REVIEW: The Loneliest Americans is an incoherent rejection of Asian American identity

Cover of "The Loneliest Americans" by Jay Caspian Kang

By Guest Contributor: Sudip Bhattacharya

In The Loneliest Americans, Jay Caspian Kang attempts to argue that mainstream “Asian American” politics is a fabrication: a smokescreen behind which some of us hide, or from which we try to glean some superficial meaning.

Asian Americans are too diverse for one singular pan-ethnic label, argues Kang, and so the class divide within our group continues to fester and grow. According to Kang, some of us choose to manufacture an Asian American community through the trite, with social media postings about boba tea or Lunar New Year celebrations scattered across our Instagram. He writes:

How do you create a people out of such silly connections? And why do we, the children of immigrants, feel the need to fulfill some hyphenated identity when our parents seemed perfectly content to live as either Koreans or Chinese or Indians or Vietnamese in America — or, if they felt particularly optimistic, insisted that they, too, were Americans? (The Loneliest Americans, p. 16)

Kang suggests that contemporary mainstream Asian American politics has been preoccupied with the concerns of upwardly mobile Asian Americans. As such, he argues, the Asian American activist class – overtly English-fluent, second-generation, highly-educated progressives – ignore the issues of “real” Asian Americans – first-generation working-class immigrants who categorically reject their own racialization as “Asian American”.

“The stuff that you generally hear is about that — it’s about the bamboo ceiling, it’s about Hollywood representation, it’s about Scarlett Johansson stealing a bunch of roles,” Kang stated in a recent interview.

Notwithstanding the fact that I do enjoy boba, there is a level of truth to what Kang, now a staff writer at the New York Times, is writing about in The Loneliest Americans, his first non-fiction book in which he challenges the relevance of Asian American identity and politics in a neoliberal age. Obviously, The Loneliest Americans is neither the first nor the only text to discuss Asian American identity politics. Over the years, we’ve seen a growth in research and writings that confront some of the major issues impacting Asian American identity, from Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings to Desis Divided by the political scientist, Sangay Mishra to others. Asian American stories and perspectives are enjoying new interest from mainstream readers, and Asian Americans writers now have greater opportunity to write books that seek some understanding of themselves and the politics they’re surrounded by. Kang’s The Loneliest Americans is the latest contribution to this increasingly popular genre.

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Borderless: A Review of ‘We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet: Letters to my Filipino-Athabascan Family’

By Guest Contributor: Jason Fong (@jasonfongwrites)

Ask the world’s largest search engine for the definition of “Asian American,” and Google will incorrectly tell its billion-plus users that “Asian Americans” are “chiefly” East Asian.    It’s no surprise, then, that when most people think of Asian Americans, they think of East Asian Americans who  live somewhere like California while practicing piano and drinking  a lot of boba . Others may think of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students who come to the U.S. each year to attend American schools while driving high-end sports cars. Still others might think of “hordes” and “waves” of people “flooding” the shores of America – all yellow and all the same.

In reality,    the majority of Asian Americans are from South and Southeast Asia, and in particular, Filipinos are the fourth-largest immigrant group after Mexicans, Asian Indians, and Chinese. Even Asian American activists and organizations forget these basic facts, as they sometimes select causes and organize events with only East Asian Americans in mind.

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Book Review: ‘On Such A Full Sea’ by Chang-rae Lee is engaging & deeply relevant

On-such-a-full-sea

Chang-rae Lee deviates sharply from his comfort zone in Such a Full Sea, the author’s first foray into speculative fiction. Readers who went into this book expecting another Native Speaker or The Surrendered will be jarred — until one realizes the disservice that comes from pigeon-holing Lee’s newest endeavour into the confines of a single genre.

Indeed, judged purely as a work of speculative fiction, Lee’s On Such a Full Sea is adequate but nothing spectacular. Famed science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin chafed at Lee’s perceived misuse of “social science fiction” due to his refusal to offer pedantic details of how his dystopic near-future came to be. Writes Le Guin:

[A] novel about a future society under intense political control is social science fiction. Like Cormac McCarthy and others, Lee uses essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially. As a result, his imagined world carries little weight of reality. The whole system is too self-contradictory to serve as warning or satire, even if towards the end of the book the narrator begins to suspect its insubstantiality.

But, evaluating On Such a Full Sea based solely as a work of speculative fiction is an unfair treatment that ignores Lee’s deliberate play across multiple genres, particularly Asian American literature. In fact, On Such a Full Sea — with its focus on protagonist Fan and the evolution of her identity as she embarks on a hero’s journey through a world that serves as metaphor for contemporary China, Chinatown, and American — clearly draw upon the “essential elements” of the Asian American genre.

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