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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Class, Capitalism and the Creation of a Progressive Asian America

Garment workers rally in front of a Ross store on Broadway in downtown L.A. to demand an end to wage theft and unsafe working conditions on Oct. 25, 2016. (Los Angeles Times)

By Guest Contributor: Sudip Bhattacharya (@ResistRun)

Chris Phan used to believe that they were an anomaly. After all, Phan and those around them in their community were working class Asian Americans; this didn’t match the mainstream perception of Asian Americans as economically and educationally privileged.

Eventually, Phan realized that what they and others experience on the economic margins is actually the norm for many.

“The reality is I know folks who are super poor and Asian American who have to rely on the informal economy to survive. And now, with my education, I know that’s not isolated to my family or experiences,” Phan explained.

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