MOSF 16.3: Minor Feelings and Sister Outsider: A Brown Psychiatrist Thingsabouddit

Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 16.3: Minor Feelings and Sister Outsider: A Brown Psychiatrist Thingsabouddit

by Ravi Chandra, M.D.

August 7, 2021

History’s primary transmission is in feeling. Countries, systems and families break down, or work as designed and let down, in particular, marginalized individuals and groups, leading to eruption of dissonance and more subtle betrayals of affection. This leads to feelings: strong, ugly and minor. Cathy Park Hong’s MINOR FEELINGS helps us understand our internal disruptions and disjunctions, and brings us closer to clarity and resolution through relatedness and political action. Audre Lorde’s SISTER OUTSIDER also amplifies suppressed emotions and is a clarion call for reflection, action and growth. Here is my personal psychological take on these important works. Feelings are the primary way we, as human beings, are connected. It’s high time we open to the emotional, and not just the political and intellectual, labor of creating cultural change. What is soul, if not feeling coupled with conscience and consciousness? If we are fighting for the soul of America, and even the world, we have to do it with soul. Please leave your comments below, or feel free to reach out to me via my contact page. Dedicated to the memory of Janice Mirikitani, who wrote, in Breaking Silence: “We must recognize ourselves at last./We are a rainforest of color/and noise./We hear everything./We are unafraid./Our language is beautiful”. Rest in Power.

 

“My depression began with an imaginary tic.”

Cathy Park Hong’s brilliant opening line of MINOR FEELINGS allows her body and the body of Asian America to become visible and speak. She is toppled by a tic, tripped by some unseen crack in the psychic sidewalk, where her feet and face met the corrupt foundations of American Empire itself. It’s no wonder body and psyche stumble, with such faulty ground beneath us. Hong skillfully illustrates: personal suffering is bound up in the collective reality we face. None of us are free until all of us are free. All mental health is cultural mental health. We must take up each other’s burdens, because they are our own. We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers.

Adobe stock image by jris, licensed by Ravi Chandra

My relatives in India have said to me “when America catches a cold, India gets the flu,” as if the minor conditions that trouble America can hobble the world. In fact, America’s “health,” if it can be called that, has unleashed cancer on the world, in the form of colonialism, genocide, greed, and MLK’s giant triplet of militarism, materialism, and racism. I can hear some protesting with America’s strengths, possibilities and achievements. Every body has its strengths, possibilities and achievements. But if we ignore morbidity, mortality will follow, as it has followed for all too many of our vulnerable people, this last year and for the last 400. Our outlandish, fraught, and all-too-often profoundly dumb wealth has come at the planet’s expense, at the expense of people of color, at the expense of the body and conscience of Asian America as well. We are fraught. Moral and existential distress demands awareness. We’ll need more than a facelift to get us through. We need some serious soul searching.

Is there a poet in the house?

When Hong gets a tic, she starts searching, pulling on dissonances, rhymes and resonances of the American experience to find herself, make sense of the malady, propose a remedy. She pulled me into into her quest, my eyes leading me into her matrix of complications: Manichaean, spirited, troubled. Essential. Vital.

I devoured her book in a single sitting just days before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and quickly posted a glowing review and psychologically-minded read of her themes on my Psychology Today blog, primarily focusing on what analyst Michael Balint called “the basic fault,” the dearth of love, which is the chasm in our collective relatedness. That was just a week before I posted an article that went viral about the racism inherent in Trump calling COVID “the China virus.” (See references for both.) In some sense, I was still on the surface of the malady. My remedy then was to underscore the need for compassion, common humanity, and understanding, and push back fiercely against their antagonists. That remains, but over the year, I have found myself and the country facing hatred, violence and loss on an even deeper scale. We knew, and now we know.

I started re-reading Minor Feelings on June 30, 2021, over 15 months into the pandemic, a time which also included over 5,000 hate incidents against Asian Americans, according to Stop AAPI Hate, and at least 12 deaths, by my count, in addition to disproportionate deaths from COVID in Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians, and possibly low-income Chinese American elders as well, though the data for the latter have not yet been fully clarified to my knowledge. America was ambivalent about masks, seemingly less so about unmasking racism. Some spoke of a return to ‘normality,’ but my belief is that things should never be the same. My sense is that we must all carry a memento of this time of upheaval, grief and rage, and allow that weight to be a new gravity on our journey in space and time.

As I re-read the first chapter, my upper left eyelid began twitching uncontrollably, as if my mirror neurons were dancing with Hong’s observations and concerns. Or perhaps I was now at least as much a casualty of the deeper epidemic as Hong, and my own tic was tripping me into the chasm.

Adobe stock image by jris, licensed by Ravi Chandra

***

Hong is an accomplished, award-winning poet and public intellectual. Yet she allows us to see her human vulnerability and frailty as she takes us on a journey through depression, alienation, and discovery, to renewed socio-political momentum on the more secure foundations of a history grounded in racial awareness, itself a quagmire of insecurity. In this book, perhaps her previous Dance Dance Revolution must pass through its necessary counterpart, Doubt Doubt Confusion, before she can firmly stand in her true self and take us closer to our own.

Adobe stock image by Lightfield Studios licensed by Ravi Chandra, in a collage by Ravi Chandra. You’re welcome.

We live in polarized times in which we are regularly pushed into vociferous clash, where each side seeks to overpower the other in an oppositional opinion war, not to mention actual violence embedded in the barbaric mechanisms of so-called society. Lost is our ability to see and value ourselves. This is a dehumanizing struggle. Hong seeks a healing and wholeness, first through therapy, where she is initially disappointed, but finally through deep and painful cultural cathexis.

I’ve written about her encounter with the therapist “Eunice Cho” who brings her to much-needed catharsis with her simple question “Was there ever a time in childhood where you felt comfort?” Hong is stumped, a poet at loss for words; only her sobs can speak. Her search for comfort and safety reveals all that was and is traumatic, uncomfortable and unsafe. Terrifying, agonizing, and anguishing, in fact. Yet the Korean American therapist who seemed to offer a safe harbor for exploration and cultural understanding ends up excluding her, for unclear reasons. Her next therapist, a Jewish woman, proposes that Cho rejects Hong because her issues might have hit too close to home. Maybe she thought Hong was too hot a mess, a view that might have been solidified by Hong’s subsequent weeks of increasingly insistent and frustrated calls, dutifully and honestly reported as exemplars of her desperation. (I confess to regularly being a hot mess myself, and a real pain in the ass to boot. I’d like to think I’m necessary, good trouble, but they ain’t handin’ out no medals, know what I mean!?) Cho herself says “we’re not a good fit,” before suggesting there were insurance problems, problems which Hong says she’s capable of solving.

Adobe stock image by surfupvector, licensed by Ravi Chandra

In the end, I’m not sure it matters whether Cho’s reasons could be made understandable or acceptable to Hong or readers – Cho had a choice, and made it. No room at the inn. Hong’s needs for care are rejected, by another Korean American woman, and this can only stand as reenactment of familial and cultural trauma and confirmation of unacceptability. Cathy Park Hong clearly hates Eunice Cho, at least for a time, and quite possibly, Cho has hated Hong, in the form of feeling overly burdened by her needs. Hong seems embarrassed by her own needs as well, and the rejection is doubly shaming for this reason. Hong has needed Cho, painfully, and Cho has said “no.”

Sisters can legit hate each other, as easily as rivals. Sometimes they get over it, sometimes they don’t. I tend to want to cultivate the deeper bond that can exist despite disturbing tension, but if you’ve been delivered a megadose of hatred, apathy and marginalization in your life; if you have other pressing concerns; or if you’re just not disposed to resolution and the inner revolution it requires – it can be hard or even impossible to go there.

Sigh.

Maybe someday these sisters can make up. As the old adage goes, it is both a blessing and curse to have a writer in the family. I’m often never sure whether I’m writing my way into the family, or out of it. (Or even into my mind, or out of it.) I’m pretty sure Hong has had similar feelings. I can only hope the family grows when it becomes aware of itself.

She makes peace with Cho’s rejection when she writes “A Jewish friend told me he never went to a Jewish therapist because it’s too easy to assume everything dysfunctional about your family is cultural. Sometimes you need to explain your experiences in order to understand them yourself.”

I almost always feel like I’m explaining myself, pushing back against a seemingly impassable blockade of ignorance and willful misunderstanding that regularly foils my validation. That’s not about my therapist but about society itself. All too often, there’s little felt experience of affirmation, especially in my loneliest moments. I’ve learned to work with that, but it requires meditative reflections on connection despite absence, internalizing the actuality of a quite generously related life. There’s a particular Asian American flair to this human feeling of isolation and disconnection, and a particular flair of carrying a generous portion of history, conscience and consciousness into the face of a world that doesn’t seem to consistently appreciate the serving. Trust me though: I’ll keep cookin’, even as I’m being cooked, all the way into the Insisted Living Facility.

Hong’s insecurity, her depression, her rejection by Cho – all precede the first chapter’s disquieting examination and recitation of the affliction of antagonisms faced by Hong; her parents, particularly her father; Koreans during the American intervention in the Korean civil war; Chinese, Japanese, Muslim, Southeast and South Asian Americans; poet and academic Prageeta Sharma and her father; and David Dao, the Vietnamese American man dragged out of an airplane in 2017, whose profile and moment etches a painful reality. She also honestly confesses her own antagonisms against other Asian Americans – a teenage Vietnamese American nail salon worker, a roomful of Asians. She reports herself Whitewashing her own poetic identity.

“By the time I was at Iowa, I had already decided that writing about my Asian identity was juvenile.”

Asian Americans are taught to remain invisible through subtle and unsubtle antagonisms like these. We are taught to devalue and even hate ourselves. We have not had enough cultural mirrors to see ourselves. We refuse to even see and accept each other. Another prominent Korean American writer, Jay Caspian Kang, regularly and disparagingly proclaims “Asian America isn’t a thing,” and that Asian America, as a cultural project or experience, is “racecraft,” invented by and primarily supporting “elite” East Asian Americans who use a “sacrament” of historical incidents to propose unity that does not exist. A narcissistic, vulgar, and cruel assessment that ignores history and psychology, because Kang seems to think the historical markers and our feelings and accomplishments of unity (always a work-in-progress) are unimportant to the strict class lens he thinks should unite all oppressed peoples.

Adobe stock image by jirakul, licensed by Ravi Chandra

Asian American identity formation is complex and multifaceted. To me, Asian American identity is a relational persuasion. Our good experiences with each other awaken us, persuade us into caring for each other, and the cultivation of that care naturally extends to all who suffer and struggle. Our journey in America, in time, becomes tangled between fitting in, making a difference, making our own way, and helping others make their way. Many of us want to help, but all too often, no one is helping us, and there are those who oppose us. Even members of our “family” oppose our struggle to care, to speak. Will we decide to become “selfish, ugly Americans?” Will we participate in the overwhelming American drive to not care, the drive to unbelonging? Or will we participate in the upending of that nihilistic, narcissistic paradigm?

We ourselves struggle with invisibility and deracialization to the point of unconsciousness. We dismiss and silence othering in the hopes of getting by, getting along and surviving. We have silenced and ostracized those who talk about racism, and insist that if it is to be done, it must be done without emotion and “strategically,” and above all, that Asian Americans not “take up space,” even in our own minds.

We struggle against hate, and all too often, have not known love. But without love, hate can overtake us, as it so often has.

***

The British pediatrician/psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott proposes, in his classic article “Hate in the Countertransference,” that we must know hate before we can know love. Even mothers can hate their children or the burdens they impose, at least in part. Therapists can hate their patients. They must be aware of this feeling – or disposition – lest it interfere with adapting themselves and their therapy for their patient’s needs. Winnicott gives 18 examples of ways mothers hate their children, some of them quite amusing, including “she musn’t eat him.” Apparently, this fact causes some consternation. In fact, this paper is one of the most deliciously edible, comical, yet bracing articles in the field. (Link to full article in references.) The good doctor, well-known for his warmth and insight, reveals he could have quite a temper, physically putting out a 9-year-old boy he cared for during wartime into the street.

“The important thing is that each time, just as I put him outside the door, I told him something; I said that what had happened had made me hate him. This was easy because it was so true.”

The boy goes through many rounds of this, winding up at police station after police station. He eventually goes to an “approved school,” and Winnicott reports that “(h)is deeply rooted relation to us has remained one of the few stable things in his life.”

Adobe stock image by BNMK0819, licensed by Ravi Chandra

What’s less well known is that the boy grew up to be Margaret Thatcher. Just kidding. Perhaps Thatcher could have used more Dr. and Mrs. Winnicott in her life. Don’t we all.

The child can trigger hate because the child demands attention. Anyone whose needs are not understood or valued triggers hate. Tragically, sometimes hate is triggered because needs are understood and devalued. Queer and trans children have been pushed out of their homes by their parents, by laws, by anti-social social judgment. Winnicott puts the boy out because the boy put him out, takes him past his limits when his reservoir was low, or simply because he crossed Dr. Winnicott’s “line” of acceptable behavior. Perhaps Eunice Cho put Hong out because Hong’s needs put her out.

Asian Americans aren’t supposed to have needs, particularly unmanageable needs, particularly relational needs, and most particularly the relational needs of our own particular community. We are worker bees, imported to fill the country’s economic needs, not complain, not ask to be seen as fully, needfully, human. So we are put out and put down, recurrently and violently, and through intergenerational and inter-ethnic trauma, we put each other out too. Because our nature is largely, and fundamentally, interdependent and relational, it feels like we can’t even “come to” ourselves.

“The writer Jeff Chang writes that ‘I want to love us’ but he says that he can’t bring himself to do that because he doesn’t know who ‘us’ is. I share that uncertainty. Who is us? What is us? Is there even such a concept as an Asian American consciousness? Is it anything like the double consciousness that W.E.B. Du Bois established over a century ago?”

I propose we have a relational, associative (poetic?) consciousness, and this poses unique problems in an individualistic culture in which our relatedness is devalued in the cultural project of programming us into tidy, separate, distinct, well-bounded objects with specific utilitarian function. Relationship is devalued in general in this society. Related being is devalued in favor of unrelated doing and six-plus-figure accomplishment. We must be discrete entities in unrelated America. Discrete, discreet, and silent. Western psychology insists we must have “good boundaries.” And as nearly every Asian American will tell you, the Asian American family has no real concept of boundaries. This may frustrate us at times, we may try to create them, to be purely “individuals,” but our struggle confounds and haunts us. We all too often struggle with hierarchical, controlling and demanding relationships in our own families, cultures and histories as well, in addition to facing the race hierarchy and caste system of America itself. We need help, both in becoming “individuated” but also deeply and equitably “related.”

Perhaps we are hated because our relatedness poses a subliminal threat, gives rise to insecurity that we carry a fearsome greatness. The right wing talks about “chain migration” and “anchor babies,” as if our very families were some kind of weapon. A federal judge recently ruled against DACA, and at least 10% of the DACA-eligible are Asian American immigrants.

Adobe stock image by Jamie Duplass, licensed by Ravi Chandra

We weren’t even allowed into this country for most of its existence, and this, too, has robbed us of a stable relatedness and cultural mirror. America doesn’t want our families, much less our histories, or the history we create by becoming family. The America we know is built on excluding and subjugating us, and then only allowing us in for our skill set, or to ease its conscience between wars.

Our Asian American existence is all about “E pluribus unum” – we actually live that motto as we create Asian America and even our own identities, across lines of ethnicity, class, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and lack thereof, ability status, and so forth. The disunion in America that doesn’t want to see any of these also tries to dismember us.

But maybe Winnicott was right: we must know hate before we can know love.

Love is relational, and characteristically not self-interested. Asian American love, love for Asian America, can seem practically un-American. Love for Asian America has clearly not been on America’s playlist.

We are as yet unsung. Unsung and unseen, heroes and heroines.

America, we have to hate you before we can find our way to love ourselves, or what we might be, together.

Don’t take it personally.

***

In her second chapter, Hong cathects Richard Pryor, defines minor feelings, and explores self, art and feeling in relation to America’s White dominant culture.

“Pryor blowtorched the beige from my eyes.”

Adobe stock image by CSU Everett Collection, licensed by Ravi Chandra

Pryor is a comic genius and revolutionary, and plays both cat and mouse in his comedy, revealing his specific individuality, humanity and vulnerability in the context of his racial identity and history. Hong contrasts this with her own struggles with expressing vs. losing identity to register approval by the White institution.

“A poet’s precious avenue for mainstream success is through an award system dependent on the painstaking compromise of a jury panel, which can often guarantee that the anointed book will be free of aesthetic or political risk.

Watching Pryor, I realized that I was still writing to that institution. It’s a hard habit to kick. I’ve been raised and educated to please White people and this desire to please has become ingrained into my consciousness. Even to declare that I’m writing for myself would still mean I’m writing to a part of me that wants to please White people.

I didn’t know how to escape it.”

And later:

       “…I read mostly to a White audience. The White room was such the norm that often I barely even noticed it. But when I did, I began to feel the Whiteness in the room.”

In psychiatry, as well, we are molded by psychoanalytic principles crafted by White men particular to their time and place. Stereotypical Freudian theory holds that the patient is the one with the problem, over there, and the therapist must be a blank screen, over here, for the patient’s projections and transferences, which when interpreted will produce insight and relief. The analyst, in this view, is supposedly objective, thoroughly analyzed himself and existing as some kind of fixed and stable entity. This is a highly individualistic and ultimately pathologizing viewpoint. The therapist’s spontaneity, humor and cultural specificity and relatedness are discouraged, and he is encouraged to define himself cerebrally, not emotionally. His emotional life must be refined and erudite, his practice like an antiseptic surgical procedure, so that his interpretation is a scalpel offered at the “golden moment” halfway through the session, leaving the remaining minutes to let the message sink in, or the blood pool, or both.

I’ve been viewed and treated this way, not by a man, but by an Asian American woman who was my first psychiatrist. I actually stuck with my Eunice Cho for many years despite significant red flags, yearning for acceptance, appreciation and even love from someone I felt was kin, or at least the woman I’d been most emotionally intimate with. She was far from all-bad, and she did help me, but her distancing, pathologizing and gaslighting left me with difficult experiences. I now view my time with her as a kind of transmission of her own historical trauma and limitations of identity. She did not practice from compassion or racial awareness, perhaps because she did not receive these, and thus she submerged and confused my own, for a time. Thankfully, I had three succeeding psychiatrists, all of them White or Jewish men, who had enough comfort in their own skins that they could offer me comfort in mine. The first of these, my second psychiatrist, told me I would make an “outstanding psychiatrist,” and his words got me here. On the other hand, when I told my first psychiatrist how I’d helped a friend think through her boyfriend problems, skeptically asked “what are you doing?” as if the lowly, burdened human I was at the time had no right to be helping anyone else. In fact, that was one of the few things that made me feel worthwhile at the time. Her last words to me were “you have so many problems!” proving she was blind to my wholeness as a human being, and perhaps insecure that she had been in way over her head for most of my work with her. Her acts of hatred with me were not about me, but about her lack of capacity to love, and her need to exert power in the therapeutic relationship.

Adobe stock image by kawee, licensed by Ravi Chandra

Part of the problem, in psychotherapy, is that relationship has been algorithmized into an armor of principles and therapeutic techniques – a form – which threaten to remove both practitioner and patient from related feeling and grounded experience. This is how Whiteness and hierarchy function, by objectifying and compartmentalizing “others” and limiting their relational range. This gives Whiteness the power to define others, subordinate or pathologize them, revel in the approved text that it has written and is writing, and ultimately, kill them, emotionally, spiritually and physically. In this case, my Asian American therapist seemed to have been more susceptible to Whiteness than my White therapists. She participated in a writing of me, but she never really read me.

As a psychiatrist and human being, I want to write myself and help others write and right themselves too, not exist as a bit part in someone else’s limited theatrical rendering and deadening.

If I have been an insect pinned by Whiteness, I want to sting.

***

Hong defines “minor feelings” as

“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.”

She takes her cue from Asian American literary scholar Sianne Ngai’s “ugly feelings,” which she defines as “negative emotions—like envy, irritation, and boredom—symptomatic of today’s late-capitalist gig economy.” I have not read Ngai’s work (though it sounds fascinating), but I would understand both minor feelings and ugly feelings as the usually hidden voices of vulnerability in a society that is aimed at wealth, power and status, or their holding positionality in Whiteness: megalomanic, blind and afflicting the rest of us with its superiority complex.

Ugly and minor feelings particularly arise in those falling outside the White male mainstream who are tasked with “composure,” acceptance and silencing of feeling, especially the feelings of resistance, in the face of subordination and utilitarian pressures received from the dominant culture, pressures that say we must submit and fit in, and in some way deny our deeper reality and true selves. One might define “Whiteness” and the “White institution” by their intolerance of any breach of composure or being “called out” or “called in” to a higher level of inclusion.

“[W]e put our minor feelings aside to protect white feelings.”

It’s rare for even psychiatrists and psychotherapists as a class, in my observation, to express our full range of emotions in a professional setting. There’s a pressure to be “clinical” and reflective, and not distressed, unhappy, or enraged. Our guard can come down with our colleagues who are also friends, or in specific circumstances which encourage emotional sharing, like the healing circles I’ve facilitated with Asian American psychiatrists and physicians this last year. Without this emotional sharing and mirroring, we would have remained isolated and more vulnerable in the face of extreme social pressures. Sharing our vulnerability and indeed, living in it, is allowing ourselves to be fully human and integrated, at least internally.

“Pitted against each other, we are enraged separately, and grieve separately, and feel frustration separately…”

That separation is the system working as designed. Denial or suppression of our emotional worlds and truths is inherently dehumanizing and fragmenting. It’s the way we are divided from interdependence and collectivity, as Asian Americans and others falling outside White normativity. If we can’t write or right ourselves emotionally, we discover what a Korean American grandmother says after the 1992 LA riots/uprising: “There is a hole in this country.”

We fall in, and sooner or later find ourselves in a cauldron or burnt-out caldera, where we must again find light and fire.

***

“Much of my youth was spent looking into the menagerie of white children.”

In “The End of White Innocence,” Hong compares notes on childhood. Her own: weird, ethnic, Korean at that, economically basic at the start but monumentally easier than her parents’; she had a brother who died at six months from “a weak heart.” She identifies mostly with shame; pride is more subtle and deduced from the narrative. White children, on the other hand, in Catcher in the Rye or Moonrise Kingdom, revel in childhood. Hong wanted to escape it, and its inflections of suffering, difference and unvalidated marginalization. Whiteness mythologizes childhood innocence and White purity, and thus blinkers the cultural gaze on the reality of childhood suffering which actually derails society itself. White children are presumed innocent, White children are privileged and protected, and thus all adults are totally responsible for their own outcomes. The project of Whiteness need not feel accountable for the ways society predetermines so much of life from the starting gate.

Adobe stock image by photoaliona, licensed by Ravi Chandra

“Innocence is, as (Robin) Bernstein writes, not just an “absence of knowledge” but “an active state of repelling knowledge,” embroiled in the statement, “Well, I don’t see race” where I eclipses the seeing. Innocence is both a privilege and a cognitive handicap, a sheltered unknowingness that, once protracted into adulthood, hardens into entitlement.”

If cherubic innocence leads to superiority, power, and “winning,” then disadvantage leads to vulnerability leads inevitably to deserved and inevitable suffering, shame, and degradation. In this way, society empowers ignorance. The minor feelings of shame and resentment come from social comparison, self-criticism and fear of rejection and punishment. One blames oneself for being imperfect, as Whiteness deems one “ought” to be perfect in order to be acceptable, invulnerable and fit to hold power. Whiteness becomes shamelessly irreproachable and thus “reflexively perfect” to its adherents, as former President Trump proves. Only Whites can avoid shame and “losing,” in the racial hierarchy, and this by avoiding conscience and devoting themselves to the cult of Whiteness and denial of racism. Anti-Asian racism is specifically denied even in quarters that are starting to bend regarding anti-Black racism.

What would society be if its conscience came not from White innocence and the march from there to White “greatness” and fortified protection of the privileges of White childhood, but by making race consciousness and consciousness of vulnerability universal, as it is for children of color? What would society be if we really delivered on a vision of common humanity and equality? What if, instead of fortifying privilege, we fortified relatedness and compassion, across the lifespan?

The author as a child. I’ve been told that dressing up your baby boy as Krishna is a Hindu tradition. It’s our version of childhood innocence, mischief and even divinity that sits awkwardly in White dominant culture, and of course reflects male-centric Hindu culture. It’s also a lot to lay down on a kid, lol.

The same questions could be asked of psychotherapy. We cannot think of our patients simply as bearers of isolated symptoms and syndromes. They are of course individuals connected to a society of differences and disparities. Their histories extend beyond a current episode of distress to a life history and a cultural history beyond that, all of which impact their journeys of identity, belonging and wellness. The therapist is also bound to this selfsame cultural history, although in some different shard. Awareness of this brings humility and deepens the desire and possibility of helping.

But this is a painful and perhaps even privileged awareness. I am grateful to my profession for bringing me deeper into it. But my journey has been largely outside of or in opposition to institutions. I’ve been acceptable enough to be passaged through them, but I’ve never really fit in. I’ve had to find my voice, and speak and write my mind in non-traditional ways. My lack of innocence made me too impure, perhaps even shameful, from institutional perspectives, and I fell into the hole in America, the cauldron.

And there, I’ve had to make my peace with fire. I’m not alone.

Adobe stock image by oceloti, licensed by Ravi Chandra

***

But Hong rightly calls out/calls in those Asian Americans who minimize race or find primary community with Whiteness, silencing our disaffections. There’s room for disagreement on how we hold our Asian American consciousness. In 2016, Calvin Trillin drew ire for what I saw as a satire of upper-crust Manhattan’s White sensibility. However, prominent Asian American poets saw his poem as cultural appropriation and the use of White poetic power and privilege. There are probably some Asian American poets who hate me to this day for writing into this space. (Trillin v. Twitter: Have They Run Out of Ordnance Yet? Psychology Today, April 9, 2016) And I’ll cop to the fact that my first time through Hong’s poetry I didn’t get it, because I’m an idiot. I remain mortified at my initial reaction, but in my defense, I was born on slam and fam, not form or its critique, and to this day, have barely “studied” poetry.

I always do this – speak my mind – and so quite often, I feel that even the academic and artistic “institutions” of Asian America haven’t really accepted me either, though enough people seem to have seen some merit in what I do.

I’ll note we have minor and major feelings between us in Asian America, and differences on what our community should or can be. I do my best to swing for the fences, but mostly I’m kept in the dugout, or made to feel I haven’t made the team. But the academy gatekeepers, such as they are, shouldn’t decide the team. The people should. And the only way to make the team is by doing right by the people you define as your own, which for me must be the community of the suffering and those who care for them.

Yeah, good luck with that. I’m sure other people have better “strategies.” I just have bad boundaries, as I’ve mentioned. Can’t stop won’t stop. Another thing to talk to my shrink about.

But how would I really know when I’ve been accepted, when I’ve made the team? When will my own conscience and consciousness be adequate as a member of the community I wish to embrace, be embraced by, and help create? As Joan Armatrading sings, “oh when I get it right, will you tell me please? I wanna know.” I free associate my relatedness and try to keep up with my muses, as when I interviewed poet Sally Wen Mao about her book Oculus. (Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 14.1: Sally Wen Mao, Anna May Wong, and Oculus, April 2, 2019.)

Asian Americans are really not that good at letting each other know we’ve gotten it right, or are good enough. We’re often more quick to call out and ostracize than to bring in from the cold. That’s the weird team drill I apparently signed up for, the valorization of the popular and White-label approved, or on the other side, the most radically dissident, leaving the less popular, less White-label approved, and (in my case) perhaps more broadly sympathetic, feeling easily ignored, unvindicated, and uncoupled.

Adobe stock image by snaptitude, licensed by Ravi Chandra

***

The uncoupled is ungainly and must find and use implements to find itself. Implements are made available, but the uncoupled is first given the blade, not the handle, and so has trouble learning to love the tool. The tool is then loved, desired, even fetishized. The uncoupled then realizes the damage the tool has wrought, and then turns to use it to wage a private war.

This can be said of the mechanical pencil Hong writes about in the opening of “Bad English,” which she eventually uses to draw fierce anime girls; language itself; or art, relationship, community, and Empire. All the while, consciousness asks us to neurotically question our means and ends, asks us to hold ourselves accountable. So Hong writes about how she has flayed language to wield power and achieve psychic victory over the othering spell of cultural discourse, but does her best to hold conscience in the task as well.

“As a poet, I have always treated English as a weapon in a power struggle, wielding it against those who are more powerful than me.”

It is, in a sense, an impossible task – to both strive to break the rule book and use “bad English” while also being “good,” the other task to which Hong is called. The rule book is written by those who don’t understand our human nature, and we must insist on our own nature to even be. They don’t see our goodness, so we rebel. “Rules were made for people, not people for rules,” as I’ve written before. Unfortunately, families, institutions and society typically use rigid rules as shortcuts to press us into submission, defeat, and compliance; mock and bully difference; resist cultural growth; and ultimately imprison and isolate, emotionally and physically. The carceral state is extensive and even psychic, and many seem ready to become prison guards for a brief taste of power.

I have been called a bad doctor and even felt incarcerated by patients who live in bad relationship and insist on their own bad rules. Maybe I have been a bad doctor, for them. I’m a better doctor for having had their lessons. And together we made an experience that was in fact half-bad, and at least occasionally good. That’s pretty much our life story, and part of the strange neuro-bio-socio-cultural feedback loop that keeps me really present, if perhaps overly hung up on the bad times, the “edge cases.” What I’ve learned is that relating to the edge case expands my own vision of the whole. The edge is made by the ostracizing center, and I am also a victim, and “bad” by definition. By being made bad, I can understand the making, and from there, navigate freedom, for the prisoners and perhaps even for the prison guard.

The process of absorbing a patient’s negative transferences can take a toll; alternately – a self-portrait. Adobe stock image by Rogistok, licensed by Ravi Chandra

I’m hella not alone.

From here, we must speak of “badness” in our current climate: narcissism. Narcissism and selfish egotism has been decried by every major spiritual tradition, yet it holds sway in individualistic America. Should we imprison it, call it out, call it in, or understand? Mileage may vary depending on circumstances – but we must relate to its existence, without and within.

Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg came to view narcissism differently, largely based on the patients they saw. Kohut saw a healthy narcissism as part of normal development, Kernberg saw the pathology, the badness. They are both right. Narcissism seems to be a necessary, but also terribly destructive, devil of the psyche. Neurosis and the self-consciousness that comes from relationship are cures for narcissistic certainty and the overreach of the tool of ego. A solid ego-certainty is necessary in the face of narcissistic or even sociopathic interpersonal or cultural obstacle. If the ego is pushed up against a wall, it will fight, demand prominence. We are living through the “global teach-in on narcissism,” and there are plenty of mirrors and activators in our midst.

Narcissists, including cult leaders, have a great cultural mirror – because they think everything’s by them, for them and about them. If given power they will make it so, to be beheld, spectacles in our midst. We all need some beholding but sheesh. Public narcissists remind us that the private narcissists can be just as bad.

The artistic drive has necessarily narcissistic elements, of course, but also the drives to understand, relate and create. The artist also has to be at least somewhat concerned about how she is seen, and simultaneously how she sees herself. By drawing out the interior and being concerned with the relationship between outer and inner worlds, the artist both transcends self and also exemplifies it, living and reveling in it fully, juicily.

I share the view of one of my mentors: “therapy is art in the medium of relationship.” And the therapist’s identity, not simply therapeutic techne, is the brush – at least the part of the identity necessary to facilitate the patient’s own journey of identity. All artists must use some kind of power, and the good ones are aware of the problems invoked by power, and care about those effects. Ego that does not care about its effects on others is problematic, and even sociopathic.

“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King (or those who would call themselves King).” There has been hard fallout when the soft power of the play doesn’t catch our own, or our nation’s, narcissistic, even monarchic and, at its worst, monolithic, conscience. Inhabiting one’s identity fully with greater awareness of the play is one way to catch conscience in a way specific to one’s own life.

From Pixabay

When I wear my “Awesome Asian Bad Guys” t-shirt (from a Patrick Epino and Stephen Dypiangco film), I am catching conscience: performing art; reveling in a kind of power; feeling vulnerable; and also taking a personality biopsy of the streets. That Asian American teenage boy giving me a half-smile the other day was everything. The White guys in Livermore who looked like they were sizing me up for a fight were everything else. (Maybe they viewed themselves as good guys and warriors, and were surprised that they might have to fight Gandhi.) Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, this t-shirt seems to have raised as much tension as my BLM t-shirt this COVID year.

Both the Awesome and Bad categories for Asian American men are incomprehensible or even despised forms in the American psyche. I claim them all.

That is my own narcissism at work.

“But wait,” you ask. “Are you Gandhi or a criminal?”

Exactly, I reply.

***

Hong’s motive in writing “An Education” is to bring much needed light on the neglected area of women’s friendships, intellectual rivalry and camaraderie, especially during her tumultuous college years. Erin, Helen and Cathy are powerful influences on each other, and Hong honors the others by writing about their time together, as difficult and painful as it all seems. “Friendship: A Growth Challenge of Life and Death or Near-Death Experiences! Come One, Come All, Ready or Not!” It’s a blessing and curse to have a writer in the family, and the new family the three form has undoubtedly been blessed and cursed, from the points of view of all three women, now in mid-life. Oh, but to have had such a time, now immortalized. The chapter is a window into the complexity of these friendships. I was taken both by the women’s raw talent honed into excellence in their formative years, how they all feed each other, but also by how truly fucked up (yet at the same time, privileged) their lives were. They all could have used a generous course of therapy; I’m glad they survived. All too many don’t. I can only hope Helen has found her way through severe mental health challenges, and that Erin has found comfort despite her demanding artistic drive. Cathy seems to have done alright – though I am pretty sure she felt she could have slipped into oblivion in her 20s. I know I did. Not the easiest of decades for a lot of us, Asian Americans and others.

I don’t fully know how the women in my life, artists and others, feel about the development of their relational worlds, but I’d say that it’s quite variable. The most important quality probably isn’t the artistic heights they inspire each other towards. Many, perhaps most, do seem to have sustained close friendships and intimacies (it gets better!), and others have told me they are quite exhausted by all they do for family and community and long for more relational, financial and institutional support. Somehow, many manage to keep putting out their art and plugging away with their professional and institutional commitments. A significant number have been severely impacted by family or other trauma, as have I. I think all of my friends of all genders are quite talented. Some have had their own arrows tipped with fire, and others have invested countless hours in tipping the arrows of others with fire. I am certainly the beneficiary of the kindnesses of many individuals who gave me enough of a shot to keep at my own art.

And of course there are a lot of specific burdens on women which make it imperative that they have the support of other women. I try to do my part in the therapy office, as a compassion educator, as a writer, and as a friend, but it always feels like much much more needs to be done to move the game towards equality, community, safety and trust. My only mild critique is that people in San Francisco have tended to invest more in the projects of community or work rather than actually building deep friendships. Friendships and community have been upended by economic stresses and the drives to stay afloat and get ahead in the most expensive city in the country. Social media has been a decidedly mixed blessing for friendships, and mostly negative in my view.

I’ve heard it said many times that “it’s easier to get laid in San Francisco than make a friend.” (Before you pack your bags and move out here, consider the possibility that even this is no longer true.) This is not a new phenomenon in American life. As I wrote in my book Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, “19th century journalist Henry Adams said, ‘one friend in a lifetime is much, two are many, three are hardly possible.’ ‘Friendship,’ he continued, ‘needs a certain parallelism of life, a community of thought, a rivalry of aim.’”

Adobe stock image by nattakorn, licensed by Ravi Chandra

The pandemic has brought renewed attention to the central importance of relationship, and this year, I’ve actually made a handful of new in-person friendships and engaged with a large number of new and old friends online and doing my part to uphold community, in addition to having the good fortune to be able to spend more time with my mother. I’ve become closer to friends through artistic collaboration and conversation, in the making of a documentary about grief, rage, identity and meaning during this time of COVID and demands for racial justice. (Newsflash: my documentary just won the Festival Director’s Award for Best Film at the Cannes Independent Film Festival, an unexpected validation of this work I did with poet/artist Truong Tran,  psychoanalyst/artist QiRe Ching, and the rest of our team including cinematographer/editor Sompong Viengvilai. My film will be released to stream in October.) For right now and the foreseeable future, it seems like we’ve mainly moved from the “global teach-in on narcissism” to the “global teach-in on interdependence.” Let’s see how it all shakes out. It does get better, I think, but this comes at great, great cost.

I wonder what heights the artists of relationship might inspire each other towards? Aren’t we all potentially artists on this most expansive canvas? Hong’s words on her artistic friendships could apply as well to this task:

“That struggle kept me faithful to the creative imagination cultivated by our friendship, which was an imagination chiseled by rigor and depth to reflect the integrity of our discontented consciousness. No one else cared. No one else took us seriously. We were the only ones who demanded we be artists first.”

***

Does all great art demand suffering, or channel it? Does a great artist need celebrity?

I don’t think one can be a good therapist without having gone through something. I don’t know what a great therapist is except one who is pretty well attuned to you as a patient – but even the best fit isn’t perfect, and often enough an imperfect fit can lead to insight and growth. And the therapist who requires celebrity is not to be trusted. If you’ve worked out some good medicine, then by all means share it, though – we need all the help we can get. But I’ve often thought that if only the feeling tones of the best therapy could be broadcast to the world, everything would change. Perhaps only politicians, artists, and Oprah get to broadcast that way, though, and thereby transmit empathic experiences into the consciousness of the world. We’ve had plenty of transmissions of sociopathy, though, and art, politics and the psyche have been pushed hard to keep up with the input.

Adobe stock image by yemilha, licensed by Ravi Chandra

“In psychoanalysis, the pain that trolls your nerves detaches from your body once you talk about it. Naming that pain takes the sting out of the incident, makes it mortal, manageable, even extinguishable. But I grew up in a culture where to speak of pain would not only retraumatize me but traumatize everyone I love, as if words are not a cure but a poison that will infect others. How many Asian women would then feel bold enough to report sexual assault in their cultures of secrecy and shame?”

In “Portrait of an Artist,” Hong transmits significant elements of the life and rape/murder of artist/filmmaker/poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. This is part Hong and Cha’s intellectual history, part reflection on violence against women and the silence that so often encases it, and in all parts an illumination and attempt to honor Cha as a brilliant light in the great chain of being.

I have not read Dictee in total, though I’ve had a couple of copies given to me over the years, one by a dear patient. I’ve moved offices since then, and somehow, I can’t find the book. Misplacing a book can drive me a little bonkers, misplacing a gift makes me feel miserable, but this is nothing like losing a loved one. Cha is not an object, she was a life, and her loss should haunt us all. Not for her talent or promise, though there is plenty of that, but for her humanity. Memorializing Cha can at least help us hold our humanity more dearly, at a time when it seems increasingly in jeopardy.

Just like me, just like Hong, Cha is not a form alone, she is also a relatedness, an emptiness in the Buddhist sense, and the poetic consciousness is nothing if not empty of inherent existence and fully, freely associative. I think Cha heard the ghost of historical time and feeling, too, and channeled it into her work, in hopes of breaking her own mind and the minds of her readers and viewers free from the deep rut that oppression has cut on our journey, trying to force us into division and subjugation. The description of Dictee rhymes with my perceptions:

A classic work of autobiography that transcends the self, Dictée is the story of several women: the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon, Joan of Arc, Demeter and Persephone, Cha’s mother Hyung Soon Huo (a Korean born in Manchuria to first-generation Korean exiles), and Cha herself. The elements that unite these women are suffering and the transcendence of suffering.

Cha’s work as an artist could well be called “soul work” for reaching into deep time and finding place, presence and identity. Consciousness gathers around such work, but she could not outrun the assassin she saw. That’s on the rest of us, to defuse the assassins drawn to our light, the assassins that stalk and try to negate us. When I do finally find and read Dictee, I hope to be ready for the transmission.

I sometimes say I read at least 25 books a week in the form of being conversationally proximal and attentive to my patients’ and friends’ lives. Each of these, a living, vast associative work-in-progress that pulls me further into presence, relatedness, growth and compassion. And I do my best not to forget my connections to those people who do not present for therapy and yet suffer and aspire. How can we reach them all? How can they reach us with their stories and lives? How might we all reach each other, while we have time? Can we make time and space in heart/mind for this great and noble transmission?

Maybe Cha and the story of her life can reach more. Woo Jong Cho is directing and producing a film about Cha, named The Dream of the Audience after the book and exhibition about Cha produced by the Berkeley Art Museum. I’ve previewed the excellent trailer, and hope you might contribute to the film’s production.

***

Hong’s final chapter, “The Indebted,” asks us to make a choice between compliance and conscription into Whiteness, capitalism, Empire and militarism; or resistance to this monstrous, ugly, algorithmic machine, and allyship with all those it has harmed. She writes:

“In the future, White supremacy will no longer need White people,” the artist Lorraine O’Grady said in 2018, a prognosis that seemed, at least on the surface, to counter what James Baldwin said fifty years ago, which is that “the White man’s sun has set.” Which is it then? What prediction will hold? As an Asian American, I felt emboldened by Baldwin but haunted and implicated by O’Grady. I heard the ring of truth in her comment, which gave me added urgency to finish this book. Whiteness has already recruited us to become their junior partners in genocidal wars; conscripted us to be antiblack and colorist; to work for, and even head, corporations that scythe off immigrant jobs like heads of wheat. Conscription is every day and unconscious. It is the default way of life among those of us who live in relative comfort, unless we make an effort to choose otherwise.”

Throughout her self-conscious book, she describes her struggles with planting her feet in racial identity: is it significant enough? Is it too separatist?

“I began this book as a dare to myself. 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.”

She has made a clear case that her psychological, cultural, artistic, and intellectual journeys spring precisely from her identities of race, ethnicity and gender. She finds kinship with Yuri Kochiyama and other Asian American activists, and plants her feet firmly on the side of conscience and resistance born of moral distress. These are the debts of loyalty she holds dear – not the debt of gratitude demanded by an America that works every day to anvil away history and ethnicity to forge us into a weapon of further abuse. She began her book as a suffering patient. She has skillfully investigated her suffering to find foundation, purpose and unity with others who suffer, specifically from the cultural trauma that Whiteness inflicts.

If the last 6 years have taught us anything, it’s how hard it is to stand up to and overcome an abuser, much less an abusive system. As every marginalized group and every abused person discovers, allies are hard to come by and often harder to keep. More of us have to recognize abuse and be willing to say “no more!”

Adobe stock image by arloo, licensed by Ravi Chandra

It’s disheartening to see so many people remain enthralled by and beholden to ignorance and abusive power. Voting rights, women’s rights, trans rights, human and civil rights, basic health care, climate change response – seem very much at stake over the next two national elections. Just plain survival is at stake, and survival of the deepest values of our long journey in time. I’m fully willing to see the other side as fully human, but they do not seem to give me and those like me the same generosity. I keep wondering “how far back in the closets are those White hoods hanging? Have they yet been woven into flags of surrender to the cause of universal liberation?” It seems not.

Consciousness is an unsteady beast. It must be made true in relationship and rigorous self-examination, or else the unthinkable becomes possible, and then real. We need our identities, we need our relatedness, we need our anger, and above all, we need our compassion and common humanity.

There are those who view all of these as noise; I view them as song.

All else is nihilism, all else is death. We must give our lives to the music we make together.

***

After I read Audre Lorde’s “An Open Letter to Mary Daly” in Sister Outsider, I simply bawled. The ache of eloquently reaching out to someone you loved, admired and had learnt from, yet who denied a fundamental and defining aspect of who you are as a human being in her work and consciousness, filled me with an all-too-familiar sorrow. Mary Daly had published Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism in 1978, and had apparently completely elided Black women (and presumably Indigenous and other women of color) except to offer them as victims of female genital mutilation in Africa.

There is no in-betweening this, no “both sides” argument. Lorde has the receipts and is not afraid to show them, throughout her work. She did tire of sharing the receipts with defensive White audiences, and for a time apparently refused speaking opportunities. Too much emotional labor. From “Age, Race, Sex, and Class: Women Redefining Difference”:

“Traditionally, in american society, it is the members of oppressed, objectified groups who are expected to stretch out and bridge the gap between the actualities of our lives and the consciousness of our oppressor…Whenever the need for some pretense of communication arises, those who profit from our oppression call upon us to share our knowledge with them. In other words, it is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes.”

“Bridging the gap” is exhausting and repetitive emotional and intellectual labor, and typically poorly compensated and unsung. Affirming identity in the face of ignorance, apathy, antagonism and devaluation is vital – but why must it always feel like an uphill battle? Why must it leave so many of us feeling frequently drained and dispirited? I’ve got a lot of energy for this, but even I get knocked back too often to give me any sense that life is or can be too comfortable for one such as myself and others who make that foolhardy yet necessary mistake of caring. And I’m one of the relatively privileged ones, though in my mind, my caring seems precarious and inconsistently received, not privileged.

Lama Rod Owens calls her Mother Audre Lorde for good reason. In these speeches and essays of Sister Outsider, I found resonance, expansion, amplification, struggle, and resolve. She is unsettling, self-critical, inspiring. She re-envisions the First Noble Truth. If life entails suffering, what is the nature of our suffering?

“There is a distinction I am beginning to make in my living between pain and suffering. Pain is an event, an experience that must be recognized, named, and then used in some way in order for the experience to change, to be transformed into something else, strength or knowledge or action.

Suffering, on the other hand, is the nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain.” (From “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger.”)

If life entails suffering, and suffering is the unmetabolized personal, historical, and intergenerational pain of traumatized relationships, perhaps the era we are living through is a vibrant and difficult transmission of suffering, a transmission that requires we open our minds, hearts and hands to one another. This transmission requires reception and collaboration with our most difficult emotions, but also the willingness of those emotions to be received and held. Minor, major, and ugly feelings need to have more than a dash of the umami of friendliness and compassion, the extra flavor that makes our inner lives and relatedness more tasty and delicious.

Umami is the 5th flavor, after sweet, salty, bitter and sour, that makes food more tasty and delicious. It activates glutamate receptors, which also happen to be the most common receptor in the brain. I think the umami of friendliness and compassion play a great role in co-ordinating brain function, and convening our identities.

But as BIPOC people, our desire to relate to one another and our difficulties is fraught with peril. Umami is essential to trust and safety, but as I’ve learned the hard way, it is not enough when the inner life has been laid with landmines by the dominant culture and even our own experiences with one another. Lorde writes to “Leora” a potential therapist who is a Black woman (the letter is in “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger”)

“Dear Leora,

For two Black women to enter an analytic or therapeutic relationship means beginning an essentially uncharted and insecure journey. There are no prototypes, no models, no objectively accessible body of experience other than ourselves by which to examine the specific dynamics of our interactions as Black women. Yet this interaction can affect all the other psychic matter attended profoundly…

I have many troubled areas of self that will be neither new nor problematic to you as a trained and capable psychperson. I think you are a brave woman and I respect that, yet I doubt that your training can have prepared you to explore the tangle of need, fear, distrust, despair, and hope which operates between us, and certainly not to the depth necessary. Because neither of us is male nor White, we belong to a group of human beings that has not been thought worthy of that kind of study. So we have only who we are, with or without the courage to use those selves for further exploration and clarification of how what lies between us as Black women affects us and the work we do together.

Yet if we do not do it here between us, each one of us will have to do it somewhere else, sometime.”

If only Eunice Cho and Cathy Park Hong had a Mother Lorde between them! If only I’d read Lorde’s letter early in my career! These 500 words should be required reading for all therapists as reminder to be both humble and bold in our endeavor to create at least a tiny island of belonging in the seas of suffering we all sail as human beings. In this and other essays, Lorde is concerned with relationship: familiarity, difference, familiarity with difference, difference despite familiarity, difference because of familiarity, and above all, a call for greater familiarity because of difference.

Relationship is difficult, the highest form of spiritual practice. There is space between us, full of active and potential feelings. In this space, solidarity must be made palpable, drawn out of chaos, heartbreak, division, war, and loss; solidarity must be made palpable, drawn out of chaos into the mighty world that can be.

***

There have been some incredibly headstrong-and-dead-wrong White men on my Facebook author page who claim that “reason came after feeling in evolution, so feelings are primitive and unimportant.” One included love and compassion in that assessment. Trying to maintain my curiosity, I asked him how that philosophy worked in his relationships. No response.

Medicine – psychiatry itself, even – has been notorious for asking its practitioners to stuff, deny and devalue their feelings in favor of “rationality” and supposed duty to the system of clankety-clank technical interventions and understandings that has been proposed to guide our interactions. What I suggest is that the poetic has been devalued in favor of pathology. Dr. Jillian Horton writes, “We talk about self-care now. But our training has been an exercise in self-immolation.” That self-immolation, for me, has been the way my profession has, as a matter of process, ostracized, devalued and penalized difference in favor of conformity; emphasized sucking it up and working hard instead of caring for ourselves and others; and made us devalue relationships with peers in hopes of winning favor with superiors and advancing to positions of power ourselves, and then repeating the cycle of abuse on future generations of trainees, perhaps slightly improved, perhaps not.

After Thubten Jinpa

Feelings exist. They are the very stuff of life. Human beings, including physicians, cannot help anyone without feelings, particularly the feelings that arise in response to suffering. Our feelings point us to our deepest human needs and longings; our moral distresses; the places of rupture, dissonance and fragmentation; the places that need concrete, visible and material change; the places that need inner and interpersonal attention and remedy.

If there’s one thing that the COVID year has taught us, it’s that when we don’t have as much to distract us, we notice we actually have a lot of feelings. Tons. Loads. Our most difficult emotions of disconnection and alienation do not go gentle into that good night. They are long emotions, an undercurrent, rip tide, or tsunami in our lives, demanding awareness, reception, collaboration and companionship. They can only be relieved with compassion, compassion that comes from staying close to the vulnerability and precariousness of our human condition, a vulnerability and precariousness that is now exposed, raw, and undeniable.

Adobe stock image by denisismagilov, licensed by Ravi Chandra

“[T]here are so many ways in which I’m vulnerable and cannot help but be vulnerable, I’m not going to be more vulnerable by putting weapons of silence in my enemies’ hands.”
Audre Lorde, in “An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich”

Hong started MINOR FEELINGS with her own vulnerability. She names shame; alienation; antagonisms; and familial, cultural and gender-based traumas, alongside ambitions of art and experiences of friendship. Awareness of these allows her to build a foundation of solidarity and affirmation with others, particularly Asian Americans, who have been oppressed by racism and struggle for justice, those who are also vulnerable.

Our feelings are central for our journey as human beings. Lorde writes “The White fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us — the poet — whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” (From “Poetry is Not a Luxury.”)

Lorde continues in her conversation with Adrienne Rich, “Leaving rationality to the White man is like leaving him a piece of that road that begins nowhere and ends nowhere…Rationality is not unnecessary. It serves the chaos of knowledge. It serves feeling. It serves to get from this place to that place. But if you don’t honor those places, then the road is meaningless. Too often, that’s what happens with the worship of rationality and that circular, academic, analytic thinking. But ultimately, I don’t see feel/think as a dichotomy. I see them as a choice of ways and combinations.”

Cold, calculating, and self-serving “reason” has allowed abusive power to devalue and deny the feelings that arise from human vulnerability. This is how abusive power becomes inherently dehumanizing to both oppressor and victim. We, the vulnerable – and we are all vulnerable – must recover our feelings, and bring them tenderly into awareness and relationship. Our vulnerability is the source of our common humanity and compassion, without which we are lost. In the crucible of mind/heart, we must take our minor, ugly, and difficult emotions, and come to our transcendent selves.

We struggle with a strategic and reactionary medievalism that threatens our identities, our relatedness, and life itself. That’s going to give us feelings. All the feels, even. Hong and Lorde urge us to listen to them. Listen to them, break silence, and speak.

Let’s go shopping at Whole Moods, y’all. Let’s make ourselves a feast.

References and further reading:

  1. Chandra R. Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings and Asian American Erasure, Psychology Today, March 10, 2020.

  2. Chandra R. Calling COVID-19 a “Chinese Virus” or “Kung Flu” Is Racist, Psychology Today, March 18, 2020.

  3. Winnicott D.W. Hate in the Countertransference. Originally published 1949, republished 1994 with an introduction by Glen Gabbard. Full article accessible at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3330380/pdf/348.pdf

  4. For an easy read on narcissism, see Dr. Craig Malkin’s Rethinking Narcissism – the Bad – and Surprising Good – About Feeling Special. Harper Wave, 2015.

  5. You might also like my Fall 2019 lectures on narcissism and Asian American psychology, available online.

  6. Hernandez L. Janice Mirikitani, Glide co-founder, activist, and S.F. poet laureate, dies at 80. SF Chronicle, July 29, 2021.

  7. Chandra R. All Mental Health is Cultural Mental Health. Newsletter of the Northern California Psychiatric Society, May 21, 2021.

Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist, writer and compassion educator in San Francisco, and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. For fourteen years, he was lucky to have his MOSF posts published by the Center for Asian American Media, and now looks forward to broadening and building a diverse creative community and coalition through reflecting on culture and psychology for East Wind eZine. Sign up for updates here, and see all the posts hereHe writes from the metaphorical intersection of The Fillmore and Japantown in San Francisco, where Black and Asian communities have mingled since the end of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. He literally works there, between two Indian restaurants, go figure, though one has permanently shuttered during COVID. His award-winning debut documentary, The Bandaged Place: From AIDS to COVID and Racial Justice, will release in October, 2021. You can find him on Psychology Today,  Twitter,  Facebook,  Instagram,  YouTube,  SoundCloud, or better yet, in the IRL.

4 Comments

  1. Eddie Wong on August 12, 2021 at 6:38 pm

    Ravi, thank you for another thought-provoking article. I’ve been meaning to read Hong’s Minor Feelings and now have a better sense of the journey she has taken. We also get a picture of your journey as well and I appreciate the humor and passion you invest in mixing together historical references, personal observations, and searing life experiences. Asian Americans have been vilified, misunderstood, and ignored. How we live with this overlay is essential to our survival and well-being. We shouldn’t have to endure rejection and denigration in a society that each and every day reinforces repression. Know you enemy and know yourself. Then, get busy with the work of empowerment.

    • Ravi Chandra on August 12, 2021 at 7:06 pm

      Hi Eddie, thanks for devoting considerable time to reading this gob-stopper of a long post! I’m glad Cathy has been duly recognized for her work as a Pulitzer finalist this year. Audre Lorde is spectacular as well, and I kicked off this series last year with a quote from one of her speeches – “In the mouth of the dragon of America, we were not meant to survive.” I’m glad both remind us to pay attention to our full selves, including our emotional lives, to live in our full humanity. We do this best when we can relate to each other. I just got into a minor Twitter beef with yet another person (this time a law professor at George Mason) who, like Jay Caspian Kang, denies Asian American identity. It’s tiring to have to “prove” your identity and community to people who don’t want to see it. Does any other community face this kind of scrutiny and judgment? We are a work in progress, granted, but so is the whole damn world. America itself and humanity as well are conglomerations of different identities – why do we press for unity at all? Well – beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I have seen the beauty of Asian America, and I will continue to do my part in upholding it.

  2. Fred Huang on August 22, 2021 at 2:33 pm

    Ravi, thank you for this essay. Your honest, unblinking look at your profession and yourself is very refreshing. And hearing Asian American voices and ideas about being Asian American is something that is so rare but so important especially during these times when we have so much violence towards Asian Americans and difficulty with understanding one another. Thank you also for taking me along with you to learn more about Audre Lorde. I had recently picked up her book about surviving cancer and could see how she uses language as her special power to fight against injustice and social squashing. I look forward to reading more that you write (and your documentary)

    • Ravi Chandra on August 22, 2021 at 6:11 pm

      Thanks Fred, for reading this long excursion! I need to read more Audre Lorde myself, but I’ll have to pace myself, as she brings a lot to the surface. I hope this essay and these authors can help us as psychiatrists to understand the world of feelings and emotions more deeply, and not view them as ‘pathology’, as too many do, and simply toss medications alone at them. Our goal is to relieve suffering, and we do that by understanding and bearing witness.

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