Minor Feelings / Cathy Park Hong
The therapist opened her door. The first thing I noticed was the size of her face. The therapist had an enormous face. I wondered if this was a problem for her, since Korean women are so self-conscious about the size of their faces that they will go under the knife to shave their jawlines down (a common Korean compliment: “Your face is so small it’s the size of a fist!”).
Asians lack presence. Asians take up apologetic space. We don’t even have enough presence to be considered real minorities. We’re not racial enough to be token. We’re so post-racial we’re silicon.
In the popular imagination, Asian Americans inhabit a vague purgatorial status: not white enough nor black enough; distrusted by African Americans, ignored by whites, unless we’re being used by whites to keep the black man down. We are the carpenter ants of the service industry, the apparatchiks of the corporate world. We are math-crunching middle managers who keep the corporate wheels greased but who never get promoted since we don’t have the right “face” for leadership. We have a content problem. They think we have no inner resources. But while I may look impassive, I am frantically paddling my feet underwater, always overcompensating to hide my devouring feelings of inadequacy.
I like to think that the self-hating Asian is on its way out with my generation, but this also depends on where I am. At Sarah Lawrence, where I taught, I had students who were fierce—empowered and politically engaged and brilliant—and I thought, Thank God, this is the Asian 2.0 we need, Asian women ready to holler. And then I visited a classroom at some other university, and it was the Asian women who didn’t talk, who sat there meekly like mice with nice hair, making me want to urge: You need to talk! Or they’ll walk all over you!
Instead of being outraged, I was hurt and ashamed. A part of me even believed him. I’d tried so hard to prove that I was not just another identity politics poet, and he had exposed me for the unintellectual identitarian that I was. My shame was compounded by the fact that I didn’t know who “Poetry Snark” was. It could be anyone. Then the post became so popular it was the second link that came up when you googled me. Who were all these people who clicked onto the site and agreed with him? Did they all want me exterminated? Eventually when someone outed my classmate, I was actually relieved. That smarmy asshole? Of course it would be him!
Patiently educating a clueless white person about race is draining. It takes all your powers of persuasion. Because it’s more than a chat about race. It’s ontological. It’s like explaining to a person why you exist, or why you feel pain, or why your reality is distinct from their reality. Except it’s even trickier than that. Because the person has all of Western history, politics, literature, and mass culture on their side, proving that you don’t exist.
Most Americans know nothing about Asian Americans. They think Chinese is synecdoche for Asians the way Kleenex is for tissues.
It’s a unique condition that’s distinctly Asian, in that some of us are economically doing better than any other minority group but we barely exist anywhere in the public eye. Although it’s now slowly changing, we have been mostly nonexistent in politics, entertainment, and the media, and barely represented in the arts. Hollywood is still so racist against Asians that when there’s a rare Asian extra in a film, I tense up for the chinky joke and relax when there isn’t one.
Three Chinese laborers died for every two miles of track built to make Manifest Destiny a reality, but when the celebratory photo of the Golden Spike was taken, not a single Chinese man was welcome to pose with the other—white—railway workers.
Bare life, writes Giorgio Agamben, is the sheer biology of life as opposed to the way life is lived within the protections of society; where the person is “stripped of every right by virtue of the fact that anyone can kill him without committing homicide; he can save himself only in perpetual flight.” I cannot imagine a body reduced to biological fact, like a plant or a hog. If a prostitute died alone without anyone as witness, did she ever exist?
If there was a time machine, only whites would be able to go back in time in this country. Most everyone else would get enslaved, slain, maimed, or chased after by feral children.
But the status of our model minority can change. Currently, Indian Americans are one of the highest-earning groups among Asian Americans, but since 9/11, and especially within the last few years, they have been downgraded to or have begun self-identifying as “brown.” It’s a funny thing about racialization in America. It doesn’t matter that Japan once colonized Korea and parts of China and invaded the Philippines during World War II. It doesn’t matter that there’s been a long, bloody territorial dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir or that Laotians have been systematically genociding the Hmong people since the Vietnam War. Whatever power struggle your nation had with other Asian nations—most of it the fallout of Western imperialism and the Cold War—is steamrolled flat by Americans who don’t know the difference. Since Trump’s election, there’s been a spike in hate crimes against Asians, most pointedly Muslims and Asians who look Muslim. In 2017, a white supremacist mistook two Hindu Indian engineers for Iranian terrorists and gunned them down. The next month, a Sikh Indian man was shot right outside his driveway in suburban Seattle after being told to “go back to your own country.”
Sharma found out and made a sexual harassment complaint. All those involved apologized but then became enraged when she wouldn’t accept their apology. It was a prank. Why couldn’t she get over it? In a deposition, one white female colleague said, “It just got ridiculously blown out of proportion.” Instead of resolving to repair the toxicity of the program, her colleagues decided they had made a grave error in hiring Sharma, since she refused to assimilate to their culture. Sharma wanted to change it. She wanted to diversify the program, which most everyone, including the students, resisted. Not Montana enough, was the overall opinion; not the right fit, they said aloud. Although she’d had three books published, colleagues dismissed her as a “beginning poet.” “No one’s heard of you,” was another swipe. The chair of the English department suggested that Sharma could learn more about “women’s leadership” if she read her twelve-year-old daughter’s copy of Anne of Green Gables.
The Korean word jeong is untranslatable but the closest definition is “an instantaneous deep connection,” often felt between Koreans.
Will “we,” a pronoun I use cautiously, solidify into a common collective, or will we remain splintered, so that some of us remain “foreign” or “brown” while others, through wealth or intermarriage, “pass” into whiteness?
Maybe, in this rare case, an Asian man is finally the everyman who represents all of middle-class America, but I don’t buy it. Dao was not everyman, because not every man would have been brutalized in that way. In the same way I saw Dao and thought, He is not any man, he is my father, Chicago aviation officers thought, He is not any man, he is a thing. They sized him up as passive, unmasculine, untrustworthy, suspicious, and foreign. Years of accumulated stereotypes unconsciously flickered through their minds before they acted.
Asians are next in line to disappear. We are reputed to be so accomplished, and so law-abiding, we will disappear into this country’s amnesiac fog. We will not be the power but become absorbed by power, not share the power of whites but be stooges to a white ideology that exploited our ancestors.
When I was fifteen, writing a poem was as mysterious to me as writing in Cyrillic, so I was ready to be impressed by my classmates’ poetry when I flipped through my high school literary journal. But I was disappointed to find that, as is typical for most adolescent poems, there was no there there in their pretentious musings. Their amateurish efforts emboldened me to write one myself. That doesn’t look so hard, I thought. I bet I can do that. And then I wrote one. I felt giddy, like I’d discovered a new magic trick.
I don’t think, therefore I am—I hurt, therefore I am. Therefore, my books are graded on a pain scale. If it’s 2, maybe it’s not worth telling my story. If it’s 10, maybe my book will be a bestseller. Of course, writers of color must tell their stories of racial trauma, but for too long our stories have been shaped by the white imagination. Publishers expect authors to privatize their trauma: an exceptional family or historic tragedy tests the character before they arrive at a revelation of self-affirmation.
It may be odd that I also felt a “shock of recognition” when I first saw Pryor. But watching Pryor reminded me of an emotional condition that is specific to Koreans: han, a combination of bitterness, wistfulness, shame, melancholy, and vengefulness, accumulated from years of brutal colonialism, war, and U.S.-supported dictatorships that have never been politically redressed. Han is so ongoing that it can even be passed down: to be Korean is to feel han.
Minor feelings arise, for instance, upon hearing a slight, knowing it’s racial, and being told, Oh, that’s all in your head. A now-classic book that explores minor feelings is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. After hearing a racist remark, the speaker asks herself, What did you say? She saw what she saw, she heard what she heard, but after her reality has been belittled so many times, she begins to doubt her very own senses. Such disfiguring of senses engenders the minor feelings of paranoia, shame, irritation, and melancholy.
Unlike the organizing principles of a bildungsroman, minor feelings are not generated from major change but from lack of change, in particular, structural racial and economic change. Rather than using racial trauma as a dramatic stage for individual growth, the literature of minor feelings explores the trauma of a racist capitalist system that keeps the individual in place.
Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance. You are told, “Things are so much better,” while you think, Things are the same. You are told, “Asian Americans are so successful,” while you feel like a failure. This optimism sets up false expectations that increase these feelings of dysphoria. A 2017 study found that the ideology of America as a fair meritocracy led to more self-doubt and behavioral problems among low-income black and brown sixth graders because, as one teacher said, “they blame themselves for problems they can’t control.”
The legacy of Holden Caulfield’s arrested development has dominated the American culture industry, from the films of Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson to the fiction of Jonathan Safran Foer.
Innocence is both a privilege and a cognitive handicap, a sheltered unknowingness that, once protracted into adulthood, hardens into entitlement.
One characteristic of racism is that children are treated like adults and adults are treated like children.
The indignity of being Asian in this country has been underreported. We have been cowed by the lie that we have it good. We keep our heads down and work hard, believing that our diligence will reward us with our dignity, but our diligence will only make us disappear. By not speaking up, we perpetuate the myth that our shame is caused by our repressive culture and the country we fled, whereas America has given us nothing but opportunity. 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. But racial trauma is not a competitive sport. The problem is not that my childhood was exceptionally traumatic but that it was in fact rather typical.
It was one of those unbearably hot July days that brought out the asshole in all New Yorkers. My friend, her boyfriend, and I walked into the Second Avenue subway station. As I walked down the stairs to the subway platform, a man passed us, and while looking at me, he singsonged, “Ching chong ding dong.” He was a neckless white guy wearing a baseball cap. He looked like a typical Staten Island jock. But then I noticed he was with his black wife and his biracial toddler.
When we were on the platform, my friend, who had failed to say much during the train ride, burst into tears. “That’s never happened to me before,” she wailed. And just like that, I was shoved aside. I was about to comfort her and then I stopped myself from the absurdity of that impulse. All of my anger and hurt transferred to her, and even now, as I’m writing this, I’m more upset with her than that guy. We walked silently back to our apartment while she cried.
In 2011, academics Samuel R. Sommers and Michael I. Norton conducted a survey in which they found that whenever whites reported a decrease in perceived antiblack bias, they reported an increase in antiwhite bias. It was as if they thought racism was a zero-sum game, encapsulated in the paraphrased comment by former attorney general Jeff Sessions: Less against you means more against me. At the time of the study, white Americans actually thought that antiwhite bias was a bigger societal problem than antiblack bias.
Their delusion is also tacit in the commonly heard defensive retort to Black Lives Matter that “all lives matter.” Rather than being inclusive, “all” is a walled-off pronoun, a defensive measure to “not make it about race” so that the invisible hegemony of whiteness can continue unchallenged.
Whether our families come from Guatemala, Afghanistan, or South Korea, the immigrants since 1965 have shared histories that extend beyond this nation, to our countries of origin, where our lineage has been decimated by Western imperialism, war, and dictatorships orchestrated or supported by the United States. In our efforts to belong in America, we act grateful, as if we’ve been given a second chance at life. But our shared root is not the opportunity this nation has given us but how the capitalist accumulation of white supremacy has enriched itself off the blood of our countries. We cannot forget this.
The Korean girls I knew were so moody they made Sylvia Plath seem as dull as C-SPAN.
Up until then, I was surrounded by Korean. The English heard in church, among friends and family in K-town, was short, barbed, and broken: subject and object nouns conjoined in odd marriages, verbs forever disagreeing, definite articles nowhere to be found. Teenagers vented by interjecting Korean with the ever-present fuck: “Fuck him! Opa’s an asshole.”
One day, I was browsing through the T-shirt category. I happened upon an image of a young Chinese boy innocently wearing a shirt branded with the word “Poontang.” This photo triggered my own memory of the time I arrived in elementary school wearing a Playboy Bunny T-shirt. I had completely forgotten about it. Thinking of that memory, I was made sharply aware of the people who were taking these photos: backpackers traveling through Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and China—white and Asian American tourists. Outsiders who were at home treating the natives like they were the outsiders.
But having said that, how can I write about us living together when there isn’t too much precedent for it? Can I write about it without resorting to some facile vision of multicultural oneness or the sterilizing language of virtue signaling? Can I write honestly? Not only about how much I’ve been hurt but how I have hurt others?
I first met Erin at a high school art camp in Maine. Since it was my first time away from my family in Los Angeles, I thought I could escape my geeky status and become the bad girl I always wanted to be. In my arsenal, I had my combat boots and my Fugazi and Pavement tapes and my pack of Marlboro Lights. But upon arrival, I knew immediately that I was out of my league, since the New York kids were nihilistically hip in that nineties Larry Clark Kids kind of way.
As we talked, Erin’s aura of intimidation evaporated. She was not from New York City but from the suburbs of Long Island, where she attended the local public school. Her parents were computer programmers. I was surprised that her parents were strict immigrants like mine, since Erin looked like an ethereal creature who’d popped out of Ian Curtis’s forehead.
The avant-garde genealogy could be tracked through stories of bad-boy white artists who “got away with it,” beginning with Duchamp signing a urinal and calling it art. It’s about defying standards and initiating a precedent that ultimately liberates art from itself. The artist liberates the art object from the rules of mastery, then from content, then frees the art object from what Martin Heidegger calls its very thingliness, until it becomes enfolded into life itself. Stripped of the artwork, all we are left with is the artist’s activities. The problem is that history has to recognize the artist’s transgressions as “art,” which is then dependent on the artist’s access to power. A female artist rarely “gets away with it.” A black artist rarely “gets away with it.” Like the rich boarding school kid who gets away with a hit-and-run, getting away with it doesn’t mean that you’re lawless but that you are above the law. The bad-boy artist can do whatever he wants because of who he is. Transgressive bad-boy art is, in fact, the most risk-averse, an endless loop of warmed-over stunts for an audience of one: the banker collector.
As I read about the friendships between Kelley, Shaw, and McCarthy, or de Kooning and Pollock, or Verlaine and Rimbaud, or Breton and Éluard, I craved to read about the friendships where women, and more urgently women of color, came of age as artists and writers. The last few decades have ushered in legions of feminist writers and artists, but it’s still fairly uncommon to read about female friendships founded on their aesthetic principles. The deeper I dug into the annals of literary and art history, the more alone I felt. But in life, I was not alone. I realized that I had already experienced that kind of bond through my own friendships with Erin and Helen.