Memoirs of a Superfan Vol 16.7: Jay Caspian Kang and The Loneliest Americans vs. the Psychology and Reality of Asian America
by Ravi Chandra, M.D. Posted on October 20, 2021.
I will probably never stop gently ribbing a certain scholar, who will go unnamed, for talking about “the thinking class.” Hah. Probably the most well-read person I met when I was a teenager was a farmer in Kentucky. I learned some things from him, but most of all, I learned to respect and have sympathy for someone very much not like myself. He also gave me my first and only taste of Schnapps. We all have capacity to think and feel, and no one should do our thinking or feeling for us. What we need most of all is relating, relating to each other and relating to difficulties, within ourselves and in the space between us. I love learning from experts and scholars, the supposed “thinking class,” but frankly, I think we need to trust our muses more and our pundits less. This essay is aimed at the laughing and angry classes. In any case, all of humanity is part of the COVID Class of 2020-2021. Upward mobility simply means survival and helping out as best you can. If anybody is still actually worried about being on the 30 Under 30 list, the 40 Under 40 List, etc., I tell them I am always happy to remain on the 7 Billion Under 7 Billion List. Stay safe and be well, everyone, and check globalpandemics.org to see how the pandemic is still landing where you are. Note: there are no significant spoilers of Kang’s book in this article, but a slight content warning for, erm, language about said book.
How seriously should we take a hater’s opinion?
Conventional wisdom says to discount the hater – and social media wisdom says to fight back hard AF. When someone burns you or the way you’ve constructed your mental world or social being, you whip out the flamethrower and do the righteous work of your Lord. Still, how many of us want to be introduced by our occasional but actual unpaid social media labor titles?
“In this corner: he is the easily triggered asshole and underdog you’ve come to love and hate, the only-child immigrant son of an immigrant mother who has SOMEHOW managed to keep comin’ out of nowhere, the family member you’re not sure whether to invite to dinner or leave on the discard pile, DOCTOR RAVI CHANDRAAAAAA!”
“And his opponent, the also easily triggered asshole with substantially more prominence in the literary world yet who often feels like the underdog, the man with writing chops, the man with a popular podcast and platform, a NEW YORK TIMES byline and many fine trappings of journalistic success, yet who is still locked in a public struggle for identity, consciousness, and even more fame and accolades, JAY CAAASPIAN KAAAAANG!!!”
Jay Caspian Kang is a hater on Asian American identity. He calls Asian America “racecraft,” stitched together out of a “sacrament” of scattered historical incidents that he thinks are utterly inconsequential to the consciousness of post-1965 Asian immigrants. He can’t make sense of Asian America, and seems to think that those of us who do are deluded conformists who don’t care about working class and poor Asian Americans, the undocumented, and refugees. He seems to think that greed and property values are our prime directives, and yet he somehow also hates activists. He thinks we are superficial “boba liberals” who don’t throw down for community or equity. He feels that the conversation on Asian American identity is unduly skewed towards Hollywood media representation.
Kang seems to think we are being asked to worship a holy cow, and he fucking wants bulgogi.
Lots of it.
I love bulgogi.
I don’t particularly care for Twitter beef.
I love Korean and Korean American people, in a jeong kind of way. There’s really no other choice for one such as I, and it is basically all for the best. Sigh.
I also love Asian American identity, for the same inescapable reasons as you love your family, which is as much a work-in-progress as I am.
So I’m predisposed to hate JCK, as he is being called, for his difference with me on the last point re the bare existence of Asian American identity, but perhaps feel at least somewhat friendly towards him on the first three points. Is he family? Or a family distraction that at best might help put the family to task on some important questions?
If there was a University of Asian American Identity Studies, he would be an engineer, focused on the clankety-clank of the mangling machine of American society. He would not be a poet, he would not be a philosopher, he would not be a doctor, much less a psychotherapist, based on what I know so far from his writing and podcasts. If I was on his thesis committee, I would generously say he’s still evolving, but he has evinced precious little feel for the material, and cannot be trusted to read a pulse. This is why he decided early on that the thesis committee didn’t matter. He’s taken his work to the popular press, now with a book that’s garnering some attention, after articles that brought him acclaim, for good reason.
Let me say off the bat, I am not waiting for Asian America to come to coherence in Jay Caspian Kang’s mind. I’m hoping he can come to coherence in his own mind. Signs are mixed. I’m hoping he’s a better avatar for himself in his own body, rather than what aspects of his social media presence or podcasting personality would suggest.
I met him in his book, The Loneliest Americans, and appreciated much of his storytelling: about his family; himself; the rise of Koreatown, LA, and Flushing, NY; aspects of his rendering of the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965 story; and aspects of BLM protests and the MRAzn beast and beef-of-beefs. But I also found myself annoyed and rolling my eyes quite a lot. My margin notes reveal that I was frequently aghast at his ego and rudimentary level of understanding, or worst yet, cynical and misanthropic misunderstanding. For example, Kang’s descriptions of Koreatown and Flushing are primarily focused on wealth creation through real estate, dropping in a gossipy tidbit about Rep. Grace Meng’s father – not on the community writ large, including mental health, politics, social services and cultural expansion. As several Korean American friends said, “what TF does he know about Koreatown” having grown up in White suburbs and seemingly avoiding significant contact with other Asian Americans until being asked to write about us?
I was shocked that this book somehow passed the gauntlet of New York City’s much-vaunted publishing and editing process. His last chapter and epilogue are a meandering journal entry of practically worthless musings without any real sense of introspection. He gives these conclusions.
“There is almost no actual solidarity between Asian Americans and any other group.”
“There are still only two races in America: Black and white. Everyone else is part of a demographic group headed in one direction or the other.”
“To find a meaningful place in politics, one that doesn’t require us to lie about “white adjacency” or ignore the pain of everyone who looks like us, upwardly mobile Asian Americans must drop our neuroses about microaggressions and the bamboo ceiling, and fully align ourselves with the forgotten Asian America: the refugees, the undocumented, and the working class.”
“Do we, the fortunate, forget about all that messy homeland history and set our sights on a comfortable place in an increasingly multicultural elite with all its requisite hand-wringing about the less fortunate? Or can we figure out a way to break our abiding belief in American progress and find a new identity rooted in the economic and social concerns of the millions of working-class immigrants who have lost their livelihoods during this pandemic?”
Only two races? Have you ever looked in the mirror, cuz? And is it possible that there can be a collective destiny which we can all move towards? And “no actual solidarity”? WTF??? And “drop our neuroses”? Did you just participate in the wholesale dismissal of elements of Asian American suffering, the tips of the iceberg of our experience? And “messy homeland history”? You mean the history connected with imperialism, war, ideology and conflict that still affect all of our lives? And “hand wringing” Are you dismissing actual moral distress? Whose “abiding belief in American progress” are you talking about? Have you lived through the last five years? Do you recognize this inflection point, and what it has meant to most Americans? Sheesh.
Kang also claims that upwardly mobile Asian Americans have elided mention of less fortunate, marginalized members of communities who have fallen under the broad Asian American umbrella.
“These elisions help a wealthy group of penance seekers who want to live as a part of a multicultural elite erase all the unseemly parts of Asian America. A strange, but perfectly logical, paradox arises: by vocally supporting what he sees as Black causes, the assimilating immigrant is actually acting in the role of a white liberal. This, of course, is also part of the process of becoming white.”
This interpretation is inaccurate — those who support the Black cause in all probability see those causes as powerfully central to the issues of racism that agonize the American experience. That does not mean that they have elided “unseemly parts of Asian America.” By scornfully calling them “penance seekers” Kang seeks to position himself as moral authority. Kang’s cynical misinterpretation of Asian American motives strikes both at legitimate concern about the centrality of anti-Black racism as well as empathy for marginalized Asian Americans. This is all in favor of his reductionist emphasis on class concerns, devoid of intersectionality and even a meager understanding of human identity or the active process of creating and integrating community and consciousness.
His central theses are:
Asians either aspire to Whiteness or affiliate with Blackness.
Whiteness equals wealth, comfort, safety and no suffering, and the best emotion we can expect from them is pity for less fortunate “others.”
Blackness equals poverty, discomfort, danger, and real, legitimate suffering tied to historical oppression.
Asianness equals soulless wealth aspiration, some suffering during the pandemic, and the bulk of supposed Asian American suffering consists of flimsy feelings, not tied to anything particularly significant, and anyhoo aren’t really that important.
Notably, though he says he wishes to ally with “the refugees, the undocumented, and the working class” he doesn’t actually talk to any of them. It’s just that their suffering is more pressing and tangible to him, and he thinks “we” have forgotten about “them.”
Lines like these had me nearly throwing up. Asian America is its own thing. We are part of a movement that actually includes BIPOC people and Whites who also want to break out of the binary and hierarchical caste system that has been described so well by other authors, and actually create a society of belonging and equity. Do we need to do better at inclusion and aid across our incredible, mind-blowing diversity? Sure. I’ve heard of this aspiration before: E pluribus unum.
Do I wish more Asian Americans would climb on board and get informed and involved in Asian America? Absolutely. It’s happening, though, quite steadily, and quite powerfully in the last few years. Of course we are deeply influenced by Black Americans, just like all of America and the whole world. I trust we are working through our connections in individual and collective ways, because the vast majority of us recognize the centrality of Black and Indigenous peoples’ journeys in America, which are deeply linked to our own. True to our relational nature, we have many other significant influences. His “analysis,” if you could call it that, of Whiteness and Blackness is insipid and banal. I think they are mainly offered to soothe White anxieties about his cultural project. “Look, we kinda wanna be just like you. Don’t hate me, and please pay me handsomely.”
This book isn’t a crime. But it is a crime scene, and frankly, everyone affiliated with it needs to look themselves in the mirror and figure out exactly what and who they were in this for. The fact of this book’s existence is evidence in a larger indictment of the benighted nature of the Big 5 publishing industry. How Mr. Kang has been anointed to tell a story of Asian America so at odds with its reality and very nature tells of cynicism and cruelty.
Any potential readers would be better off watching or rewatching the Asian Americans documentary on PBS, or even just spending their time with friends and family to obtain a practicum in identity, relationship and belonging which Mr. Kang still grasps after and simultaneously scorns.
There are saving graces. I found I most wanted to meet his immigrant mother. He translates one of her blogposts from Korean, and I found her writing a beautiful, warm and wistful account of a recognizable Asian American experience of being a stranger in a strange land, as she describes being locked and isolated in her own mind, tremulous and vulnerable, estranged from sociality by a language that she eventually decides to master, all the while finding ways to connect to others, particularly those who seem as alone and isolated as she once felt. She also decides, Jay tells us, that one of her children will become a writer, to master the language that impeded her journey. Her daughter becomes a surgeon, and her son becomes a rather surgical and successful writer, with a scalpel for a pen. His mother sounds like she’s got hella nunchi, and Kang says her best friends happen to be Trump supporters, so she apparently knows how to get along and thrive despite cavernous partisan distance. Mad respect. She and my own mom have a lot in common.
Her son … not so much, I think. He seems mostly annoyed with everyone he meets. He always finds something wrong with the person he’s with, including himself. He’s like the Jack Kevorkian of profile writers. I’m still not sure if he’s giving life to his subjects or killing them.
He writes a lot about Hart-Celler, but mostly I found that his heart was in the cellar. It doesn’t seem that Kang had the formative communal Pan Asian American and BIPOC relational experiences in youth as many of us did. In fact, he seems to have avoided them. Hmm. I wonder why. Those experiences were foundational for me, and have continued to be integral – witness my writing for East Wind and CAAM and my relatedness to Asian Americans in my professional capacities over the last 20+ years to give just two examples, examples that actually prove that yes, Virginia, there is an Asian American identity and community, one that’s not exclusively tied to the Asian frats he famously wrote about. Duh.
Kang instead seems to be substituting quasi-intellectual and journalistic investigation for true relationship, and has only relatively recently begun grappling with Asian American issues for the New York Times, helmed, of course, by White editors who I would dare say are less interested in promoting a comprehensive view of Asian America than they are in promoting well-written provocative takes that satisfy the misunderstandings and biases of their White base, and perhaps throw a bone to conservatives in the process as well. I did, though, appreciate his writing for Grantland during Linsanity, and even referred to it in my book Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks.
I would say Jay is at a somewhat early, but rather earnest, stage of identity formation, the stage where the talented ego has to make a big scene to get people to notice him, and perhaps take new notice of new and old problems. Maybe he’s playing a good game of “catch up” alternating with “eff you.” Maybe he’s just a cynical manipulator. Embedded are questions for all of us, in the internet and connected age. How do we get attention – as Asian Americans? How much attention do we want? From whom? What happens to our identities and relationships as we get attention? What do we do with this attention and our attention and intentions, all the while? Etc. Etc.
Kang is like Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers at the temple. JC Kang v The (Supposed) Temple/Money Changers of Asian America. He has apparently already been crucified on social media and vultures have feasted on his carcass. (There was a nice takedown of The Loneliest Americans published at Vulture, but the takedown also called Asian America an “empty term.” Tell it to all the organizations with Asian American in their titles and missions.) He is also already going through a resurrection. His interviewer on NPR on October 18th used quotes around the term Asian America, so he seems to have some influence on the apparatus.
This is a cat with, ahem, a few lives ahead of him. Get ready for JCK 2.0 and 3.0. Who wants to reboot him?
NPR has turned to him before. In 2017, when discussing Asian American activism around the murder of Akai Gurley by then-Officer Peter Liang, he said:
KANG: Well, I think that we don’t quite have a language of protest. You know, there is no real written history of Asian-American protests in the United States. I imagine that outside of internment that people would sort of struggle to find one instance where there was an Asian-American protest movement.
This is just plain dumb and wrong, and his awareness may have grown, but it fits his narrative of the White-worshipping, politically passive Asian American who is simply bent out of shape about that “bullshit” called “identity” and not really interested in social change. Instead of providing receipts on protests that go back to the 1800s, let me just say this is one brotha who likes to see what he likes to see, and he might be taking the mirror a little too seriously. (P.S. another alternative to wasting your time reading Kang’s book is watching Ursula Liang’s splendid documentary on the Liang case, DOWN A DARK STAIRWELL.)
I think he has a cultural project in mind – mostly about advancing himself and his platform, tag himself into the burgeoning ring now hungry for ideas on Asian America (which, remember, he thinks doesn’t exist) and to be generous, to advance attention on solidarity with labor and the working poor. I think he thinks he can’t get to these goals without simultaneously negging on Asian American identity, because as a veteran observer of social media culture wars, he knows what will get him the limelight, at least for a hot minute.
Enter JCK, the Contrarian, the spectacle, the contender for the championship who is “firm in the belief that he’s always punching up, no matter which way he’s facing,” in the precise, acidic prose of Madeleine Leung Coleman in the aforementioned review at Vulture.
But he’s talking to a guy whose people literally threw off the yoke of colonialism. Yes, yes, yes – they – and we – are absolutely still struggling with class/caste/authoritarianism/ religious strife/misogyny/etc. etc. all the issues of power, complacency, complicity and compassion – but fuck off, Kang, don’t tell me what my concerns should be or that my identity and moral distress are meaningless or somehow fake.
JCK is a counterpoint to CPH (Cathy Park Hong) and VTN (Việt Thanh Nguyễn), and all are trying to overthrow BHL-ism (Bernard-Henri Lévi), at least in being known primarily by their initials.
Can we make a stew out of all the counterpoints on Asian American consciousness? A budae jjigae of possibility? A troublesome thali of thoughtfulness? Can our alphabet soup of CPH, VTN, JCK (and let’s not leave out GLB) use a dash or two of RC and MOSF? Or would the latter spoil the whole plot?
We’ve certainly got enough fire, folks, to cook up a meal. I think we’re still workin’ on the love. Not to mention there are bountiful, endless dishes of history, scholarship, and lived, related experience on this table that barely get a mention in the MSAASMIIC (Mainstream Asian American Social Media Inflected/Infected Consciousness). Dishes made, for example, by TWD (Tsering Wangmo Dhompa), KKY (Kao Kalia Yang), DM (David Mura), AT (Alex Tizon) and AS (Albert Samaha) in recent years, and AT, MHK, DHH, FC, RT, HZ, EK, RTP, CC/CI/NM, LD, BP, WW, JO, HK and many others in years past. Not even to mention jazz musicians of all ethnicities, who clearly have significant influence on my membranes.
Hell, our history, scholarship and lived, related experience are the fucking table, ground and air. And the meal isn’t going to be served until we acknowledge the whole mise en scène in which we are about to have a picnic, a party, a revelation or a revolution. My point is – what’s a party unless everybody is invited and everybody eats?
That would be a club, complete with red rope and bouncer. A gilded cage. And Asian America ain’t a club, though it is annoyingly cliquey at times, and it sure as hell better not be a cage, because I most want to tear the real fucking cages of racism and White Male Christian Supremacy apart.
Did I mention I can be an asshole? If you want to devalue or punish me because I’m a hater of racism and the delusion of White Male Christian Supremacy, then so be it. I’ve felt your sting all my life, and I’m open to talking through this conflict to create a better, safer world for all, but I know we have a real conflict. It’s time to ride or die against these and all abuses of power, because we’ve been dying for thousands of years because of them. I have myself been abused by them, and still feel their threat viscerally and tangibly.
But I also want to break out of the repetition compulsion of the hate cycle, in which we habitually hate on our haters, and then turn around and reward thoughtful or media-savvy haters by giving them huge platforms. Instinctive haters are regularly “a mile wide and an inch deep” in my estimation. I appreciate the information and energy of anger, and I appreciate and identify with anger on a daily basis. I just went there in the last few paragraphs.
Anger can be exceedingly articulate and on-point. The main problem with it is that it’s often the same point, over and over, a point that still has not been fully appreciated by the intended recipients. I’ll admit to what I call “murderous urge surfing” towards “the usual suspects” of my life and the struggling life of the world, watching the urges rise and fall in consciousness. I have not forgotten and will not forget, but I am fully capable of reconciliation as well. But I refuse to be complicit in the subordination and ongoing destruction of BIPOC and other vulnerable peoples.
I wish Kang well in his project of understanding the world and himself kinda-sorta through a class lens. In my work, I know that even understanding one person intersects race, class, gender, religion, and a whole host of other attributes and bio-psycho-socio-cultural-spiritual experiences. Everything revolves around relationship, context and being present with difficulty and suffering.
And you know what? It don’t get solved in books.
Another thing: understanding another person is not about categorizing them or limiting them with labels, even the ones that I love, like Asian American. The journey of identity is much more continuous and uncontained than that.
Herein lies one main problem with the public discourse on Asian American identity, identity in general, and even our understanding of ourselves. As a spiritual friend once told me, “the longest journey is from the head to the heart.” I know Asian Americans have, by and large, pretty big hearts. (I know we’re a mixed lot, and have our share of narcissists, opportunists and careerists as well.) But sometimes we get super-stuck in our heads. We’re already infamously good at suppressing feelings to get along with others, and in America, this talent has both benefited our mental health and aspirations but also caused distress and inner conflict. Some of us, the “designated emoters” or messengers of our families, overflow with awareness, emotion, and conflict, and do the right thing by seeking therapy, insight and improved relationship with self and others.
But all too many of us get stuck in our heads. We get stuck with something, and we think we need to get it all sorted out in our noggins before we make a move. Or we just bury it. But what’s buried doesn’t disappear. It’s a seed, or a weight, or a turbulent misery.
My favorite line in Shang-Chi was when his mother said, “letting things go is so American.” Indeed. Despite the Buddhist instruction to “let things go,” or “forgive and forget” we are in fact human. We have phenomenal skills of suppressing our ish, but it bounces back – ta dah! – and inflicts itself on ourselves and unsuspecting generations.
It sometimes feels more dangerous, in America, to make a move of the heart before the mind feels safe, especially if you carry deep, buried awareness of difference, of danger.
So at that, I actually realize that I appreciate JCKs displayed pugnacity. We have to get to our feeling core to be fully embodied. He’s on his way, at the very least.
And yes, we are part of the same family. We belong to the doppelgäng, same-same but different, strangely mirroring each other, trying to read the room. Perhaps we are like the proverbial blind men describing the elephant. However, Kang simultaneously wants the elephant’s attention, while proclaiming that the elephant doesn’t exist.
What will the elephant do? Long memories, this one.
We are all receiving a transhistorical transmission. As I wrote in MOSF 16.3:
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.
Our difficult emotions are essentially symptoms of disconnection and vulnerability. They are unrelated feeling and distress, linked to survival concerns, including the survival of our moral beings. If they remain disconnected, they boil into antagonistic factions of jealousy, hatred, and self-aggrandizement. But emotions can deepen into feeling when we allow ourselves to be present with ourselves and others with compassion. Feeling, woven together with conscience and consciousness, connects us to soul. With soul, we will have soul force, or satyagraha.
We can move mountains. We can.
We must stay close to our suffering, and bring compassion to bear. This is at the heart of our journey of identity, belonging and wellness.
We can move mountains. We can.
Yes, we can.
Yes, we can.
But “Yes, we … Kang?” Hmm. Awkward.
You might also like these:
Coleman ML. Fear and Loathing in ‘Asian America’. Vulture, October 13, 2021
Chandra R. The PBS “Asian Americans” Documentary: A Critical Look by a Superfan. On Medium. May 13, 2020