After becoming a mother, Hong feels stuck, unable to travel or get much time alone. She goes swimming in the public pool and tries to write about its beauty as a common space—until she remembers how white communities fought to keep Black people out of them throughout the 20th century. When she was thirteen, a man kicked her out of her aunt’s building’s pool, complaining that Asians were “everywhere.”
In this final essay, Hong returns to the broader questions that have motivated her book as a whole: what does it mean to be Asian in America, and how can Asian American writers define their voice and audience? Her comments on the pool represent how difficult it is to define or write about collective identity in the U.S., where racial conflict and oppression have always been a central feature of political life.
Today, “we’re everywhere now” is one version of the Asian American story, the one told in movies like Crazy Rich Asians: Asians will fight racism with capitalism, by making enough money to buy white people out. But, Hong asks, is this any different from just becoming white? Writing this book about race was far more difficult than Hong expected. She knows she cannot speak on behalf of “we” Asian Americans, as she only represents a small slice of them.
Hong argues that most Asian Americans have to choose between two starkly different approaches to life in the U.S. In aggregate, individuals’ choices will shape the overall composition and story of “Asian America.” In simple terms, they can try to win at capitalism, or they can try to change capitalism. Winning at capitalism is the default option, and it isn’t available to all Asian Americans (such as working-class refugees). Hong argues that choosing this option is similar to becoming white because it involves both accepting the racist hierarchies that dominate corporate life and profiting off of the exploitation of others—mostly nonwhite people in the U.S. and around the world.
Hong returns to the moment when the American soldiers nearly murdered her grandfather during the Korean War. The village interpreter said something in English, and the soldiers let him go and gave candy to his young son (Hong’s father). The U.S. military has long handed out candy as a consolation for its brutal violence. Perhaps, Hong suggests, the U.S. thought that, by sowing candy, it would reap Christianity and capitalism. In South Korea, it worked.
It’s impossible to understand the ultimatum that Hong gives Asian Americans without first understanding why she thinks that trying to succeed under American capitalism inevitably means oppressing and exploiting other people. This passage helps explain it: like many scholars, Hong views U.S. military imperialism as the foundation of the capitalist global economic system that makes American professionals so rich. In fact, for Hong, this is the great irony in most Asian American immigration stories: immigrants dedicate themselves to working for the exact same political and economic system that plundered their home countries and sometimes even murdered their loved ones.
Hong feels indebted to her parents, just as her parents feel indebted to the U.S. This sense of debt makes immigrant children “ideal neoliberal subject[s]”—to pay back their parents, they have to succeed at work. Whereas gratitude allows us to appreciate the present, indebtedness means “fixat[ing] on the future.” Good luck starts to look like a loan that needs repayment. But Hong refuses to live like this, even if the only alternative is to be ungrateful.
Hong explains why striving to succeed under capitalism is such an attractive option for the children of Asian immigrants: they become “ideal neoliberal subject[s]” because they learn to conceive of their entire lives in financial terms. But Hong also asks why children’s debt to their parents has to be understood—and repaid—in purely economic terms. Her vision is clear: Asian Americans should seek to envision their debt to their country and their immigrant parents in other terms, and they should look to give back in ways that actually benefit society as a whole.
A famous photo of Malcolm X’s assassination shows him lying on the ground while Yuri Kochiyama holds up his head. Kochiyama grew up as an optimistic, patriotic Japanese American in Los Angeles. During World War II, her father was imprisoned on false espionage charges for several weeks (and died shortly after getting out). Her brother joined the U.S. army, but the rest of the family ended up in an Arkansas concentration camp. After the war, she moved to New York, where Black coworkers started teaching her about the long history of U.S. racism. She became an activist, met Malcolm X at a rally, and began working with him. She was incredibly selfless, and her “sense of we was porous and large.” She fought for causes as diverse as prison reform, Puerto Rican independence, and reparations for Japanese American internment.
Kochiyama’s life story offers a model for how Asian Americans can work to change the U.S.’s structures of wealth and power, instead of just joining them. Most of all, Kochiyama demonstrates why this can only work if Asian Americans build solidarity with other minority groups—or develop a broad “sense of we.” These different groups’ struggles are interrelated, as they all share a common interest in fighting racism, imperialism, and inequality; a victory for one group generally lifts them all up. Practically speaking, Asian Americans are a numerically small and highly diverse group, so they are more likely to achieve their own goals if they build coalitions with other groups. Yet this is often difficult, because the model minority myth encourages Asian Americans to view themselves as exceptional and superior to Black, Latinx, and Native Americans.
A group of mostly Filipino, Japanese, and Chinese American students at UC Berkeley coined the term “Asian American” in 1968. They were inspired by the Black Power movement and hoped to bring a concern for Vietnamese people into the anti-war movement. Hong didn’t appreciate the radical origins of Asian American identity until years after college—in the 1990s, she just took it for granted that ethnic activism was divisive and pointless. But now, Hong believes that Kochiyama’s “model of mutual aid and alliance” holds crucial lessons for activists.
Throughout her book, Hong has struggled with the term “Asian American,” which feels impossibly vague and broad as an ethnic descriptor. But now, she specifies that it isn’t meant to be an ethnic category at all—rather, it has always been a political term, and it has always specifically referred to a diverse group of people of Asian descent uniting to fight alongside other minority groups for a varied range of political causes. In other words, the “model of mutual aid and alliance” is already built into the concept of Asian American identity—even if most people who claim that identity do not know it. The key to changing U.S. politics is merely to embrace and expand on this model.
Hong hasn’t been to Seoul since 2008, when her grandmother died there in a miserable nursing home. She could never live in Seoul, where women regularly get plastic surgery to look more European, the school system and labor market are hypercompetitive, and the air is severely polluted. She celebrated her 28th birthday with a group of avant-garde musicians at her sister’s apartment in Seoul. They started playing “Never Have I Ever,” but the game only lasted a few seconds because the musicians all immediately admitted that they had attempted suicide.
Keenly aware of the stereotype that Asian Americans are “perpetual foreigners” in the United States, Hong points out that she feels even more foreign in Korea. In fact, she sees many of the problems that she associates with American capitalism—like the pressure to conform to racist beauty standards and define one’s life through work—replicated in even more severe forms in Korea.
Hong is in the U.S. because the U.S. was in Korea. The U.S. army mercilessly bombed it, arbitrarily partitioned the peninsula in two, and even invented the double-eyelid surgery that is wildly popular today. The U.S. has done similar damage to dozens of other countries whose people have then migrated to the U.S., including the Philippines, Iraq, El Salvador, and many others.
Hong implicitly connects the issues she sees in Korea today to U.S. imperialism, something that most white Americans know remarkably little about. Like her college roommate’s father, who proudly mentioned his time in the Korean War, many Americans simply assume that the U.S.’s military and foreign policies are always positive forces—and never bother to consider how these things affect non-Americans. Instead, Hong suggests that Americans have an obligation to learn about the countless atrocities committed in their name overseas—and recognize how these atrocities are the root cause behind so much immigration to the U.S.
Hong hates the cliché that immigrants feel out of place in the U.S. and need to rediscover themselves in the homeland. But she does find a sense of perspective whenever she’s in Seoul. And when she returns to the U.S., she feels flattened out, like she’s being “returned to [a] silicon mold.” This is why she writes poetry: to communicate her humanity through her words, and her pain through the silences between them. Yet she has written this book in prose in order to address the issue directly.
Hong feels flattened out or “returned to [a] silicon mold” when she goes back to the U.S. because she knows that, unlike Koreans, many Americans do not view her as a full, complex human. They only see the surface of her race and gender, which gives them an inaccurate, artificial sense of who she really is. Hong also implicitly compares the way that writing this book has allowed her to refine her perspective on art with the way that visiting Seoul allows her to reset her perspective on herself.
Hong argues that writers of color must move beyond “racial containment,” or the norm of writing only for their own narrowly defined racial groups. White perspectives are still viewed as the universal, neutral default, even though formerly colonized people are a large majority in the world today. It’s telling that Hollywood dystopias usually show white people turning into refugees or slaves, living in the kind of conditions that are common in formerly colonized countries today.
Writers who favor “racial containment” may view themselves as anti-racists, but Hong argues that they’re actually feeding into the U.S.’s white supremacist norms. Their work suggests that people of color live in a series of isolated, exotic ethnic bubbles, which allows whiteness to remain the default perspective. This applies not just to the U.S., but also to the global cinema industry. As Hong points out, movies with global reach depict dystopia as a world in which white people have to live in conditions that are already a reality for many nonwhite people around the globe. This shows how entrenched racist norms are in Hollywood: many movies are produced primarily for white audiences, under the assumption that they can and will only emotionally identify with other white people. To achieve political change, the U.S. needs art, literature, and film to bridge different racial groups—rather than only ever covering a single one.
In Ken Burns’s famous documentary about the war in Vietnam, a Japanese American veteran recalls his service in the countryside near Saigon. An elderly Vietnamese woman gave him a bowl of fish and rice, but then he found a tunnel under her house and threw a grenade inside. He killed several people, who may or may not have been soldiers, and his commanding officer praised him. Upon seeing this interview, Hong thinks of the word “traitor.” But the soldier was doing exactly what the U.S. asked him to. She wishes the documentary mentioned the trauma Vietnamese people felt, instead of focusing exclusively on the Americans. It also never mentioned the 300,000 Korean soldiers who fought for the U.S. in the war.
Hong presents this anecdote in order to explore the tension between the words Asian and American. She feels like the Japanese American soldier is a “traitor” because he murders innocent Asian people on behalf of the U.S. government, but she also knows that he doesn’t truly belong to one side or the other. Still, she suggests that he may have been able to humanize his victims in a way that white soldiers wouldn’t have, and she thinks that this fact can help readers grasp the true toll of the U.S.’s overseas wars. Of course, she also recognizes that most of the U.S. public identifies solely with the U.S. military’s perspective—and simply assumes that soldiers must have been doing good by killing people.
No matter what Hong writes, violence always seeps back into her work. She knows that her comfortable life today is deeply tied to Korea’s long legacy of violence: occupation by the Japanese, the Korean War, repressive dictatorship, and even the South Korean troops who fought in Vietnam—and brutally murdered at least 8,000 innocent civilians. She feels deeply indebted to activists like Yuri Kochiyama, other writers like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and her parents. But she has decided not to repay her parents in the usual way by chasing the “privatized dream” of riches under capitalism.
Hong insists on expanding and complicating the concept of gratitude. She expands it by showing that she doesn’t owe her life to her parents alone, but rather to a long political history and a wide range of artistic influences. She complicates it by pointing out how brutal and unconscionable much of that history was. In short, imperialism, authoritarianism, and civil war aren’t things to be grateful for. Yet Hong feels that she must incorporate them into her work in order to truly tell her story.
White supremacy conscripts Asian Americans to do much of its dirty work, whether by fighting wars, discriminating against other racial groups, or staffing corporate offices. For affluent Asian Americans, this conscription is a “default way of life.” And this makes sense: Asian Americans are made to feel like conditional citizens, but they’re promised that they will truly belong once they copy mainstream white culture. This is a lie—in reality, Asian Americans will only free their consciousness once they change the mainstream culture. They must defend and collaborate with other Americans of color. For instance, Japanese internment camp survivors are protesting the government plan to reopen the camps as immigration detention centers. “We were always here,” Hong concludes.
Hong concludes with a call to action for her fellow Asian Americans. The corporate, capitalist “default” is a pointless way to waste one’s life, and the alternative to it is activism. Becoming wealthy will not make Asian Americans white; changing the U.S.’s racial hierarchy will do far more to improve their lives. Put differently, instead of paying off their debts with money, Asian Americans should pay them forward by making the U.S. (and the world) more just and hospitable for everyone. This—and not riches—is the best way for immigrants’ children to prove that their parents’ sacrifice was not in vain. Hong ends with “We were always here” in order to remind her readers that Asian Americans (and their struggle for freedom) always have been and always will be an integral part of the United States.