Since I was racially assaulted in public a few weeks ago, I have been thinking a lot more about the rising anti-Asian sentiment in America resulting from Covid-19. Being stuck at home with a laptop, I read more about different ways racism against people of Asian descent manifests, and how the victims deal with this new social reality. One author who popped up quite a lot in my search was Cathy Park Hong. I read a few op-ed pieces she wrote, and they all referenced her recent book Minor Feelings, which explores the question of identity as an Asian American, specifically Korean American, born, and raised in America.
Hong defines minor feelings as :
the radicalized 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. Minor feelings arise, for instance, upon hearing a slight, knowing it’s racial, and being told, Oh, that’s all in your head … [M]inor feelings are “non-cathartic states of emotion” with “a remarkable capacity for duration.”
These feelings are emotions that an individual experiences pertaining to their racial existence. They sometimes make the individual doubt themselves whether their interlocutor was being “racist or racial” toward them. These were experiences that the majority around them do not feel, and the racial minority person does not have the language to describe. Thus these feelings remain “minor,” sometimes inconvenient, sometimes frustrated.
These feelings are so specific to American society that they “occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.” America is a place full of contradictions. On the one hand, it is a neoliberal land, proud that it offers every one opportunity. On the other hand, it’s an old capitalist society that thrives on the back of people of color since the onset. Depending on what part of America, an individual wants to see, they would see different parts.
Then Hong goes on relating these feelings to her own experience growing up in America as a minority person: “To grow up Asian in America is to witness the humiliation of authority figures like your parents and to learn not to depend on them: they cannot protect you.” Second generation often has to defend their parents. They are forced to grow up, and deal with the cruel society, which takes no excuse when humiliating your parents, and everything you think should be respected. You take their pains, and humiliations as your own because at the end of the day you see yourself in them.
The word “minor” is aptly used in this book to describe the fact that Asian Americans’ uncomfortable feelings about their existence in America. Their feelings are so “minor,” so minuscule that the mainstream society does not care. No-one would take their silent sufferings seriously:
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 hands 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… Racial trauma is not a competitive sport. The problem is not that my childhood was exceptionally traumatic but it was in fact rather typical.
Asian Americans are quiet, keeping their heads down, and their hands work. Asian Americans are so quiet that they become invisible. But being ignored, and being condescended to are daily experiences that they lost any belief in themselves, and their abilities.
Shame is an integral part of the minor feelings. It works insidiously to keep the victims’ heads low, and their mouths shut.
My parents are those who survivor instincts align with this country’s neoliberal ethos, which is to get ahead at the expense of anyone else while burying the shame that binds us. To varying degrees, all Asians who have grown up in the United States know intimately the shame I have described; have felt it oily flame … Shame is an inward, intolerable feeling but it can lead to productive outcomes because of the self-scrutiny shame requires.
Shame is a feeling that binds us. If you fail, your parents feel shameful for you. If you fail, your community feels shameful for you. Shame is both an individual, and a collective experience.
After the racial assault incidence, I felt more solidarity with the Asian community in this country. Reading Hong’s book made me realize the indignity that has troubled them for decades even centuries. The concept “panethnicity” explains this feeling that I have with other ethnic groups. I used to embrace the bright, positive, optimistic part of American society, and ignore the dark history of American racism. Covid-19 whips racist residues to the surface.
I find comfort in reading Hong’s book. It’s deeply personal, but also deeply structural. It’s a memoir not of herself, but of many Asian American artists who are trying to come to terms with the racist society that they were born into and raised. The book both liberates and troubles me. It frees me by giving me vocabulary to describe my intimate ontological feelings. It troubles me by revealing the ugly face of American society that I refused to see for a long time.
This book is also very refreshing from the point of view of race/ethnicity studies. It was written as an autobiographical exploration by a poet. Her references are very different from what I would use for my regular scholastic exploration. Normally, whenever I want to understand Asian American experiences in American society, I would go to sociology giants in my field such as Dina Okamoto or Jennifer Lee. Hong instead cites literary giants that she admires. I see her professional inspiration, and aspiration in the book. By reading the book, I was introduced to a world of intellectuals who study race/ethnicity issues from a very different perspective from mine. Many a times, I can feel that she is talking about a concept that I might know how to express in sociological terms. However, she talks in a way that is more relatable, more lyrical, and also more humanistic.
Sometimes she speaks for me: “At the time, I couldn’t relate to some of the Asian American fiction and poetry I came across. It seemed, for the lack of a better word, inauthentic, as if it were staged by white actors. I thought maybe English was the problem. It was certainly a problem for me.” I feel unheard many times. When I look inside into the world of books, my experience is also not recorded anywhere. My quest for self understanding both in the real world, and in the fictional world yields no fruit. Maybe I am just waiting for that book to be written. Or maybe someday I will write a book myself.
The book shows me that I am not alone in resisting to write about my own racial experience: “I still clung to a prejudice that writing about my racial identity was minor and non-urgent, a defense that I had to pry open to see what throbbed beneath it. This was harder than I thought, like butterflying my brain out onto a dissection table to tweeze out the nerves that are my inhibitions.” This precise feeling that exploring one’s own racial and ethnic identity is “minor,” as not “important” leads to the fact that there are not many materials for me to use to understand my experience.
Many a times, I feel my story has not been told. I feel my history is incomplete. I used to think that Americans did not understand me. Then I went to graduate school, and started to hang out with historians of Vietnam. I learned that archives of the Vietnam war just opened up. At least more will be told about the Vietnam War, but as of now, the history remains incomplete. But my experience, my people’s experience are not only about the Vietnam War.
For a person with an incomplete history, sometimes I become incomplete myself. I am confused in American society, because I do not fit the mold of the Vietnamese refugees or their second generation. People’s preconceived notions me fall apart when we talk. That’s the minor feeling that I am experiencing in American society.
Unless we are read as Muslim or trans, Asian Americans are fortunate not to live under hard surveillance, but we live under a softer panopticon, so subtle that it’s internalized, in that we monitor ourselves, which characterizes our conditional existence. Even if we’ve been here for four generations, our status here remains conditional; belonging is always promised and just out of reach so that we behave, whether it’s the insatiable acquisition of material belongings or belonging as a peace of mind where we are absorbed into mainstream society. If the Asian American consciousness must be emancipated, we must free ourselves of or conditional existence.
Even in the writings of Viet Thanh Nguyen, I do not find myself. His writings are sensitive to Vietnameseness, but not femaleness in me. His writings are sensitive to the sufferings of the Vietnamese refugees, but not those who grew up in post-Vietnam War impoverished North Vietnam like my parents. His writings were about downward social mobility, when a middle-class Vietnamese family in South Vietnam became working class in America without any belonging, and their social networks. How about my family living in the north of Vietnam suffering impoverishment, and Cultural Revolution-style poliies, and pulling their own bootstrap to survive through “Thoi Ky Bao Cap” or The Subsidized Era? These stories are not told, and I could not find myself in the pages. I could sympathize with people’s sufferings, but my Vietnameseness is different from those that I have read in the pages in America, and from the mainstream American’s imagination of what a Vietnamese person should be.
In this sense, my uncomfortability, my frustration, and my invisible existence resemble what Hong calls “minor feelings.” They are inconvenient, but not world-shattering to the majority population, or even in my case my co-ethnics in the United States.