Not So Minor Feelings
Minor Feelings, by poet Cathy Park Hong is a collection of non-fiction essays in which Hong examines and shares her experiences as an Asian American.
As I continued to read Minor Feelings, my palpable ignorance of Asian American experiences caused me to confront my own guilt and realize how much personal work and learning I still need to do. Hong writes:
“For as long as I could remember, I have struggled to prove myself into existence. . . . 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.
There’s a ton of literature on the self-hating Jew and the self-hating African American, but not enough has been said about the self-hating Asian. Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way 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 think your Asian features are undefined, like God staring pinching out your features and then abandoned you. You hate that there are so may Asians the room. Who let in all the Asians? You rant in your head. Instead of solidarity, you feel that you are less than around other Asians, the boundaries of yourself no longer distinct but congealed into a horde. (p. 9-10)
Although at first I thought I had little knowledge of what Hong was describing, it soon brought me back to my Asian American students who shared in their writing that other kids asked them questions like, "How can you see when your eyes are so slanted," as well as how presumptions about their math acumen left them feeling misunderstood and unseen.
Hong's stories also reminded me of when my friend, who is a Japanese American, recounted anecdotes of strangers approaching her to ask if she had a good chicken and broccoli recipe or if she could translate for their mother-in-law who only spoke Chinese. I then also remembered the time when our families visited a photo booth at an amusement park to take pictures with our kids. While the attendant effortlessly located my family’s photo, when my friend went to retrieve her photo, the same attendant couldn't immediately locate it. She then proceeded to show my friend photos of every Asian American family in attendance that day, as if her actual presence in front of the counter provided no indicator as to which photo might be hers.
I did feel less alone in my ignorance when Ijeoma Oluo shared in her book So You Want to Talk About Race that although as a child she had many childhood friends who were Asian American or Pacific Islander, her “idea of Asian Americans very much fit in with the popular stereotype of hard-working, financially and academically success, quiet, serious people of predominantly East Asian descent.” Oluo goes on to share with great humility that even when she started fighting for racial equality, Asian Americans were not on her mind, and she writes, “are at times an afterthought in my work” (p. 191).
There is still so much learning and unlearning to be done. And since Cathy Park Hong can’t be expected to carry this burden alone, we can begin by continuing to read and listen to the stories of Asian Americans, perhaps by starting with this piece from The New York Times, “How it Feels to be Asian in Today’s America.”