In the “Loneliest Americans,” Jay Caspian Kang unpacks the history and impossibility of the “Asian American” identifier, arguing in favor of a deeper solidarity
Jay Caspian Kang’s “The Loneliest Americans” sets out to deconstruct our understanding of the term “Asian American,” a project that feels at times throughout the book both deeply uncomfortable and potentially impossible. You can tell Kang is feeling it too: there’s an unease around the position Asian Americans occupy in American society, an apprehension around the absurdity of connecting so many diverse people under one identifier, a concern about his own complicity in the structures he criticizes.
Rather than sitting with this discomfort, though, Kang pushes forward, seemingly on the offensive. His prose throughout matches this: bold, confident and opinionated. This has always been the appeal of Kang’s writing, which is clear and cutting, whether or not you agree with the conclusions he arrives at.
Questions of identity
“The Loneliest Americans” is a collection of eight essays, not counting the weighty introduction and epilogue. Kang notably begins by discussing his own family history, something that he traces through several generations. He talks about his grandparents, refugees from North Korea who ended up in South Korea, his parents who immigrated to the US, as well as himself before reflecting on future generations through his daughter.
The personal stories are mixed with history and reportage, tracing events that shaped Asian American history as well as interactions Kang has shared with activists, friends and colleagues. He focuses in the beginning on understanding the history of the term “Asian American,” ultimately concluding that the idea of one single “Asian America” has never made sense, and still does not.
Kang continues by discussing assimilation and the idea of Asian Americans “becoming white” as well as tensions between the Black and Asian communities and the rise of Asian American men’s rights activists (better known as MRAZNs). Throughout the essays, Kang focuses mostly on a group that he terms the “children of Hart-Celler.” This refers to people whose families came to the U.S. after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, which allowed in waves of mostly well-educated Asian American immigrants to arrive. The “children” of Hart-Celler are the second-generation descendants of these immigrants, whom Kang broadly categorizes as mostly educated and upwardly-mobile. He argues this group is solely interested in superficial identifiers of being Asian American: cultural symbols like boba or sad stories about their childhood lunches being mocked by their peers and being mistaken for a delivery person by their neighbors. They are concerned about racism mostly when it impedes them or embarrasses them—not because of how it might impact the most vulnerable among us. This form of identity politics, Kang argues, is shallow and unimaginative. It allows a form of assimilation in which well-off Asian Americans insist upon a marginalized identity without needing to participate in active, meaningful solidarity with other minorities, or even with other Asian Americans outside their social class.
Because the essays are part memoir, we see glimpses of Kang himself throughout the book. He describes a lot of phases in his life, how he assumed personas which he admits were sometimes a bit contrived. Many of those versions of himself pushed away Asian identity, sometimes painfully so.
Criticisms & discontents
There has been some notable pushback to Kang’s book, mostly from Asian American scholars and activists. Notably, it involves a passage in which he speculates about young Asian American students he observes at Berkeley, who, he writes, stick mostly to themselves, not integrating with the rest of the campus. Other reviewers have found this to be an unfair accusation, noting he could easily have talked to them if he really wanted to understand them, rather than preemptively projecting the entire thesis of his book onto them.
Another criticism leveled against Kang’s ideas was that they were less than novel. Critics argued that Kang was merely drawing from the established work of Asian American scholars since the 1970s but passing it off as original. Kang’s perceived sympathetic tone towards MRAZN figures also drew ire. After the book’s release, Kang tussled with scholars and activists on Twitter in exchanges that did not always go over particularly well, calling some of the criticism “deranged” and “gross.” He later deleted most of those Tweets.
From my own perspective, the way Kang discusses his mixed daughter and her identity struck me as a bit strange. In his introduction, he states that he assumed (or rather, hoped) his daughter would appear white: “I had assumed that our child would look more like her than me. There was no reason for this outside of a troublesome hope … When our daughter was born with a full head of dark hair and almond-shaped eyes, the nurses all commented on how much she looked like her father.” Though it’s certainly true that appearance often heavily shapes the experiences of mixed people, the fixation on his daughter’s features is reminiscent of the way I often feel my validity as an Asian American hinges on whether others perceive me as Asian or not. I also couldn’t imagine an Asian woman getting away with that sort of comment unscathed: expressing a hope, albeit a hope acknowledged to be shameful, that a mixed child looks more white than Asian? It reminded me of a few years ago, when a random Asian woman posted a rather innocuous picture of her mixed baby to Subtle Asian Traits. She didn’t make any sort of commentary on the fact that the child was mixed — she was just sharing a cute outfit. No matter; she received thousands of hate comments saying she was “flaunting” the child for being part white.
Traces of Kang’s unease with his daughter’s whiteness resurface in other essays in the book, too. In a later chapter, he wonders whether she can ever fully be white, or if she’ll always be unable to be, limited by the part of her that’s Asian. In another, he wonders if his daughter will through assimilation assume the lens of the “white liberal’s abstracted empathy for the less fortunate.” Mixed people, particularly biracial people, have been fighting for a long time to escape this binary, that you have to make a choice between one race or another. More importantly, I think a lot of us have been fighting the idea that a choice like that is even possible.
As the book comes to an end, there isn’t much given in the way of resolution. The children of Hart-Celler are offered no real alternatives for meaningfully expressing and engaging with their status in American society. And although Kang clearly lays out how the current framework for Asian American identity fails to uplift the most vulnerable members of our community, it is hard to say how we should act upon this conclusion.
Throughout the book, Kang is notably not very generous with the people he criticizes. He doesn’t owe them anything, I suppose, and there’s no need to soften reality for an audience of people who may likely be the same upwardly-mobile, comfortably situated people he criticizes. Perhaps they don’t deserve a lot of empathy, and that’s probably the point. On the other hand, there were moments that could have given way to more profound compassion, not only towards the subjects of his criticism, but for Kang himself.