Arts critic's notebook

My rude awakening: “Minor Feelings”

Examining my ethnic experience has been hard but invaluable

“A space is overrun when there are too many Asians, and ‘too many’ can be as few as three,” writes Cathy Park Hong, a poet, writer, and professor at Rutgers University. Reading those lines, I feel myself transported back to my own childhood. Whenever there was more than one Asian girl in the class, I would, without fail, be mistaken as another Emma or Alicia. It didn’t matter if it was the third day of class or the last day of class or that one of us had glasses and the other didn’t. 

“Minor Feelings” has been painful yet eye-opening for me, a second-generation Chinese-American. In broad terms, the essay collection is about the Asian-American experience. Too often, Asian Americans have been dismissed as the model minority, a myth justified by the fact that on paper, we are law-abiding and economically well-off. According to Hong, whites ignore us, and African Americans distrust us. We exist only to “grease the corporate wheels” but are fated to never rise above middle management. This puts us in a tenuous position in the American social hierarchy. We are almost invisible to the public eye. Hong addresses this in the opening pages of “Minor Feelings”: “Most Americans know nothing about Asian Americans. They think Chinese is synecdoche for Asians the way Kleenex is for tissues.” We often forget that the term Asian American encompasses Southeast Asians, South Asians, East Asians, Pacific Islanders of all genders, sexualities, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Following the wake-up call to her audience about the need for Asian-American unity, Hong recounts her own experiences of being invisible in America. From unknowingly being dressed by her mother in a Playboy shirt in elementary school to being admonished by peers in college for writing about “ethnic” themes in her poetry, Hong’s stream-of-consciousness-esque account of her life and lineage is a heart-wrenching journey. Hong’s parents escaped South Korea at the end of the Korean War to start a new life in the U.S. On the heels of the success of her father’s dry cleaning business, her family eventually moved out of South Central LA’s Koreatown to the safer and newer Orange County suburbs. Despite the move, Hong found that she could not escape her father’s inability to protect his own family from casual racism nor her mother’s borderline psychotic tirades towards her and her sister. To further complicate her childhood, the suburbs exposed Hong to the “minor feelings” of being Asian in a white world.

Hong defines “minor feelings” as the “cognitive dissonance” when “American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality.” In her eyes, this manifests in shame of oneself and of one’s culture. For her and me and many Asian Americans, this entailed the reconciliation of the “normal” outside world — friends who received weekly allowances and ate mac and cheese and burgers for dinner — to reality — mothers who hang laundry outside and who constantly remind you to study hard to repay the suffering they overcame to immigrate.

She then names the book’s interwoven themes: shame and indebtedness. We are ashamed of our flat features and of our parents who speak bad English. We are obligated to feel indebted to our parents, who in turn, feel indebted to America for granting them the opportunity for a new life. According to Hong, the sum of this shame and indebtedness creates a self-hating Asian. When we hate ourselves for our looks and mannerisms, we let that hate spill over to how we treat others. Hong confesses she is guilty of this. At a Vietnamese nail salon once, she screamed at a teenage boy for pinching her toe too hard and for not addressing her with respect. Immediately afterwards, she regretted her actions. “I hoped the father would later punish him by withholding his paycheck. But the boy probably didn’t even get a paycheck.”

How many times have I inwardly sighed when I talked to a call center employee from India? How many times have I talked as if to a child when placing my order at an Asian restaurant? What did those employees do to deserve my disdain? They are probably working harder than I ever have, struggling to feed and clothe their families. 

“Minor” aggressions have pervaded nearly every facet of society. One prime example is Hollywood. Recently, I had the chance to meet Al’n Duong and Bao Tran, producer and director, respectively, of the 2020 martial arts comedy-drama, The Paper Tigers. The cast is almost entirely people of color (POC). It almost did not turn out that way. Duong shared his experience pitching the film to Hollywood executives. A studio offered them $4 million to replace the lead character, intended to be an Asian male, with a white actor instead. To add insult to the injury, the studio sent a mid-level Asian executive to sell them the whitewashing. Unfortunately, the move was not surprising, confessed Bao, but it will always be “disappointing.”

The final aspect of the Asian-American experience Hong discusses is our inability to vocalize our trauma. This handicap is not innate but instead forced upon us by our culture: “Speak[ing] of pain would not only retraumatize me but traumatize everyone I love… How many Asian women would then feel bold enough to report sexual assault in their cultures of secrecy and shame? Denial is always the salve…” Here, Hong calls attention to gender-based violence towards Asian-American women. The Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence reports that 21–55%of Asian women in the U.S. experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Why the large range? For one, as Hong explained above, most Asian women do not report attacks for fear of shame. Furthermore, violence against Asian women is almost never covered in the news. Only this past year after the Atlanta spa shootings, in which a 21-year old white man shot and killed eight women, six of whom were Asian, did national attention and discussion finally focus on violence towards Asian women. Should it really take eight deaths for those conversations to start?

I can also relate to the difficulty in speaking about personal trauma. Whenever I cried or complained as a child, my mother always chided me to 忍 ren: bear or endure. If I was bullied at school or disrespected by a cashier or scolded by my parents, I always told myself to ren. After all, hadn’t my parents and grandparents lived through much worse? As a result, I learned to internalize my emotions. Whatever I was struggling through was miniscule — inconsequential — compared to the struggles of my ancestors.

I saw the people around me struggle through pain as well. Oftentimes, their pain was much worse than mine. My friends struggled with their mental health, unsupported by parents who did not believe in mental health. My belief in ren shattered then. When is it too much to bear? Should we have to ren to the point where we are on the verge of physical harm, even death? When can we stop enforcing our toxic silence and secrecy? When can we stop downplaying the struggles of others?

The Asian-American experience is unique. Caught between two cultures, we learn to tightrope walk the boundary between the normal, white-defined, outside world and the traditional world our parents or grandparents still carry. This is not to blame our parents and ancestors for the culture we were born into. For the most part, they did their best to raise us the only way they knew how — the way they were raised. We Asian Americans —  the “model” minority, the forgotten minority — must “[emancipate] ourselves of our conditional existence,” argues Hong in her closing lines. We must not be scared to examine our past and to acknowledge our experiences. We should not be content to color within the lines society has drawn for us. We have been invisible for too long. If we want to be recognized, we must first recognize ourselves.