Bad Education

In The Loneliest Americans, Jay Caspian Kang suggests that for Asian Americans, the process of political consciousness raising has gone terribly wrong.

Zoe Hu
November 17, 2021
Jay Caspian Kang
Evan Groll

Discussed in this essay: The Loneliest Americans, by Jay Caspian Kang. Crown, 2021. 272 pages.

A particular weakness ails Asian Americans; it is the weakness of having no truths but plenty of clichés. We are by now familiar with the schoolyard traumas, the model minority myth, the tales of bloodlines riven and redirected toward sepia American shores. But these are platitudes and cover stories, thinning B-plots that obscure how tenuously the term “Asian American” encompasses a continent’s worth of people, as well as the widest income disparity of any racial group in the US. The upwardly mobile Korean American and the undocumented immigrant from Fujian province are strewn across these faultlines of class, region, and history. What could they have in common? What brings Asians together, aside from the white people who can’t tell them apart?

Journalist Jay Caspian Kang’s new book, The Loneliest Americans, follows the immigrants and descendants of Asia who have sought, within what he calls the “Black-white binary” of American racecraft, a kind of ethnic intelligibility and unity; he argues—persuasively, if controversially—that they have failed. In Kang’s view, the concept of “Asian America” functions best for wealthy assimilationists, who, located at a “stopping point on a path toward whiteness,” invoke identity both to assert difference from white people and to barter for entrance into the hale multicultural elite that whites so efficiently govern. He argues that the term has less to offer poorer Asians or recent immigrants, who, having “been made entirely invisible” by society, are never invited to weigh in on how or with whom they identify. This kind of incoherence, Kang contends, renders the term “Asian American” ornamental, a festooning of “superficial markers of identity” like boba and qipaos. We are left only with the label—terminological flab—and the wishful thinking it evinces.

This argument is discomfiting for many Asians like me: millennials who grew up in the ’90s and early aughts, a time when the American mainstream exhibited no interest in our existence, and then witnessed the whiplashing popularity of identity politics over the past decade. That latter moment allowed us public space to articulate our trauma and our selves as Asian American. But as Kang points out, for every Asian who has felt something reparative in that gush of expression and identification, there are people—like Kang’s own parents, who emigrated to America in 1979 but have never felt “AsAm”—who wouldn’t invite themselves into the collective no matter how sturdy its construction.

The insistence that nobody “really believes that Asian America actually exists” has by now become something of its own cliché within left-wing Asian American circles, a consensus we’ve scrimped together without formalizing its implications. “I know ‘Asian American’ doesn’t mean anything, and also I’m Chinese, but I feel such comfort at the Korean grocery store . . .” This kind of utterance—sentimentalism embedded, like a stupid fossil, into jest—is typical of the Asian progressive who might seek out The Loneliest Americans, for whom every earnest emotion or twang of fellow-feeling carries its underside of skepticism. We want to have our cake and eat it too, which is to say: We want to feel our racial identifications and be smarter than them at the same time.

This fiddly space between self-categorization and true belonging—between what we think we are and what we feel we are—inevitably raises the question of political subjectivity, and the role that knowledge and education play in its development. For decades, learning about one’s personal marginalization has been a crucial strategy of anti-racist movements: As a group of feminists aligned with the Combahee River Collective argued in a mimeographed pamphlet in 1979, consciousness raising is “the essential talking that will make action possible.” An emotionally rooted project, it is meant to help participants forge collective identities and dismantle society’s most poisonous ideologies, offering a first step toward communion and resistance. Yet Kang’s book suggests that some part of this process has gone terribly wrong for Asian Americans, who feel unaccommodated by America’s present and disconnected from Asia’s past. Today, we Asians tend to find ourselves on the lucky side of histories of death, imperialism, and war, histories we stare down as if through the small mouth of a very long tunnel—and this inevitably impacts how we feel about ourselves: Our levels of self-esteem and self-hatred, of optimism and exhaustion, generosity and bitterness. The Loneliest Americans tells a melancholic story about political knowledge’s emotional rub.

Though Kang doesn’t say so explicitly, his book brings together tales of Asians who feel the knowledge they have is useless, corrosive, or impossible to act upon. These individuals, despite their paradigmatic upward mobility, struggle for belonging, fumbling with histories that are either artificial or painful to articulate—too fake or too real. This is particularly true for the children of immigrants, whose Americanization has come at the price of estrangement from their parents’ experiences, and who are now putting the final touches on the historical amnesia many of their families first willed into effect. Toward the beginning of The Loneliest Americans, Kang describes having seen his own mother’s life trajectory, inflected by the destruction of the Korean War and the loneliness of her immigranthood, as “rotted fruit at the foot of a tree—recognizable only by proximity and context, but certainly of no use to anyone.” The traditional Edenic symbolism is here inverted. Knowledge is no longer a forbidden fruit but a carcass to be desultorily picked over.

Through its blend of memoir and polemic, The Loneliest Americans chronicles the disjuncture between theoretical and felt identity, producing in the process an interpretation of Asian America that is as much a disquisition on knowledge as on race. In recent years, elite Asian Americans have collected innumerable facts about their historical presence in America—in part just to prove that that presence was real—but no amount of information has dispelled the fact that the term “Asian American” refers to a mass of people with little relation to one another. Kang’s book is generative and important because it asks the questions that Asian identity politics has until now ignored: What happens when our feelings split off from our well-trammelled intellectual principles, or when we try to cultivate knowledge that we can’t manage, emotionally, to endorse? This is fundamentally an epistemological problem—the predicament of having a mass of information about an identity without its requisite glue, which is belief that the identity in question exists.

The term “Asian American”
was originally coined by university students during a flurry of political action that would feel unfamiliar to many Asians today. In the late ’60s, students of mainly Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino descent rallied together on the campuses of schools like San Francisco State University and the University of California Los Angeles in protest of white supremacy and Western imperialism. As Kang points out, many of these students’ families had lived in the US for generations, having slipped through a thicket of discriminatory immigration policies; they were for that reason a small group. But in 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Hart-Celler Act, which eventually opened the country to millions of Asian immigrants, many of whom came from white-collar or highly educated backgrounds. Kang writes of these newcomers that they “had never heard the term ‘Asian American’ before” and “certainly” had not emigrated “to join in an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist struggle.” For this group, that radical legacy was an ill-fitting hand-me-down, pared of real feeling or loyalty.

Kang argues that Asians today, attempting political action without a true connection to the racial awakening of the ’60s, limit themselves to the most immaterial concerns, “throwing tantrums about white chefs” or Hollywood representation. They arrived just late enough to miss the Civil Rights Movement, and Kang speculates that many of them have no mass experience of “American racism or oppression”—unlike, say, the Japanese Americans interned during World War II. This is a welcome argument, in that it foregrounds how merely learning a history doesn’t automatically confer a sense of your own place within it. Throughout the book, Kang is rightfully wary of those who have charged ahead anyways—the often privileged Asian Americans who insist on coherence between their own present and the Civil Rights-era past, who feel they can achieve some assonance between the pre- and post-1965 cohorts. Kang deftly embarks on a kind of truthful naysaying, poking necessary holes in elite Asians’ strained “racework,” showing how so much of it ends up in a “stunted cosplay of tradition, language, and food.”

The result, however, is that Kang’s writing is sometimes burdened by an anxiety over authenticity, that concept non grata for our postmodern times. What makes a history yours? What makes a racial group “real”? Asian Americans, whose presence in the country has been pockmarked by temporal gaps between immigration waves, who feel alienated from what they’re told are their racial narratives, clearly don’t have the kind of “authentic” cohesion that Kang seems to be sketching a negative rubric for. Conversely, Kang writes of Blackness as being “intractable”— a description that lands just a sidestep away from “innate.” By emphasizing the falsity of Asian identity, Kang’s writing has the unfortunate effect of implying the truth or wholeness of all other groups.

In her review of The Loneliest Americans, Madeline Leung Coleman picked up on this implication, accusing Kang of viewing Blackness as both a “stamp of authenticity” and a “monolith.” It is ironic, then, that she also faulted him for failing to speak to “a single person who fits [the] description” of “working poor”—a critique that likewise assumes the immediate recognizability or essence of such a person. Both Leung Coleman and Kang, though they differ in their theoretical approaches to Asian America, seemingly desire a stabilizing figure who can deliver knowledge with the insight that comes from a mythic set of authenticating experiences. But who could act as such a perfect spokesperson?

Kang’s preoccupation with the realness or fakeness of identities makes it feel as if he is crafting a too-hasty dividing line, an almost essentializing class barrier beyond which, it is assumed, certain sentiments or imaginaries no longer have relevance to certain people. Are we sure working-class Asians don’t care about Asian America? Or wouldn’t want to, given the chance? There are definitely spaces around the country where Asians of different ethnicities interact beyond the pall of elite discourse. In early November, down at Manhattan’s City Hall, I saw taxi drivers on hunger strike in protest of the predatory debt obligations of the medallion system; the men there looked like they could have been East Asian, South Asian, and Southeast Asian. Did they, in these circumstances, feel an affinity that was specifically Asian American? I didn’t ask. Perhaps some sense of racial solidarity was in fact operative or emergent among them—or maybe it wasn’t. Faced with such hardship and astonishing courage, with the thunderous need to rework the arrangements of people’s material lives, it didn’t seem like an important question at all.

The Loneliest Americans is more productive when it turns away from the search for identity’s uncorrupted origins, and instead considers the conditions under which knowledge of identity circulates, asking individuals how they feel about what they come to know. Kang’s chapter on Men’s Rights Activist Azns (MRAZNs)—a movement of, in his words, “dudes” touting an “angry, largely incoherent and shallow radicalism”—is his strongest, offering a perfect illustration of consciousness raising gone awry. On online forums, MRAZNs post primarily about the emasculation of Asian men by white supremacy; though they have publicized real histories of oppression—the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the sexual violence of the US military against Asian women—this factually correct information often comes accompanied by resentment, anger, and hate. In a sickly möbius strip of anti-racism and misogyny, MRAZN educational campaigns usually end in the virulent online harassment of Asian women.

To point this out isn’t to scaremonger over disinformation or knowledge’s chronic misuse; it is instead to reveal the larger matrix of feeling—often enough, bad feeling—in which knowledge comes embedded, especially for minorities like Kang’s lonely Asians. Kang quotes an MRAZN describing a stilted epiphany he once had at an upscale restaurant in Cincinnati: “And I was looking around at all the tables and I was just, holy shit. What I’m looking at has been built on the bones and blood of people that are like me.” This realization led him not toward solidarity across lines of difference, but to the forums. What we know about our identities is grooved with grievance and loss, non-factual externalities that can flip, at any moment, into political liabilities. All of which is to say: An impeccable store of knowledge is not enough. You can be correct but—on an interpersonal and ethical level—in the wrong. You can know all there is to know, and you might still feel awful.

Interrogating the conditions in which we learn things, and then feel things about what we learn, is thus a crucial strategy for building toward true solidarity. This is where Kang’s book could have benefited from more real-world context around the processes by which a racialized political subjectivity is formed. Though he makes much of the difference in sensibility between the children of the ’60s and the children of Hart-Celler, Kang neglects to address the ways they were shaped by different material realities around, specifically, education—that crucial source of knowledge’s diffusion. As Melinda Cooper notes in her book Family Values, the student activism of the ’60s “simply would not have existed” if it weren’t for public funds that made higher education accessible—or free, in the case of the UC system—for students from underrepresented backgrounds. This funding and other associated social services diminished during the exact decades in which the Asian population in America doubled, and then doubled again, after Hart-Celler’s enactment.

Today, austerity reigns: The present-day “Asian engineering students” that Kang spots “grimly” staring at their laptops at Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies library are more likely to see their campuses as harbingers of debt than as spaces for dissent. Rather than a vehicle for learning about how and why one might fight the status quo, education has become, in itself, an arena where Asian Americans pit themselves against their fellow minorities: Witness their resistance to affirmative action, or their investment in New York City’s regressive system of standardized tests, which funnel children into specialized high schools. Kang has covered both issues extensively as a journalist, so it’s strange that he doesn’t make more room in the book for this larger picture. These are of course the contests in which Asian Americans find themselves, embarrassingly, on the conservative side of the argument, but they also illustrate how the pie of public funding is shrinking, leaving immigrants and their children fighting with others for scraps. It’s no surprise, then, that some Asians feel they literally cannot afford to transform knowledge of their own marginalization into a more decisive and antagonistic stance.

Given this paltry reality, is it even possible for Asian Americans to maintain a productive relationship to race and knowledge? How might one actually rehabilitate deadening and disconnected histories into an effective politics? Kang doesn’t speak much about this, but he does provide one small, moving example of an alternative approach in the form of an anecdote about his mother, who has recently started a blog. One post details the loss she felt after moving to America and beginning life in a foreign language, and her son quotes it at length:

One day, my language, abruptly severed in a foreign land, became sealed off inside of me, where it suffocated . . . I frantically became a child again to relearn the burbling of English. My short and impoverished new language changed me . . . That attitude became entrenched in my speech and my way of thinking.

What might this experience of language’s impoverishment, of social isolation, allow a person to know? Could we say that in her writing, Kang’s mother is describing a theory of knowledge—its limits, its conditions, its affordances? The Loneliest Americans is ambivalent about what knowledge and its sedimented narratives can push us to do. Still, I’ve thought often of this blog post’s ending, and the way new forms of knowing might beget slant, incipient forms of solidarity: “My impoverished habits of language remain,” the writer concludes. “On the other hand, at a certain point, I’ve somehow become unable to bear people who are alone, now inclined to approach them. Without exception, they become good friends of mine.”

Zoe Hu has written for The New RepublicThe Baffler, The New York Times Magazine, and other places.