Review

‘The Loneliest Americans’ Asks What Being Asian American Really Means

Jay Caspian Kang turns a sharp eye on conventional narratives of identity.

By , a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute.
Activists attend a rally for the protection of Asian communities at McPherson Square in Washington, D.C., on March 21.
Activists attend a rally for the protection of Asian communities at McPherson Square in Washington, D.C., on March 21. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Following the Atlanta spa shootings in March that claimed eight lives, including six women of Asian descent, a torrent of op-eds tried to make sense of the tragedy. Asian American thinkers aired out all kinds of different ways in which they faced racist discrimination. Historians traced anti-Asian violence in the United States back 150 years, recounting the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment, and the killing of Vincent Chin, among others. Foreign-policy experts spoke of the impact of the United States’ strategic competition with China on Asian Americans. Several Asian American writers noted that the police mangled the names of the Asian victims in the attacks.

Shocked by the shootings, I read those accounts with great interest. But after a couple of months, frustration began to set in. I, like many, thought this tragedy would galvanize Asian Americans into having deeper conversations about what we could do about the anti-Asian violence that has been raging since early 2020. Instead, the conversation was stuck in a loop, retelling the same stories that did not directly address the victims of violence: the history of Asian America made up of dots rather than lines, white people messing up Asian names, the lack of Asian faces in Hollywood movies, and the discrimination faced by the types of Asian Americans who can get op-ed spaces in major publications. Save for a handful of notable exceptions, in-depth discussions on the Asian Americans who were the most exposed to violence—older people, urban poor, first-generation immigrant women like the ones who were killed in Atlanta—were few and far in between.

At the time, I could not put a finger on the source of my frustration. The clarifying moment came as I was listening to the May 4 episode of Time to Say Goodbye, a podcast hosted by Jay Caspian Kang, along with the journalist E. Tammy Kim and the historian Andy Liu. In that episode, Kang debated with the sociologist Tamara K. Nopper on whether “Asian American” exists as a political identity.

Following the Atlanta spa shootings in March that claimed eight lives, including six women of Asian descent, a torrent of op-eds tried to make sense of the tragedy. Asian American thinkers aired out all kinds of different ways in which they faced racist discrimination. Historians traced anti-Asian violence in the United States back 150 years, recounting the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment, and the killing of Vincent Chin, among others. Foreign-policy experts spoke of the impact of the United States’ strategic competition with China on Asian Americans. Several Asian American writers noted that the police mangled the names of the Asian victims in the attacks.

Shocked by the shootings, I read those accounts with great interest. But after a couple of months, frustration began to set in. I, like many, thought this tragedy would galvanize Asian Americans into having deeper conversations about what we could do about the anti-Asian violence that has been raging since early 2020. Instead, the conversation was stuck in a loop, retelling the same stories that did not directly address the victims of violence: the history of Asian America made up of dots rather than lines, white people messing up Asian names, the lack of Asian faces in Hollywood movies, and the discrimination faced by the types of Asian Americans who can get op-ed spaces in major publications. Save for a handful of notable exceptions, in-depth discussions on the Asian Americans who were the most exposed to violence—older people, urban poor, first-generation immigrant women like the ones who were killed in Atlanta—were few and far in between.

The Loneliest Americans, Jay Caspian Kang, Crown, 272 pp., , October 2021

The Loneliest Americans, Jay Caspian Kang, Crown, 272 pp., $27, October 2021

At the time, I could not put a finger on the source of my frustration. The clarifying moment came as I was listening to the May 4 episode of Time to Say Goodbye, a podcast hosted by Jay Caspian Kang, along with the journalist E. Tammy Kim and the historian Andy Liu. In that episode, Kang debated with the sociologist Tamara K. Nopper on whether “Asian American” exists as a political identity.

Kang’s stance was that it does not. He observed how much of the Asian American discourse about the Atlanta shootings was not about the attacks themselves but about “interpersonal microaggressions.” Kang found this “wildly disrespectful” to the victims: “It supposes, essentially, that the reason why these people got killed, or why they were in this vulnerable position, is exactly the same thing that made it so that your co-worker thought that you were the other Asian person. Which is crazy! That is the way Asian American identity functions right now.”

Kang’s latest book, The Loneliest Americans, is a book-length exposition of this disconnect. The title of the book comes from Kang’s 2017 article in the New York Times Magazine about a death in an Asian American fraternity. Michael Deng, a freshman at Baruch College, was killed in a hazing ritual called “the Gauntlet,” in which the pledge was assaulted and racially insulted by his prospective fraternity brothers after being subject to a belly crawl intended to recall the Bataan Death March. As fraternity rituals tend to be, the Gauntlet was as silly as it was brutal—a shallow attempt to manufacture solidarity by stitching together far-flung and disconnected events, as if a World War II crime committed by the Imperial Japanese Army against American and Filipino prisoners of war held any relevance to Chinese American college students in New York today.

By connecting the article to the book, Kang turns the camera from the fraternity death to Asian Americans as a whole, implicitly suggesting that wider attempts to construct an Asian American identity are just as flimsy as the Gauntlet. Part reportage and part autobiography, Kang takes us to various places in time that could potentially serve as a source of Asian American identity: Berkeley, California, in the 1960s, when the term “Asian American” was coined; Asian enclaves such as Koreatown in Los Angeles and Flushing, Queens; and online forums, such as Reddit, where Asian Americans might congregate.

At each location, Kang sees the same issue: Any attempt at a unifying, nation-building narrative for Asian Americans, however well intended and earnest, falls apart at the slightest touch. The history of immigration fails to unify because Asian immigration before and after the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which opened up a route to the United States for highly skilled labor, is dramatically different. The Asian American legacy of the radical ’60s means nothing to most Asians who came to America afterward. Asian enclaves originally sprouted in low-income areas, but when more educated and wealthy immigrants moved there after 1965, they never found solidarity with the people already living there. Online, the attempt to forge an Asian American identity is either superficial (based on a shared love of boba milk tea, for example) or toxic, as with the self-proclaimed Asian men’s rights activists who attack Asian women dating white men.

By inserting himself in this argument, Kang displays tremendous honesty and courage. There’s a familiar narrative in Asian American accounts, stories of immigration that begin with a challenge and end with a triumph—in other words, the same platitudinal stories that were told after the Atlanta shootings. Kang points out the many flaws in these stories, starting with the story that he could write about himself.

“On the day my mother was born, the skies over the 38th parallel lit up red,” Kang offers with mock grandiosity, pointing out the disingenuousness in the way that second-generation Asian Americans appropriate the historical experience of their parents. Also disingenuous is the way some Asian Americans deliberately blur their personal history to project an image of struggle. An Asian American men’s rights activist whom Kang interviewed “makes a lot out of his midwestern roots but generally does not name Ann Arbor … choosing instead to let the implications of the region tell a vague story in the same way I used my childhood in ‘the South’ [in Chapel Hill, North Carolina] as proof, or at least probabilistic cause, that I might know about racism.” (Ann Arbor, in Michigan, and Chapel Hill, I should explain for those unfamiliar, are prosperous college towns whose socioeconomic reality is a long way from their surrounding regions.)

While effective and genuine, the autobiographical presentation of Kang’s book is also limiting. Because Kang, a Korean American, focuses on his own journey, a book that is supposed to be a commentary on Asian Americans ends up being mostly about Korean Americans, with some detours involving Taiwanese Americans in Flushing and the Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis.

This narrowness of scope is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Koreans are arguably the most internally diverse ethnicity among Asian Americans when it comes to class, wealth, and the routes they took to the United States. The contrast between immigrant groups as diverse as Indian doctors and Laotian refugees is often used to illustrate the two economic poles among Asian Americans, but Korean Americans are everywhere on the spectrum, as Kang’s own family illustrates: Among the four of his mother’s siblings who settled in the United States, two were nurses, and two were cooks. Kang’s thesis—that the term “Asian American” is inadequate to cover the range that it aspires to—would have been made stronger if he ventured further outside of his own life, looking at, for example, how South Asians relate or do not relate to the Asian American discourse in which East Asians such as Koreans and Chinese often feature more prominently.

The autobiographical telling also leaves the reader wondering the extent to which the Asian American experience is unique. We may be lonely, but are we the loneliest? How much of the Asian American experience is the same lonely journey taken by other immigrants who came to America before? Kang briefly touches on Irish and Jewish immigration histories by drawing from Noel Ignatiev and his seminal book How the Irish Became White, but he does not explore the parallels very deeply. This is a missed opportunity for a rich source of discussion, especially when Jewish immigration history also features a collection of hugely disparate streams of migration, a nation-building narrative centered on historical trauma that may or may not be individually applicable to current-day Jewish Americans, and anxiety arising from the sense of not quite fitting in, as displayed in Philip Roth’s novels and Woody Allen’s movies. Asian Americans may be lonely, but America has always been a place where everyone is lonely together.

Similarly, if Kang leaned more strongly into the theme of class (as he did in his podcast) and explored the economic stratification among other ethnic groups, he might have unlocked even more parallels. In his book, Kang posits that only two racial identities exist in the United States in a solid form—white and Black—and Asian Americans uneasily navigate between the two. Yet even among Black Americans, there is a lively debate on whether Black political leaders, such as Hakeem Jeffries and even Barack Obama, who graduated from Ivy League colleges or began their careers at New York investment banks can truly represent their community.

To be sure, none of this detracts from The Loneliest Americans, which is an essential read. We were promised an “Asian American moment” after the Atlanta shootings, but all we got was an incoherent discourse about Asian names and a Marvel superhero movie packed with Asian American actors, while little attention is given to the suffering of the poorest and most vulnerable—like the impoverished Asian immigrants living in basements who made up the vast majority of New York’s flood victims during Hurricane Ida. Through his book, Kang provides a clear-eyed explanation of how we got here.

S. Nathan Park is a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute.

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