“An imaginary tic” sparks Cathy Park Hong’s depression. Her husband doesn’t see anything, but she’s convinced that her face is spasming—like it used to, until a surgeon fixed it seven years ago. Over the following days, she grows anxious and self-conscious. She tries to hide her face and struggles to sleep, which affects her work. Despite living her dream—writing full-time, happily married, and living in New York—she’s too depressed to function.
Hong begins with her tic because it serves as a powerful metaphor for the concept at the heart of her book: many Asian Americans develop “minor feelings” in reaction to American racism. For Hong, these feelings are rooted in the contradiction between the narratives told about Asian Americans, which highlight their wealth and assimilation, as well as their actual experiences of living in the U.S.—experiences defined by invisibility. Indeed, Hong presents her own situation as representative of this common (but not universal) experience among Asian Americans. Namely, despite their outward appearance of success, many Asian Americans’ actual experiences are defined by anxiety and doubt. Just as Hong’s spasm seizes control of her own face, racism seizes control of her identity and image.
Hong decides to find a therapist. She finds the only Korean American name in her insurance company’s database—Eunice Cho—and sets up an appointment. When Cho asks if Hong ever felt comfort as a child, Hong bursts into tears and tells her whole life story. She feels relieved, but Cho calls her two days later to say she isn’t accepting Hong’s insurance anymore. Hong keeps calling to get another appointment. Cho calls her back a few days later, when she’s at the airport on her way home from a lackluster poetry reading. Cho says that she can’t treat Hong—she has a good reason but can’t mention it. Hong yells at her over the phone.
Hong’s saga with Eunice Cho speaks to the tenuous solidarity that Asian Americans feel with one another: they know that they share certain experiences, but they can never be sure to what extent. In this case, Hong doesn’t know if Cho rejected her because their experiences were too similar, because Cho thought she was leaning too heavily on their shared Korean culture, or for some other reason. This also foreshadows a key comparison that Hong makes at the end of this chapter: being Asian American is like being ghosted, facing rejection and invisibility without knowing exactly why.
Hong has always “struggled to prove [herself] into existence.” She has always felt inadequate, no matter how hard she has worked. She notes that Asian Americans have a “vague purgatorial status” in the U.S.—they are neither white nor Black, assumed to be competent as workers but also uncharismatic and incapable of leadership. Many become self-hating because they think of themselves from a white perspective. In her classes, Hong sees many young Asian women break the stereotype, but many others continue to fulfill it.
Hong summarizes what her experiences have taught her about the connection between Asian Americans’ cultural, economic, and political status (on the one hand) and their individual psychology (on the other). Since they’re a numerically small group, Asian Americans are often forgotten or reduced to highly simplistic stereotypes—but because they’re also an extremely diverse group, these stereotypes are often totally disconnected from their actual reality. Put differently, the mainstream white perspective assumes that all Asian Americans are the same, while Asian Americans recognize that they actually share even less than most other minority groups. Thus, they must choose between being visible through an inaccurate stereotype and not being visible at all.
Once, in graduate school, Hong got a pedicure at a shop owned by a Vietnamese family. The only available pedicurist was the owner’s surly teenage son, who ignored Hong’s instructions and painfully tore off her cuticles. Hong stood up and left without paying. Today, Hong thinks that she and the boy clashed because they were both self-hating, but also recognizes that she has no idea what he was actually thinking or feeling.
Hong’s pedicure, like her appointment with Eunice Cho, highlights her ambivalence about Asian American identity. On the one hand, she identifies with the boy because she imagines that he is also self-hating on some level: she thinks that he resents having to do traditionally feminine work to help support his immigrant family. But on the other hand, she has no idea what he’s actually thinking, and they don’t share the same cultural background, so she feels a vast chasm between them. According to Hong, this frustrating combination of identification and disconnection is central to the Asian American experience.
In Korea, Hong’s father grew up poor but succeeded in school. In 1965, the U.S. began allowing a few highly qualified Asian professionals to immigrate—the origin of the model minority myth today. Hong’s father pretended to be a mechanic and obtained visas for himself and Hong’s mother. At his first job in Pennsylvania, when a workplace accident left him with a broken leg, the company fired him. So Hong’s parents moved to Los Angeles, where her father became an insurance salesman. He worked long hours and constantly fought with Hong’s mother, but he managed to succeed financially.
Hong carefully juxtaposes her parents’ immigration story with the model minority myth. In many ways, it fits: her parents suffered and worked hard in order to achieve financial success. But Hong also emphasizes the myth’s limits: her father’s suffering was unnecessary and unjust, not noble, and he was by no means a perfectly ethical man. Indeed, by holding her father’s story up against the myth, Hong encourages her readers to question the myth’s true origins and meaning. To her, the answer is simple: the U.S. gave visas almost exclusively to highly educated doctors, engineers, scientists, and mechanics, so of course those people were more successful in the U.S. But this says nothing about Asian people’s inherent traits or the millions whose stories are completely different.
Hong’s father may sound like the kind of “model immigrant” who wouldn’t care about race, but actually, he is highly aware of it, often to the point of blaming every slight on racism. When Hong started at graduate school in Iowa, her father pointed out the lack of Black people and warned her not to feed into stereotypes about bad Asian drivers.
The “model immigrant” stereotype assumes that people like Hong’s father are so grateful to be in the U.S. that they are willing to withstand racism (or simply do not notice it). But Hong challenges this stereotype by pointing out that it doesn’t describe her father at all—he clearly recognized that people discriminated against him, just as any reasonable person in his situation would have.
In graduate school, Hong learned that one of her classmates wrote an anonymous blog post criticizing her work and joking about murdering minority writers like her. She felt not anger but shame: she blamed herself for being an “unintellectual identitarian.” In her classes, she learned to avoid discussing racial identity, and she came to see writing about race as “a sign of weakness.” Her original tic developed around the same time.
Hong now addresses the connection between her Asian American identity and her vocation as a poet. Her instinctual shame and her reluctance to mention race both show how, in literature as in everyday life, Asian Americans are expected to be invisible. Again, she associates this invisibility—which requires hiding her identity and silencing her own voice—with the tic that seizes control of her face.
When Hong reads a selection from this book at a New York gallery, the gallery owner, a white man, proudly tells her about his racial awareness classes, which have taught him that “minorities can’t be racist” and “Asians are next in line to be white.” Hong disagrees, but he insists she is wrong. Educating white people about race is exhausting, Hong explains, because it’s fundamentally about getting them to recognize her existence. U.S. culture generally ignores Asians and fails to appreciate that they are a diverse group who come from many different countries and face vastly different economic circumstances.
The gallery owner’s overconfident belief in simplistic clichés about race reflects the broader trend that Hong sees in U.S. society: white Americans insist that their perspective is the objective truth, even when they’re talking about other people’s lives and experiences. This leads to a gap between the public image of Asian Americans and Asian Americans’ actual experiences—and, in turn, this gap leads to the sense of alienation and frustration that Hong calls “minor feelings.”
After the Civil War, the first Chinese laborers came to the U.S. to work in plantations and build the transcontinental railroad. Their stories have almost never been told. The first Chinese women in the U.S. were trafficked there and forced to work as sex workers. They had no rights. In the 1800s, anti-Chinese sentiment led to constant murders, bombings, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1917, the U.S. banned all immigration from Asia, a policy it only reversed in 1965 due to the Cold War. The U.S. needed skilled workers, and paradoxically, it wanted to look more racially tolerant while also using “compliant and hardworking” Asian professionals as an example to undermine Communism and the civil rights movement.
Even though Hong emphasizes how frustrating and exhausting it is to teach ignorant people about Asian American history, she has to do it anyway in this passage. By doing so, she again shows that she has no choice but to write at least partially to a white audience, whether she likes it or not. She simply cannot assume that her readers have basic knowledge about the long history of Asian immigration to the U.S., at least not in the same way writers could assume that readers have basic knowledge about Ellis Island. Many Chinese American families have been in the U.S. for generations longer than many white American families, Hong emphasizes, and holding Asian immigrants up as a model minority was always part of the official plan when the U.S. began granting visas to them.
The model minority myth promises Asian immigrants inclusion and equality, but it’s never unconditional. For instance, since 9/11, Indian Americans have been “downgraded” to the same racial category as Muslims from the Middle East. Indeed, most white Americans just don’t know or care about the stories of different Asian immigrant groups.
Unlike with most racist stereotypes, many Asian Americans actively buy into the model minority myth because they stand to get something out of it: a status equal to that of white people. But Hong argues that this promise is really a convenient lie that stops Asian Americans from challenging racism and ultimately pushes them to continue working for the social and economic system that exploits them.
The University of Montana hired Hong’s friend, the poet Prageeta Sharma, to direct its creative writing program. During a party at Sharma’s house, another professor and two graduate students broke into her room, stole her clothing, and took pictures of themselves wearing it. When Sharma reported the incident, the university blamed her, claiming that she wasn’t “Montana enough,” wasn’t well-known enough as a poet, and wasn’t versed in “women’s leadership.” It even revoked her directorship. To Sharma, this response was clearly about race and gender. Something similar happened to her father: when he became a college president, white colleagues spread racist rumors about his management style and forced him out of his job.
Hong highlights how Sharma’s colleagues use thinly veiled racism, disguised as objective judgment, to push her out of her position. Clearly, when Sharma’s colleagues challenged her “Montana” credentials, they were accusing her of not fitting into white cultural norms. When they suggested she wasn’t well-known, they merely assumed that their reading habits, as white professors, reflected those of the whole nation’s. And when they questioned her leadership skills, they really meant that they disagreed with her leadership style—which was to diversify the program. Sharma’s father’s experience shows how racist ideas like the model minority myth systematically limit Asian Americans’ access to leadership roles.
Hong admits that readers might instinctively question whether racism is really at play in this story. Asian Americans are used to hiding their stories, thinking that white people won’t believe them. As a child, Hong even distrusted fellow Asians, including her family members. For instance, she convinced herself that the balls of black gum in her dad’s closet were heroin, not herbal medicine. When her college roommate’s father introduced himself as a Korean War veteran, her father refused to respond—and she scolded him in the car afterwards. He angrily asked if he was supposed to thank the man for the war. Now, Hong understands how he felt.
Sharma’s experience is a powerful example of how Asian Americans’ place in the U.S. leads to “minor feelings” of frustration and alienation. Sharma clearly recognizes that her treatment was rooted in racism, but her colleagues maintain plausible deniability by phrasing their complaints in terms of culture and professional standards rather than race. Similarly, in the episode that Hong describes, U.S. cultural norms suggest that Hong’s father, as an immigrant, must simply accept her white roommate’s father’s perspective—which is that the U.S.’s involvement in Korea was benevolent. Needless to say, the roommate’s father never questions this assumption or wonders what Hong’s father feels about the war. In fact, Hong will later reveal that her father watched U.S. soldiers nearly murder his own father during the war.
Jeong is a Korean word for a special kind of “instantaneous deep connection.” This is what Hong imagined feeling with Eunice Cho. In fact, she really hoped that working with a Korean therapist would let her skip “the long, slow work of psychotherapy” and just chalk everything up to culture. When Hong’s new therapist agrees that Cho handled the situation badly, Hong starts wondering if perhaps her own story struck too close to home for Cho. Hong writes Cho an angry review on a therapist rating site—in it, she complains that Koreans are repressed and unfit to be therapists. Hong asks what “us” means for Asian Americans, and whether they will ever form a shared political consciousness.
Hong’s analysis of jeong shows how she refuses to let English limit her imagination or reach—on the contrary, she tries to bring the breadth and richness of Korean into it. Jeong is a powerful antidote to the sense of invisibility and disconnection that, as Hong points out here, characterizes many Asian Americans’ lives in the U.S. Indeed, throughout Minor Feelings, Hong chronicles her ill-fated attempts to make deep connections with other Asian Americans (and especially Korean Americans like Eunice Cho) around their shared identity. Put differently, jeong is a way for Korean Americans to establish solidarity, and her book is in part about her struggle to find it.
After Donald Trump’s election, Hong gives a reading in Michigan. In response to Trump’s planned Muslim registry, she discusses Japanese internment and then reads an essay. Several students tell her how her reading helped them. One white woman praises her for mentioning the internment, but asks why she didn’t just read her poems, which would help everyone heal. Hong anxiously says that she’s “not ready to heal.” Fortunately, the woman understands.
Hong’s conversation with the white woman shows how white Americans frequently assume that they decide the true meaning of people of color’s stories and experiences—and how this creates “minor feelings” (like low-level fear and anxiety) for Asian Americans like Hong. Yet the woman’s respectful reply to Hong also shows how Americans can overcome this dynamic. The assumption that Asian Americans should be trying to “heal” suggests that their suffering is all in the past—presumably because of the poor conditions they faced in Asia—and that the U.S. has offered them nothing but safety, comfort, and affluence. But this myth is based on racist assumptions about the differences between the U.S. and Asia—according to Hong, Asian Americans’ problems are often rooted specifically in the way the U.S. has treated them.
Three million people, including countless innocent civilians, died in the Korean War. American soldiers broke into Hong’s family’s home, destroyed all of their possessions, and dragged Hong’s grandfather outside to execute him. He only survived because the village translator walked by and told the soldiers that they had the wrong people.
This vignette explains why Hong’s father said nothing when her roommate’s father bragged about serving in the Korean War. The model minority myth suggests that Asian immigrants faced poverty and violence at home (in supposedly inferior Asian countries) and then found wealth and security in the (supposedly superior) U.S. But Hong reveals that, actually, the U.S. is specifically responsible for her family’s trauma. The U.S. didn’t save her family from poverty and violence in Korea: it created those conditions in the first place.
Hong remembers this story when she sees a video of airport security violently dragging Vietnamese doctor David Dao off an overbooked plane to open up more space. Like Hong’s father, Dao dresses conservatively “to project a benign and anonymous professionalism.” While the media avoids the topic of Dao’s race, Hong knows that the security guards would not have dared to brutalize a white man in the same way. They gave him such a severe concussion that he ran back onto the plane, confused and hallucinating, whispering that he needed to go home. Dao fled Vietnam as a refugee in 1975, and years later, he lost his medical license for allegedly trading drugs for sex. This complex story humanizes Dao: like most refugees—and like Hong’s father—he carried trauma into his new life.
Hong juxtaposes her family’s story with David Dao’s because they both experienced trauma that was caused by the U.S. in Asia, and then they were made to relive this trauma (in different ways) after immigrating to the U.S. By doing so, of course, she also directly connects the U.S.’s imperialism overseas with its pattern of anti-Asian violence at home. Both trends stretch back centuries, at least to gunboat diplomacy in Japan and the lynching of Chinese Americans in the 1800s. David Dao’s dress and the guards’ treatment of him both attest to the way that U.S. culture dehumanizes people of Asian descent. Indeed, Hong suggests that many Asian immigrants seek to prove their worth by looking “benign and anonymous,” but this makes him seem invisible in the process.
When people say, “Asians are next in line to be white,” Hong thinks, “Asians are next in line to disappear.” The U.S. wants them to stay invisible—except when their success can be held up as proof that racism doesn’t matter. Hong compares being erased like this to being ghosted—getting rejected, without having any social cues to explain why. This leads her to lose trust in her own perceptions. To compensate for her doubt and self-hatred, she works harder, endlessly, until she’s invisible.
Mainstream U.S. culture proposes that Asian Americans will only ever achieve equality if they become invisible—or if they make a conscious effort to shed their traditions, languages, and cultural norms. Not only is this a form of cultural imperialism, which suggests that “true” American culture is Western European culture, but it’s also a false promise: no matter how hard they work to be invisible, they are still treated as different and inferior. Hong’s metaphor of working herself out of existence shows that the model minority myth creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. By insisting that race doesn’t matter, U.S. culture teaches Asian Americans to expect equality, but when it fails to treat them as equals, it generates the “minor feelings” (like doubt and self-hatred) at the heart of this book.