Cathy Park Hong Quotes in Minor Feelings
My face was no longer my face but a mask of trembling nerves threatening to mutiny. There was a glitch in the machine. Any second, a nerve could misfire and spasm like a snaking hose hissing water. I thought about my face so much I could feel my nerves, and my nerves felt ticklish. The face is the most naked part of ourselves, but we don’t realize it until the face is somehow injured, and then all we think of is its naked condition.
I was finally living the New York life I wanted. I was recently married and had just finished writing a book. There was no reason for me to be depressed. But anytime I was happy, the fear of an awful catastrophe would follow, so I made myself feel awful to preempt the catastrophe’s hitting. Overtaxed by this anxiety, I sank into deep depression. A friend said that when she was depressed, she felt like a “sloth that fell from its tree.” An apt description. I was dull, depleted, until I had to go out and interface with the public, and then I felt flayed.
For as long as I could remember, I have struggled to prove myself into existence. I, the modern-day scrivener, working five times as hard as others and still I saw my hand dissolve, then my arm.
In the popular imagination, Asian Americans inhabit a vague purgatorial status: not white enough nor black enough; distrusted by African Americans, ignored by whites, unless we’re being used by whites to keep the black man down. We are the carpenter ants of the service industry, the apparatchiks of the corporate world. We are math-crunching middle managers who keep the corporate wheels greased but who never get promoted since we don’t have the right “face” for leadership. We have a content problem. They think we have no inner resources. But while I may look impassive, I am frantically paddling my feet underwater, always overcompensating to hide my devouring feelings of inadequacy.
When the 1965 immigration ban was lifted by the United States, my father saw an opportunity. Back then, only select professionals from Asia were granted visas to the United States: doctors, engineers, and mechanics. This screening process, by the way, is how the whole model minority quackery began: the U.S. government only allowed the most educated and highly trained Asians in and then took all the credit for their success. See! Anyone can live the American Dream! they’d say about a doctor who came into the country already a doctor.
My classmate’s repellent post was almost easier to handle than my graduate school experience, because the slow drip of racism at Iowa was underhanded. I always second-guessed myself, questioning why I was being paranoid. I remember the wall of condescension whenever I brought up racial politics in workshop. Eventually, I internalized their condescension, mocked other ethnic poetry as too ethnicky. It was made clear to me that the subject of Asian identity itself was insufficient and inadequate unless it was paired with a meatier subject, like capitalism. I knew other writers of color at Iowa who scrubbed ethnic markers from their poetry and fiction because they didn’t want to be branded as identitarians. Looking back, I realized all of them were, curiously, Asian American.
Patiently educating a clueless white person about race is draining. It takes all your powers of persuasion. Because it’s more than a chat about race. It’s ontological. It’s like explaining to a person why you exist, or why you feel pain, or why your reality is distinct from their reality. Except it’s even trickier than that. Because the person has all of Western history, politics, literature, and mass culture on their side, proving that you don’t exist.
In other words, I didn’t know whether to tell this guy to fuck off or give him a history lesson. “We were here since 1587!” I could have said. “So what’s the hold up? Where’s our white Groupon?” Most Americans know nothing about Asian Americans. They think Chinese is synecdoche for Asians the way Kleenex is for tissues.
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? The paint on the Asian American label has not dried. The term is unwieldy, cumbersome, perched awkwardly upon my being. Since the late sixties, when Asian American activists protested with the Black Panthers, there hasn’t been a mass movement we can call our own. Will “we,” a pronoun I use cautiously, solidify into a common collective, or will we remain splintered, so that some of us remain “foreign” or “brown” while others, through wealth or intermarriage, “pass” into whiteness?
It’s like being ghosted, I suppose, where, deprived of all social cues, I have no relational gauge for my own behavior. I ransack my mind for what I could have done, could have said. I stop trusting what I see, what I hear. My ego is in free fall while my superego is boundless, railing that my existence is not enough, never enough, so I become compulsive in my efforts to do better, be better, blindly following this country’s gospel of self-interest, proving my individual worth by expanding my net worth, until I vanish.
The poet’s audience is the institution. We rely on the higher jurisdiction of academia, prize jury panels, and fellowships to gain social capital. 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.
How naïve to think that my invisibility meant I could play God! If Whitman’s I contained multitudes, my I contained 5.6 percent of this country. Readers, teachers, and editors told me in so many words that I should write whatever felt true to my heart but that since I was Asian, I might as well stick to the subject of Asians, even though no one cared about Asians, but what choice did I have since if I wrote about, say, nature, no one would care because I was an Asian person writing about nature?
I suspected that if a reader read my poem and then saw my name, the fuse of the poem would blow out, leading the reader to think, I thought I liked the poem but on second thought, I can’t relate to it.
The ethnic literary project has always been a humanist project in which nonwhite writers must prove they are human beings who feel pain. Will there be a future where I, on the page, am simply I, on the page, and not I, proxy for a whole ethnicity, imploring you to believe we are human beings who feel pain? I don’t think, therefore I am—I hurt, therefore I am. Therefore, my books are graded on a pain scale. If it’s 2, maybe it’s not worth telling my story. If it’s 10, maybe my book will be a bestseller.
In Pryor, I saw someone channel what I call minor feelings: 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. Minor feelings arise, for instance, upon hearing a slight, knowing it’s racial, and being told, Oh, that’s all in your head. A now-classic book that explores minor feelings is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. After hearing a racist remark, the speaker asks herself, What did you say? She saw what she saw, she heard what she heard, but after her reality has been belittled so many times, she begins to doubt her very own senses. Such disfiguring of senses engenders the minor feelings of paranoia, shame, irritation, and melancholy.
Writing about race is a polemic, in that we must confront the white capitalist infrastructure that has erased us, but also a lyric, in that our inner consciousness is knotted with contradictions. As much as I protest against the easy narrative of overcoming, I have to believe we will overcome racial inequities; as much as I’m exasperated by sentimental immigrant stories of suffering, I think Koreans are some of the most traumatized people I know. As I try to move beyond the stereotypes to express my inner consciousness, it’s clear that how I am perceived inheres to who I am. To truthfully write about race, I almost have to write against narrative because the racialized mind is, as Frantz Fanon wrote, an “infernal circle.”
Rather than look back on childhood, I always looked sideways at childhood. If to look back is tinted with the honeyed cinematography of nostalgia, to look sideways at childhood is tainted with the sicklier haze of envy, an envy that ate at me when I stayed for dinner with my white friend’s family or watched the parade of commercials and TV shows that made it clear what a child should look like and what kind of family they should grow up in.
On its own, Moonrise Kingdom is a relatively harmless film. But for those of us who have been currently shocked by the “unadulterated white racism … splattered all over the media,” we might ask ourselves what has helped fuel our country’s wistfully manufactured “screen memory.” Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is just one of countless contemporary films, works of literature, pieces of music, and lifestyle choices where wishing for innocent times means fetishizing an era when the nation was violently hostile to anyone different. Hollywood, an industry that shapes not only our national but global memories, has been the most reactionary cultural perpetrator of white nostalgia, stuck in a time loop and refusing to acknowledge that America’s racial demographic has radically changed since 1965. Movies are cast as if the country were still “protected” by a white supremacist law that guarantees that the only Americans seen are carefully curated European descendants.
Innocence is, as 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. Innocence is not just sexual deflection but a deflection of one’s position in the socioeconomic hierarchy, based on the confidence that one is “unmarked” and “free to be you and me.” The ironic result of this innocence, writes the scholar Charles Mills, is that whites are “unable to understand the world that they themselves have made.” Children are then disqualified from innocence when they are persistently reminded of, and even criminalized for, their place in the racial pecking order. As Richard Pryor jokes: “I was a kid until I was eight. Then I became a Negro.”
One characteristic of racism is that children are treated like adults and adults are treated like children. Watching a parent being debased like a child is the deepest shame. I cannot count the number of times I have seen my parents condescended to or mocked by white adults.
By not speaking up, we perpetuate the myth that our shame is caused by our repressive culture and the country we fled, whereas America has given us nothing but opportunity. The lie that Asians have it good is so insidious that even now as I write, I’m shadowed by doubt that I didn’t have it bad compared to others. But racial trauma is not a competitive sport. The problem is not that my childhood was exceptionally traumatic but that it was in fact rather typical.
Whether our families come from Guatemala, Afghanistan, or South Korea, the immigrants since 1965 have shared histories that extend beyond this nation, to our countries of origin, where our lineage has been decimated by Western imperialism, war, and dictatorships orchestrated or supported by the United States. In our efforts to belong in America, we act grateful, as if we’ve been given a second chance at life. But our shared root is not the opportunity this nation has given us but how the capitalist accumulation of white supremacy has enriched itself off the blood of our countries. We cannot forget this.
As a writer, I am determined to help overturn the solipsism of white innocence so that our national consciousness will closer resemble the minds of children like that Iranian American boy.
It was once a source of shame, but now I say it proudly: bad English is my heritage. I share a literary lineage with writers who make the unmastering of English their rallying cry—who queer it, twerk it, hack it, Calibanize it, other it by hijacking English and warping it to a fugitive tongue. To other English is to make audible the imperial power sewn into the language, to slit English open so its dark histories slide out.
A side effect of this justified rage has been a “stay in your lane” politics in which artists and writers are asked to speak only from their personal ethnic experiences. Such a politics not only assumes racial identity is pure—while ignoring the messy lived realities in which racial groups overlap—but reduces racial identity to intellectual property.
We must make right this unequal distribution but we must do so without forgetting the immeasurable value of cultural exchange in what Hyde calls the gift economy. In reacting against the market economy, we have internalized market logic where culture is hoarded as if it’s a product that will depreciate in value if shared with others; where instead of decolonizing English, we are carving up English into hostile nation-states. The soul of innovation thrives on cross-cultural inspiration. If we are restricted to our lanes, culture will die.
I turned to the modular essay because I am only capable of “speaking nearby” the Asian American condition, which is so involuted that I can’t stretch myself across it. […] I sometimes still find the subject, Asian America, to be so shamefully tepid that I am eager to change it—which is why I have chosen this episodic form, with its exit routes that permit me to stray. But I always return, from a different angle, which is my own way of inching closer to it.
In thinking about my own Asian identity, I don’t think I can seal off my imagined world so it’s only people of my likeness, because it would follow rather than break from this segregated imagination.
But having said that, how can I write about us living together when there isn’t too much precedent for it? Can I write about it without resorting to some facile vision of multicultural oneness or the sterilizing language of virtue signaling? Can I write honestly? Not only about how much I’ve been hurt but how I have hurt others? And can I do it without steeping myself in guilt, since guilt demands absolution and is therefore self-serving? In other words, can I apologize without demanding your forgiveness? Where do I begin?
The avant-garde genealogy could be tracked through stories of bad-boy white artists who “got away with it,” beginning with Duchamp signing a urinal and calling it art. It’s about defying standards and initiating a precedent that ultimately liberates art from itself. […] The problem is that history has to recognize the artist’s transgressions as “art,” which is then dependent on the artist’s access to power. A female artist rarely “gets away with it.” A black artist rarely “gets away with it.” Like the rich boarding school kid who gets away with a hit-and-run, getting away with it doesn’t mean that you’re lawless but that you are above the law. The bad-boy artist can do whatever he wants because of who he is. Transgressive bad-boy art is, in fact, the most risk-averse, an endless loop of warmed-over stunts for an audience of one: the banker collector.
I would have had a happier four years in college had I never met Helen. But I wouldn’t have been the writer I am today. Helen validated us, solidified us, and made us feel inevitable. We were going to define American culture. […] We had the confidence of white men, which was swiftly cut down after graduation, upon our separation, when each of us had to prove ourselves again and again, because we were, at every stage of our careers, underestimated. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. 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.
Cha doesn’t ever direct your reading of Dictee. She refuses to translate the French or contextualize a letter by former South Korean leader Syngman Rhee to Franklin D. Roosevelt or caption the photo of French actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. The reader is a detective, puzzling out her own connections.
Cha spoke my language by indicating that English was not her language, that English could never be a true reflection of her consciousness, that it was as much an imposition on her consciousness as it was a form of expression. And because of that, Dictee felt true.
The length to which scholars will argue how Cha is recovering the lives of Korean women silenced by historical atrocities while remaining silent about the atrocity that took Cha’s own life has been baffling. […] The more I read about her, the less I knew. And the less I knew, the more I couldn’t help but regard Cha as a woman who also disappeared without explanation.
By introducing me to Cha, my professor Kim established a direct, if modest, literary link: Cha, Kim, myself. Not only did they share my history, they provided for me an aesthetic from which I could grow. For a while, however, I thought I had outgrown Cha. I’d cite modernist heavyweights like James Joyce and Wallace Stevens as influences instead of her. I took her for granted. Now, in writing about her death, I am, in my own way, trying to pay proper tribute. But once, when I read an excerpt of this essay in public, someone asked if Cha would have written about her rape homicide in the fairly straightforward narrative account that I’m writing in. “Not at all,” I said. “But I’m just trying to write what happened. I found that formal experimentation was getting in the way of documenting facts.”
The takeaway from the crowd-pleasing opening scene in the novel and film Crazy Rich Asians is the following: if you discriminate against us, we’ll make more money than you and buy your fancy hotel that wouldn’t let us in. Capitalism as retribution for racism. But isn’t that how whiteness recruits us? Whether it’s through retribution or indebtedness, who are we when we become better than them in a system that destroyed us?
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. This was harder than I thought, like butterflying my brain out onto a dissection table to tweeze out the nerves that are my inhibitions. Moreover, I had to contend with this we. I wished I had the confidence to bludgeon the public with we like a thousand trumpets against them. But I feared the weight of my experiences—as East Asian, professional class, cis female, atheist, contrarian—tipped the scales of a racial group that remains so nonspecific that I wondered if there was any shared language between us. And so, like a snail’s antenna that’s been touched, I retracted the first person plural.
Sow the cratered lands with candy and from its wrappers will rise Capitalism and Christianity. About her homeland [South Korea], the poet Emily Jungmin Yoon writes, “Our cities today glow with crosses like graveyards.”
To be indebted is to fixate on the future. I tense up after good fortune has landed on my lap like a bag of tiny excitable lapdogs. But whose are these? Not mine, surely! I treat good fortune not as a gift but a loan that I will have to pay back in weekly installments of bad luck. I bet I’m like this because I was raised wrong—browbeaten to perform compulsory gratitude. Thank you for sacrificing your life for me! In return, I will sacrifice my life for you!
I have rebelled against all that. As a result, I have developed the worst human trait: I am ungrateful. This book too is ungrateful. In my defense, a writer who feels indebted often writes ingratiating stories. Indebted, that is, to this country—to whom I, on the other hand, will always be ungrateful.
In 1968, students at UC Berkeley invented the term Asian American to inaugurate a new political identity. Radicalized by the black power movement and anti-colonial movement, the students invented that name as a refusal to apologize for being who they were. It’s hard to imagine that the origin of Asian America came from a radical place, because the moniker is now flattened and emptied of any blazing political rhetoric. But there was nothing before it. Asians either identified by their nationality or were called Oriental.
I bring up Korea to collapse the proximity between here and there. Or as activists used to say, “I am here because you were there.”
My ancestral country is just one small example of the millions of lives and resources you have sucked from the Philippines, Cambodia, Honduras, Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, El Salvador, and many, many other nations through your forever wars and transnational capitalism that have mostly enriched shareholders in the States. Don’t talk to me about gratitude.
Poetry is a forgiving medium for anyone who’s had a strained relationship with English. Like the stutterer who pronounces their words flawlessly through song, the immigrant writes their English beautifully through poetry. The poet Louise Glück called the lyric a ruin. The lyric as ruin is an optimal form to explore the racial condition, because our unspeakable losses can be captured through the silences built into the lyric fragment. I have relied on those silences, maybe too much, leaving a blank space for the sorrows that would otherwise be reduced by words. […] By turning to prose, I am cluttering that silence to try to anatomize my feelings about a racial identity that I still can’t examine as a writer without fretting that I have caved to my containment.
Our respective racial containment isolates us from each other, enforcing our thoughts that our struggles are too specialized, unrelatable to anyone else except others in our group, which is why making myself, and by proxy other Asian Americans, more human is not enough for me. I want to destroy the universal. I want to rip it down. It is not whiteness but our contained condition that is universal, because we are the global majority. By we I mean nonwhites, the formerly colonized; survivors, such as Native Americans, whose ancestors have already lived through end times; migrants and refugees living through end times currently, fleeing the droughts and floods and gang violence reaped by climate change that’s been brought on by Western empire.