually condescends to immigrants when he writes that they “can’t even begin to comprehend” the bureaucratic intricacies of American education and that “most immigrants don’t even have the racial consciousness to figure out what [assimilation and a submission to white supremacy] could possibly mean.”) Kang shadows the founder of one tutoring center, Young-Dae Kwon, who immigrated from Korea in the seventies with the intent of pursuing a PhD. Upon settling in Flushing, he found work at the Korean Institute of Machinery and Metals, which quickly consumed all his time. Eventually, he started a family, gave up his graduate school dreams, and created Elite Academy. Elite offers test prep for the SAT and AP exams, as well as entrance tests to New York City’s most selective high schools. “When Elite students got into Stuyvesant or Bronx Science, [Young-Dae] would put out word in the community. When they got into Harvard or MIT, he would place ads in immigrant community newspapers,” writes Kang. (Credentials follow people around in this book like gum on a shoe; thus, we learn that Young-Dae and his wife went to Seoul National University, “the Harvard of Korea”; Young-Dae’s son went to Stuyvesant and MIT; Kang went to Bowdoin and Columbia; and Kang’s father went to Kyunggi, “Korea’s version of Phillips Exeter,” and Harvard.) Elite quickly expands, forming satellite campuses and reaching not just Korean students, but Chinese, Indian, Black, and Jewish ones as well.
The latter trend reflects New York City’s shifting demographic. As Kang writes, an influx of immigrants from all over South and East Asia “have complicated what was already a tenuous, increasingly incoherent term.” Asian Americans today are a vague confederacy of atomized individuals. Instead of a shared politics, we have the bamboo ceiling and other “superficial markers of identity, whether rituals around boba tea, recipes, or support for ethnic studies programs and the like.” As a freshman at Bowdoin, Kang tells us, he scoffed at the idea of “ethnic solidarity,” dismissing it as a manifestation of “insecurity.” Like a character out of a Tao Lin novel, he listlessly passed the time, only bothering to reach out to the Korean American Students Association on campus “when I needed to buy weed,” which happened not infrequently. What was missing, then and now, is a grammar to discuss the “loneliness” and alienation of assimilated Asians that goes beyond the default racial binary. There’s a visceral sense, Kang contends, that even today, 50 years after the Hart-Celler Act, Asians are reluctant to discuss racial discrimination that seems “trivial when compared to police shootings, child detentions, and all the more pressing forms of racism.” And when conversations do occur, Asians too often fall back on “mimicking the language of the Black struggle in America, [hoping] to become legible as a comrade, a fellow traveler, or a ‘person of color.’” This double bind, for Kang, produces a “mass neurosis.”
Loneliness, dissociation, antagonism. These and a whole suite of other dysphoric feelings like envy, shame, resentment, and melancholy have all been discussed in recent years by other Asian American writers. In the past three years alone, there have been as many book-length treatments of such “minor feelings” by the poet Cathy Park Hong (who gave us the term in a book of the same name), essayist Wesley Yang, critic David Eng, and psychotherapist Shinhee Han. That there’s a need to keep having this conversation—that these ruinous feelings keep pooling into us and are stagnating—is both a repudiation of what novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called the “single story” and, implicitly, an indictment of the racial inequality that structures society. Kang’s work inserts itself into this continuum of emotional bloodletting. At one end of the spectrum sits Yang, whose failure to become “an aristocrat of the spirit” leads him to cast a pitiless eye, in The Souls of Yellow Folk, at “a system of social competition that renders some people absolutely immiserated.” Kang’s work sidles up to Yang’s without becoming fixated on the author’s radical self-alienation. It’s a book whose lacerating observations about the discontents of the Asian American experience are offset by cauterizing ironies.
Here’s another way to look at it. The late cultural theorist Lauren Berlant framed cruel optimism as an attachment that prevents one from flourishing—a bad relationship, for instance, that one is unwilling to extricate oneself from. In The Loneliest Americans, Kang flips that notion on its head and articulates what might be called a kind pessimism for Asian assimilationists: a detachment that allows one to “succeed”—as a “model minority,” for instance—but only conditionally and in a world in which “they will always be the support staff of the multicultural elite.” Non-assimilationists have it even worse: not for them the idle dream of getting a seat at the white liberal table. “The millions of Asian working poor have been made entirely invisible, not just by white people but also by their professional brothers and sisters,” Kang reckons.
Is it any wonder, then, that when Asians bestir themselves to unite and protest for something like racial justice, their fight is doomed to be a “pale imitation of something else”? In a section suggestively titled “What Are We Talking About?,” Kang discusses his time covering Black Lives Matter protests in a smattering of cities and the surge of anti-Asian hate crimes this year. Sometimes, he overreaches in his rhetoric. Despite taking a job as the civil rights correspondent for Vice News Tonight, he professes a mild disdain of activists: “they always feel a bit like the actors I have met—the ego warped from the demands of projecting yourself out into such wide spaces,” he says at one point, going on to observe: “Every activist said he or she acted on behalf of the families of the deceased, but this was rarely true.” It’s an incredibly jaundiced statement that sounds like the view of someone who has spent more time with messaging mavens than with on-the-ground protestors who actually care about building cross-coalitional movements. Journalists fare no better in his transactional account of protests: they parachute in and distill a community’s trauma into formulaic narratives “with one statement from the police chief, one statement from an activist, and, if they work hard, one statement from the family of the deceased.”
Kang also brings us right up to the bleeding edge of anti-Asian hate crimes. Watching videos of elderly Asian men like Vicha Ratanapakdee being attacked by Black assailants, Kang has the panic-induced thought that if it had been his parents who had been shoved to the ground, “they would never be memorialized as victims of the state or racism, or, perhaps, victims at all.”
This fear seems misplaced: In Ratanapakdee’s case, not only has a GoFundMe page been set up to raise money for his funeral, but media outlets, including The New York Times and KTVU, have picked up the story and promulgated the idea that anti-Asian racism is lethal. Ratanapakdee’s death was just one in a constellation of casualties over the past year and a half that have spurred hundreds of people to protest crimes against Asians. Communities in several cities have started neighborhood watch groups to escort elders to and from home. Still, Kang worries that the overall response has been more performative than political—that for upwardly mobile Asians, these gruesome flash points are a catalyst, not for a “reactionary politics,” but “an abiding resentment that makes you question your place within the multicultural, liberal elite.”
Post Hart-Celler, Americans can no longer confidently descry one long arc bending toward justice, but “many more groups with indeterminate arcs, none of which seems to be arcing in the same direction.” What to do with all these errant arcs? In a conclusion that feels unfortunately tacked on, Kang gestures toward the idea that assimilating Asian Americans must forge a connection “with the forgotten […] the refugees, the undocumented, and the working class.” That we only hear this articulated six pages to the end feels like a real missed opportunity. It’s an odd choice—especially in a book that occasionally feels padded—to reserve only a handful of pages to outlining anything like a program of meaningful Asian American solidarity. Elsewhere, Kang has reported on undocumented adoptees overcoming hurdles to attain US citizenship and advocated for an Asian American politics that is grounded in materialist and economic issues. While he devotes a brief chapter to the legacy of his mentor Noel Ignatiev, champion of the working class, and interviews subjects who have working-class origins, his book is mostly focused on the upwardly mobile and middle-class. There is no sustained look at undocumented individuals and refugees, nor is there any elaboration of what it would mean to nourish the taproot of Asian solidarity: the working class.
That, however, is not Kang’s immediate project. What he instead aims for, and achieves, is a complicitous critique. This is Kang as provocateur and The Loneliest Americans, his burn phone. He delivers an incendiary message about Asian Americans that curls in on itself, flames licking at the middle-class vessel in which it arrives. “The contours of our conversation about race no longer match up with the demographics, the economics, or even the culture of this country,” he writes. “What’s left is both warped and nostalgic.” Ultimately, what he’s after is the start of a new dialogue that shakes off hand-me-down homilies. His book is an invitation to think harder and move beyond the existing racial taxonomies that have become distended to the point of futility and that can feel specifically designed to exclude as much as include. Kang may not have all the answers to help us “solve race,” but he does something as important: he asks the uncomfortable questions. Will you take his call?