Genre: Literary Criticism
Content warnings: racism (incl. racial slurs), explanations of racial violence and hatred against minority groups (incl. Asians, black Americans, and Latin Americans), substance abuse, self-harm, suicide, mental illness, sexism, rape, homicide, discrimination, intergenerational trauma
Trigger warnings: Racism can be inherently triggering, so please read at your own discretion.
Perfect when you’re in the mood for: a confronting yet entertaining and triumphant read about race and what it’s like to be Asian in America (or the West, for that matter).
In recent years, I’ve noticed Asian authors and their books gain more publicity both online and in-person. This is something I’ve spoken about countless times on In the Margin before. It seems now more than ever, I have more accessibility to books that accurately reflect who I am: an Asian woman living in the West. And to be more specific, an Asian woman who also happens to be a creative. For better or for worse, this identity informs the work I create and consume.
I suppose sharing a similar disposition to Hong would mean that this review is somewhat biased. It seems fitting that I’d taken a likeness to Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: A Reckoning on Race and the Asian Condition. After all, she, too, is an Asian woman living in the West, who studied in the arts and is now a poet. However, it was the perfect book to validate my experiences and question my worldviews.
Before I begin the book review/essay, I’d like to explain that this piece does talk a lot on racism and my experiences with it. Although not universal, it’s important to mention that talking about racism can be inherently personal and traumatic. As you are about to read, I cannot talk about racism without also talking about myself. The same way Cathy Park Hong cannot talk about race and the Asian condition without talking about herself, too.
I’d also like to advise that the book itself is also pretty heavy, content-wise. Cathy Park Hong explains racially fuelled violence against ethnic minorities. She also goes into some detail about mental illness, substance abuse and suicide. She also details the rape and homicide of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. My review does not mention these things.
Now, let’s begin.
To recite my poems to an audience is to be slapped awake by my limitations. I confront the infinite chasm between the audience’s conception of Poet and the underwhelming evidence of me as that poet. I just don’t look the part. Asians lack presence. Asians take up apologetic space. We don’t even have enough presence to be considered real minorities. We’re not racial enough to be token. We’re so post-racial we’re silicon.
Asian invisibility is a difficult thing. We exist whenever it’s convenient to do so. We don’t exist whenever it’s convenient for others. We don’t have control over it.
In one of my high school math classes, I was 1 of 5 Asians. One afternoon, I distinctly remember another Asian classmate complaining that she ‘needed someone Asian’ to help her with the math homework, the stereotype being Asians are good at math. Alas, it didn’t seem all that harmful to me and I offered my help. After all, I was finished with my work and I am Asian. She looked at me, confused and hesitated. ‘Not that kind of Asian’ and it dawned on me that, well, she definitely considered me Asian but. . . in her words, not the kind she was looking for. And if only I had the time to deep-dive into the history of why Filipinos are sometimes not considered Asian but I digress. Point is, in that instance, my Asianness was effectively erased.
Whereas, in another class, I was the only Asian person there. A black classmate of mine told me I’d most likely be chosen to play Mulan and be picked as the ‘token Asian’, even though she made it clear to me that in a ‘normal’ situation, I wouldn’t even be considered Asian. I get it, the Australian education system taught us to believe we’re not meant to see colour. And it’s worse because, well, we both knew Mulan was Chinese and not Filipino.
While this interaction seems rather minor (no pun intended), it is another example of Asian invisibility or erasure. In one instance, my Asianness can be erased. In another, it can be reinforced. Nevermind that in both situations they were entirely inaccurate and based off racial stereotypes. My Asianness can be erased or reinforced, simply out of convenience for whoever I’m with.
“When I hear the phrase “Asians are next in line to be white,” I replace the word “white” with “disappear.” Asians are next in line to disappear. We are reputed to be so accomplished, and so law-abiding, we will disappear into this country’s amnesiac fog. We will not be the power but become absorbed by power, not share the power of whites but be stooges to a white ideology that exploited our ancestors. This country insists that our racial identity is beside the point, that it has nothing to do with being bullied, or passed over for promotion, or cut off every time we talk. Our race has nothing to do with this country, even, which is why we’re often listed as “Other” in polls and why we’re hard to find in racial breakdowns on reported rape or workplace discrimination or domestic abuse.
In Minor Feelings, Hong takes care to explain this Asian invisibility. There is the stereotype, of Asians only being in higher paying jobs (doctors, lawyers, engineers, dentists). There is the stereotype that Asians are submissive, law-abiding, quiet. We keep our heads down and push through, even when we’re being shoved down at every corner by this system. Yet, in Minor Feelings, Hong takes care to explain this Asian invisibility. That yes, while we are ‘successful’, it’s still been at the cost of so many other things, like bullying, rape, discrimination and domestic abuse.
To white people, we are accepted because it seems like we are most like them. And the unfortunate thing is, other POC communities have denied Asians as people of colour because of this association. In the workplace, at school, or in social circles this is what Asian invisibility can look like. We simply cannot win.
Additionally, I’d argue that the impacts of the Hallyu Wave and Cool Japan have helped to blend some facets of (East) Asian pop culture to seamlessly blend into Western pop-culture.
K-pop, anime, bubble tea. Things that we had once been made fun of for bullied for now seem to be commonplace. Celebrated, loved, shared. However, the onset of coronavirus and worldwide lockdown, combined with the continual geopolitics between the West and Asia meant that regardless of what Asian you were, in a matter of seconds, we’d gone from being praised to villanised once again. I’d argue that this is what Asian invisibility can look like in pop culture. To reiterate: we cannot win.
I have permanent whiplash from these mental gymnastics. Hong explains this feeling in her essays, too. That the question of belonging and the meaning of Asian identity can be nauseating, tiring, frustrating. We’re already invisible and somehow, it makes me want to disappear even more. Despite this, Hong makes me feel validated. It makes me feel seen. After a lifetime of gaslighting and dismissing, there is something inherently powerful about this external validation.
“I’m taking it out—and I swear this is not a justification to keep it in—but I think it’s a problem how Asians are so private about their own traumas, you know, which is why no one ever thinks we suffer from injustices. They think we’re just these—robots.”
“My need for privacy is not an Asian thing—it’s an artist thing.”
“How is it an artist thing?”
“All artists are private about their lives. They do it to protect their careers.”
“That’s a huge generalization.”
“And your comment about Asians isn’t? What I’m saying is true, especially if you’re a female artist of color. If you reveal anything, they collapse your art with your life—and I don’t want my biography hijacking my art. Maybe back then, my loss was a deep part of me but I have worked really hard to separate my work and my identity from that loss and I will not be knocked back down.”
Hong does well to examine her feelings and biases, too. After all, the book is called Minor Feelings. However, I don’t just mean her feelings of inadequacy or frustration about being Asian, or an Asian woman, or an Asian woman in the arts.
The quote above is paraphrased from a conversation Hong had with her friend ‘Erin’. Indeed, Hong does talk about the Asian experience as a monolith. Take the quotes from the section before. We are reputed. . . We will not be. . . Our race. . . we're often. . . we're hard to find. . .
While confronting, it’s this introspection I find important. I’d argue it’s almost easier to pinpoint the ways racism has impacted Asians externally. After all, racism is institutional, it is systemic. When you’re growing up in a world that was literally built to disadvantage you, it’s not difficult to spot. Racism means we don’t get the promotions we want, or even the jobs we applied for. It means being treated unfairly in classrooms and having microaggressions thrown at you on the street.
However, I’d also argue that examining the ways racism has impacted us internally is almost terrifying. What does that look like, to racialise ourselves and consequently, other people like us? What impact does that have on ourselves and other people like us? What does it mean that we accept yet fight against these stereotypes? What does that look like when we racialise people different to us?
In Minor Feelings, Hong holds herself accountable for her internalised racism, her generalisations of other Asians. While she gives an analysis of racism on a national and international level, she questions where her assumptions come from. She wonders why her thought processes are a certain way. She asks how these assumptions impact herself, others like herself, and people who are completely unalike her.
Similarly, as I read this book (and write this review), I have to question myself, too. I refer to all Asians, myself included, with ‘we’ and ‘us’. There is little to no distinction between the types of Asians and the specific types of racism they face. It’s not an easy task and Hong doesn’t cover all bases – nor should she be expected to. Examining internalised racism starts with ourselves and it’s hard to do.
This is a difficult thing to articulate, which is half the reason why I recommend reading Minor Feelings. Unfortunately, I don’t have the same level of experience, education, or research that Hong has to explain it in a book review.
However, the important thing is acknowledging that we, too, are capable of making mistakes. Hurtful ones and the important thing is to hold ourselves accountable and do better.
I am here because you vivisected my ancestral country in two. In 1945, two fumbling mid-ranking American officers who knew nothing about the country used a National Geographic map as reference to arbitrarily cut a border to make North and South Korea, a division that eventually separated millions of families, including my own grandmother from her family.
The only downside to reading Minor Feelings is realising, well, these feelings aren’t so minor after all. They are debilitating, haunting, uncomfortable. God, they are traumatising, too. I am suddenly confronted with years of racial trauma I’ve yet to have the strength to tackle but reading this book? It’s a start.
Hong articulates the Asian Condition in such a way that is so entertaining, I can almost remove my own experiences from the pages. Read it as an outsider might. Perhaps that’s another wonderful thing about it. Through the trauma and the hardship, Hong finds time to be funny and light-hearted. Even if these experiences are anything but.
However, I’m not an outsider. Unfortunately, racism is inherently personal. For BIPOC folks, it is inherently traumatising. Somehow, in 203 pages, Cathy Park Hong conveys the rage I’ve felt from being silenced and dismissed. The unease I’ve experienced from confronting racism and examining my inter b nalised racism. The sadness and frustration I need to pick apart when it comes to intergenerational trauma. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels this way.
Hong tackles so much and somehow, not much at all. The conclusion doesn’t feel certain – Hong herself isn’t even quite sure where we’ll be in 20 years with anti-racism. What does that even look like? Can we even fathom it? Regardless, the end of the book holds hope. It’s daunting, knowing there is still so much work to be done but I am triumphant. Despite all these minor feelings, we can rise above them. There always has to be potential to do better.
Minor Feelings: A Reckoning on Race and the Asian Condition operates to explain the complexities of the Asian identity in America and provides a stepping stone for those outside of Asian communities to understand these intricacies and the history this identity is laced with.
I didn’t live through any of it, but I’m still a descendant of those who had no time to recover; who had no time, nor permission, to reflect.