book review

Fear and Loathing in ‘Asian America’

In The Loneliest Americans, Jay Caspian Kang tries but fails to restore meaning to an empty term.

Photo-Illustration: Vulture
Photo-Illustration: Vulture

One of the first places Jay Caspian Kang takes us to in The Loneliest Americans is Berkeley, California. He hasn’t lived there long. He’s revisiting Joan Didion, like any good recent East Coast transplant, and he is not quite sure how he fits into the place she describes — her vision of college-football games giving way to counterculture, which has now given way to a Whole Foods parking lot. So he walks around a bit. He decides to check out the Berkeley campus, hit the food courts nearby. He’s not impressed with the look of the school: “stately but not especially beautiful.” But it’s where he notices … them. “If you’re one of the thousands of Asian visitors to the campus,” Kang writes, “the only thing you’ll likely notice walking around Berkeley is that there sure do seem to be a lot of Asians.”

At the food courts, in the ethnic-studies library, a New York Times writer meets his bugaboo: Asian American kids hanging out with their Asian American friends. Who knows what these students are thinking or where they’re from — we won’t hear from them — but Kang describes them like an ethnologist observing the locals. What he sees of their world afflicts him. Abandoning his introspective tone, Kang dips into a rant: These kids he sees from afar “seem completely uninterested in making friends with people of other races or backgrounds. Their insularity always feels banal and unwarranted — if you’re just going to speak English, dress like everyone else, and complain about schoolwork like every other Berkeley student, what, exactly, is the culture you’ve created?” he demands. “In those moments, my thoughts about Asianness have always felt dispassionate, compulsory, and almost abstract. I have viewed the history of ‘my people’ through a keyhole and understood, in some deep way, that I was of them but did not fully understand them.”

The Loneliest Americans, a sorta memoir, sorta polemic, is Kang’s attempt to turn dispassionate thoughts into a diagnosis for what is ailing Asian America. Many readers will know Kang, a 1.5-generation Korean American, from his crucial reporting for the Times on subjects such as a hazing death at an Asian American frat and the Harvard affirmative-action lawsuit, which he often threads with personal reflections. Some will know him from his essay on his gambling addiction. You might have heard his podcast with friends E. Tammy Kim and Andy B. Liu, Time to Say Goodbye, on which they riff about culture and politics. Maybe you just saw his basketball tweets. At his best, Kang can be thrilling: He’s one of few Asian Americans writing for big media who is willing to be loud about the limits of representation, the void of Asian American class solidarity, and — especially — the blinkered aspirations of the upwardly mobile. He laughs at the idea that this last group should shape the narrative and rails against what he sees as the woke Asian American elite, at once asserting and deflating his own authority because, after all, he’s one of them. He can be a nuanced reporter and a stylish essayist. He can also be annoying as hell. Kang likes to make claims, and he likes to fight. Prone to hyperbole, dismissiveness, contradiction, he will happily neg anyone who appears to be less self-aware than he, firm in the belief that he’s always punching up, no matter which way he’s facing.

Like him or not, he is often right about the big stuff. Especially the limits of “Asian American.” Because the term’s a bust. It tries to mean so much that it means almost nothing. Its vagueness could get a pass if we needed it for politics, but “Asian American” doesn’t help us there: When a demographic includes dozens of languages and a yawning wage gap, is it even a demographic at all? What is the Asian American vote? It’s a term that demands caveats to even be usable. A relic of late-’60s student movements, “Asian American” is a boomer: long past its prime and refusing to retire.

I wonder when we’ll be ready to force the issue. To stop saying “Asian American” when we mean something specific, to insist on a politics that works without althoughs. Kang’s book suggests that he, for one, isn’t ready to go there yet. He’s not an “Asian American” abolitionist — more of a reform guy, really, and his solutions are hard to pin down. The book is all-new material, with chapters touching everything from the writer’s own history in South Korea and the U.S., to early Asian American activism, to Asian-run tutoring centers. In each section, Kang circles his themes, stopping now and then to bang on his argument: that the people who care most about “Asian American” are second-gen professionals who are becoming functionally white anyway but cling to the term as proof of POC status. That the people who care least about it are what he calls the “​​forgotten Asian America,” the disempowered, working-class Asian immigrants and refugees whom the first group fail to consider. If we ever want “Asian American” to be more than a white-collar bargaining chip, he tells us, we should listen to the working poor. We’ll have to take that last point on faith: In this book, at least, he doesn’t talk to a single person who fits that description.

First, he offers a caveat. After an eight-page-long recap of U.S. immigration-policy history, Kang’s true subject emerges: the people he calls “the children of Hart-Celler,” Asians whose families came to the U.S. after 1965, when the Hart-Celler Act opened immigration to more than the wealthiest white countries. For the rest of the book, this group, people like himself, are the ones he’s referring to when he talks about Asian Americans. (Here, they’re almost exclusively Chinese and Korean.) So forget people who came before ’65. Forget South Asians. Forget refugees to the U.S. and their children, two groups he barely mentions. Kang handles this bracketing with the delicacy of the high-school debater he once was: Define your terms, talk fast, keep it moving.

A reader could live with this, savoring the specifics when Kang goes deep on L.A. Koreatown, tutoring centers, and the real-estate origins of Flushing’s Chinatown. Unfortunately, though, Kang can’t get out of his own way. The text is riddled with self-conscious tics and assertions that go nowhere. Sometimes these read like a flinch before a slap: In the intro, Kang agonizes over the future of his half-white child and gives a quick recap of immigration struggles and his memories of schoolyard taunts, mocking the impulse to show Asian American credentials even as he does it. “I don’t find my family’s narrative to be particularly sympathetic, but you might disagree,” he says, before spending the rest of the book mining their narrative anyway.

Wedged throughout are confused observations on Blackness, which he casts as an unchanging monument when compared to the tattered wet nap of Asian Americanness. Blackness is “intractable,” he writes. The title of the book hangs on the hierarchy of influence: “I am talking about the loneliness that comes from attempts to assimilate, whether by melting into the white middle class or by creating an elaborate, yet ultimately derivative, identity … By mimicking the language of the Black struggle in America, we hope to become legible as a comrade, a fellow traveler, or a ‘person of color.’ There’s an implicit apology to this kind of pleading: We know we don’t have it as bad as you, but we also aren’t white and need a way to talk about it.” He refers obliquely to “our fellow minorities” — he means Black people — who “look upon our race work with a mixture of bemusement and suspicion.” Blackness, in Kang’s telling, equals real coherence, real grievance. It’s a stamp of authenticity (and a monolith). Whiteness, however, could happen to anybody if they just make enough money and stop caring. Heavily influenced by his mentor Noel Ignatiev’s work, including his 1995 book, How the Irish Became White, Kang foretells whiteness for the children of Hart-Celler too. Damning them further, he claims that they want it: “The assimilating Asian, in other words, wants to become as white as white will allow.”

But what does this mean, exactly, to be doomed to whiteness, no matter your politics? Maybe it would be clearer if Kang weren’t so quick to use Black versus white when he means poor versus rich, or even good politics versus bad. The book is full of these hanging chads, observations on race and class only half punched through.

The loneliest thing about the book is the way he walls off Asian America, framing us as the only group struggling to define itself. In doing that, he misses important context. Thinking around Blackness, hardly “intractable,” is constantly evolving through conversations around privilege, immigration, colorism, and who gets left behind. When he insists other minorities can’t relate to our flailing, he ignores the struggles over racism and representation within the Latinidad. He’s just a bit too quick to dismiss comparisons, a bit too quick to call an action or an opinion ridiculous, including those of young people who are imperfectly trying to engage. In a passage on the phrase YELLOW PERIL SUPPORTS BLACK POWER, used by the Japanese American Black Panther turned FBI informant Richard Aoki and lately renewed on young Asians’ protest signs at anti-police-brutality marches, he sneers at the idea of using the phrase now — and by association the young people who like it: “If we were called to speak in front of the Panthers, what would we talk about? Unfair college admissions practices?”

The scorn is strong in this book — and not only directed outward. In some of the most popular recent critical essays on Asian Americanness, self-hate emerges as a powerful through-line. It infuses Wesley Yang’s writing, half digested into misogyny, morbidly fascinating at best and disturbing at worst. It’s baked into Cathy Park Hong’s brave but imperfect Minor Feelings, in which she puts her dignity on the line to confront it. The Loneliest Americans is shaped by it too. Kang admits freely that he’s the kind of Asian kid “who had grown up almost exclusively around white people and whose childhood was filled with denial and disgust, tamped down into a reactionary rage that surfaced later in life.” He professes to want to be “a more tolerant, less self-hating person.” Those feelings are fertile ground. But Kang — who despite his impulse for memoir is determined to write a message book — mostly brushes them aside. There’s very little room for earnestness here, very little room to just be without elaborate justification. Some of the politics here look a lot like hang-ups.

Perhaps that’s why it’s a relief when the mask slips completely. Kang’s best chapter, “The Rage of the MRAZNs,” is also his most testosterone-poisoned. Unlike many of the other chapters, which attempt to stitch unrelated thoughts and events into arguments, this story sells itself: The writer tells us about his friend Doug, a Korean American actor who gets red-pilled by Asian men’s-rights-activist redditors who juice the history of Asian oppression to make a point about why none of them are getting laid enough. (To them, Asian women who sleep with white men are enemy No. 1.) Through Doug, we get to Al — a compulsive, charismatic man with a treasure trove of “evidence” to disseminate online and an idiosyncratic, kinda leftist viewpoint — who becomes a guru for a branch of MRAZNs. When Kang speaks to Al in person, he writes it like a trip through the fun-house mirror: “Our fathers went to the same elite high school in Korea and came to the United States in the late seventies to pursue graduate degrees. We grew up in famous university towns with small Asian populations … We both had violent episodes as children and were suspended and expelled for fighting. We both smoked too much weed in high school and were unspectacular students. We both wandered through various philosophies and tried out different selves before settling on a relatively unpleasant one.”

Kang’s writing is so much more fun when he’s not just trying to score points. He gets these guys on a visceral level; there but for the grace of God goes he. “I could see how neatly the details of our lives lined up,” he writes of the MRAZNs. “Helplessness and confusion over where to place their political energy had resulted in an angry, largely incoherent, and shallow radicalism. Mine had just found another outlet” — namely wandering around America, tree-planting and reading poetry. Later, Kang continues the thought: “When you come up against the limit of your parents’ dreams for this country, where do you go? When you see a ninety-one-year-old Asian man pushed to the ground in San Francisco and watch progressive elites turn a blind eye, where do you turn? Whom do you hate the most? Do you hate the white liberals you never really trusted anyway, or do you hate the fancy Asian Americans with their carefully laid out paths into whiteness?”

Those questions echo louder than any other part of the book. As for the rest, it’s not totally Kang’s fault that the work doesn’t succeed. His ambition is huge, and the bar is low. The field of Asian American identity writing is troubled. If we’re being generous, we could say it’s going through growing pains, catalyzed by the current obsession with identity. But I think it’s more like an attempt to build on sand. Every news hit of the past few years — from “China virus” hysteria to the massacre of massage-parlor workers and patrons — has spurred a flurry of writing that asserts the writer’s right to exist Asianly and not much more, exposing something hollow at the core of the project. In story after story, back we go to the “forever foreigner.” Back we go to the microaggressions and outrage over white-lady mah-jongg. Class is too often an afterthought. Kang rejects that mode entirely in favor of a less cozy position: If you’re the kind of person reading this, he says, wake the fuck up — you’re going to be fine. The next step is figuring out what to do about the people who aren’t.

Fear and Loathing in ‘Asian America’