Learning in Being Lonely: On Jay Caspian Kang’s “The Loneliest Americans”

December 7, 2021   •   By Summer Kim Lee

The Loneliest Americans

Jay Caspian Kang

IN AN EPISODE of the podcast Time to Say Goodbye, which addresses Asian and Asian American politics, popular culture, and current events from a leftist perspective, co-creators Jay Caspian Kang, E. Tammy Kim, and Andrew Liu discuss the idea that perhaps “there’s no way to be Asian American in public.” As one of the hosts of the podcast, as well as a journalist who covers topics like the housing crisis in Los Angeles and standardized testing in schools, Kang critically takes on the tenuous position of being Asian American in public in his new book, The Loneliest Americans.

Kang’s book works through the impasse of “no way to be.” He examines the shifting social, cultural, and political stakes of the term “Asian American” up to the present moment, when the desires for recognition and inclusion promote abstract narratives of progress and entry into a “liberal, multicultural elite” that rarely if ever guarantee structural change. For Kang, the legibility of Asian Americans as political subjects, and the possibility of solidarity across lines of racial, ethnic, and class difference, have been constrained by an attachment to “Asian American” as an identitarian claim — which, for mainly second-generation, middle-class, East Asian American professionals, has become a site of, as Kang puts it, “[n]aked self-interest and narcissism.” Assumed to constitute a collective, shared minority position, the term erases what Kang describes as the “forgotten Asian America: the refugees, the undocumented, and the working class.”

Kang’s decision to focus mainly on this historically dominant group leaves him open to critiques of further forgetting the forgotten, of not acknowledging ongoing organizing efforts in working-class Asian and Asian American communities. This is key, however, to Kang’s approach in questioning the limits of being Asian American in public. The book is about Asian American public figures and what they come to represent within Asian America, in ways good and bad, including this liberal, multicultural elite to whom Kang admits to being in close proximity.

Although Kang does not deny his personal relationship to the stories he is telling, he does make clear, particularly in the book’s introduction where he talks about his family, that he is wary of how his biography might be weaponized to authenticate his point of view and elicit a reader’s sympathy. There is a reluctance to commit to memoir; he withholds an account of the self at the same time that he is compelled to tell it, since such an account is what brings him too close for comfort to his subject matter. This resistant push and pull within Kang’s autobiographical writing produces intriguing moments when discussions of the heterogeneity of Asian America comes up against the unsettling anxiety that there are perhaps only small differences (and some uneasy likenesses) between himself and those he writes about.

Some of Kang’s subjects are noted public figures, such as Tommy Huang, a Taiwanese immigrant known as “the Asian Donald Trump,” who developed properties in Queens in the 1970s that attracted Chinese immigrants and transformed the neighborhood. He also describes a Korean storeowner in Los Angeles named Richard Rhee, who was photographed on the roof of his store armed with a rifle to protect his business from looters during the 1992 L.A. riots, as well as the police officers Peter Liang, convicted in 2016 for the murder of Akai Gurley, and Tou Thao, currently awaiting trial for the murder of George Floyd. Other subjects are radicalized collectives, such as Asian American student groups at elite universities, who are aligned with conservative organizations against affirmative action; MRAzns (Men’s Rights Activists Azns) reading and posting on Reddit boards devoted to debates about Asian American male representation in Hollywood and the harassment of WMAFs (white-male-Asian-female couples); and Asian Americanist academics whom Kang sees as descendants of the student activists of the late 1960s.

The Loneliest Americans can be uncomfortable and frustrating to read when it makes personal and polemical statements that risk speaking on behalf of Asian Americans as a group, with himself included. The hesitation and doubt that Asian Americans might feel about the term under which they live is at times delivered, in Kang’s book, matter-of-factly, in a generalized fashion, as written on behalf of Asian America writ large. Yet, as Kang recognizes from the start, this sort of universalism is an impossibility. While Kang wants Asian Americans to acknowledge that the “loneliest” are those who share the same claims to the kind of belonging and affinity as the collective “we” of Asian America does, he also wrestles with the uneven, unfulfilled political desires Asian America strains to hold, asserting that “we” includes some company “we” cannot afford to ignore.

Kang’s book continuously interrogates the term “Asian American” as it slides back and forth between a minor political category of insurgent solidarity, emerging in social movements of the late 1960s, and a demographic category assigned to a population that has, in the 21st century, become larger and more heterogeneous across lines of ethnicity and class disparity. Kang claims that there is an internal split in Asian America, based on the different waves of Asian immigrants that came before and after the passing of the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which lifted previous restrictions on immigration from Asian countries, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Before 1965, Asian migrants were likely workers who were poor or working class, serving as cheap labor, but with the passing of Hart-Celler and its family reunification provisions, immigrants like Kang’s grandparents, parents, and Kang himself arrived in America with varying educational and class backgrounds, many of whom were white collar and upper middle class, and “with a very different set of abilities, ambitions, and visions for their life in this country.” He writes, “[A]lthough their new country did have pockets of people who looked like them, they shared almost nothing in common with their fellow ‘Asian Americans’ except some well-worn threads of culture, whether food or holiday rituals, and the assumptions of white people.” For Kang, the split in Asian America is not the problem — ignoring it is.

This split Asian America need not necessarily be put together, so much as refigured and redrawn into something we might not know the shape of yet. In his chapter “How We Got Here,” Kang tells of his parents’ immigration to the United States in 1979, the same year he was born in Seoul. As a 1.5-generation Korean American, he writes of his parents’ disconnect from definitions of Asian American identity rooted in the student movements of the late 1960s, and in the ’80s and ’90s, which had forged panethnic solidarity and political consciousness through shared histories of oppression such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment during World War II, and the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin. For those like Kang’s parents, however, who did not know about the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State in the late ’60s, the Asian American Political Alliance in Berkeley in 1968, or the community and tenant organizing at the I-Hotel in San Francisco the same year, an Asian American identity grounded in anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist struggles cannot be assumed.

To say that “there’s no way to be Asian American in public” is kind of a joke, one that I appreciate insofar as the earnestness of identity can at times feel too heavy and joyless a burden to bear, especially in front of other people. It also expresses a pervasive, familiar dissatisfaction with existing frameworks for narrating and understanding Asian American identity and experience. To say “there’s no way” does not mean there’s no use in trying. It does mean, however, that there is no way to give a singular, uncontestable account of oneself as Asian American in public, no correct narrative for how one comes into their Asian Americanness, and that some (our own relatives included) might not even want to arrive at the term in the first place. To not arrive at such an identitarian claim need not be a sign of political apathy; it can also signal that other terms, other kinds of language and narratives, are needed, other understandings of difference, structural inequality, and the political horizons of solidarity and affiliation. Kang’s book only gestures toward these other horizons, pointing out that, before we even get there, we have to contend with our own, who are, perhaps, not really our own after all.

For Kang, “loneliness” comes from trying, again and again, to make bids for recognition through access to capital and institutions of the liberal, multicultural elite sanctioned by and in proximity to whites. Yet loneliness also comes from recognizing the persistent feelings of shame, doubt, and alienation, which attend the sense that the identities we are expected to take on in public are ill suited, but irritatingly necessary in order to even be seen in public. Sometimes, these two versions of loneliness overlap. An efficacious politics is not always guaranteed and identity is, as we all know, messy. This does not mean that loneliness is always a symptom of internalized racism or self-hate. It might mean, instead, that one has no choice but to seek the company of others in a different way.

In his chapter on the student movements of the late ’60s titled “The Making of Asian America,” Kang recalls coming across flocks of Asian students on the Berkeley campus after moving there in 2020:

I feel comfortable in these spaces, but I don’t really understand the Asian kids who sit nearby. They, like all Berkeley students, wear lumpy Cal sweatshirts and mostly complain about schoolwork, but they also 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? 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.

This passage touches uneasily on the stereotypes of Asians as insular, inscrutable, and perpetually foreign. It rubs up against old anxieties involved in naming and defining an “authentic” Asian American culture, a project of which Kang remains suspicious to the extent that it is defined by the consumption of things like boba and Pokémon. At the same time, this passage does not claim to know anything about these students’ relationships to one another or their interior lives. It does not know what other cultures these students might share that Kang himself is not privy to. Instead, it describes and reflects the loneliness of watching from afar, across differences in age, education, upbringing, and social life that must somehow all be assumed as Asian American.

How can he feel more connected to them? The expectation that the answer be easy or obvious leads Kang to “dispassionate, compulsory, and almost abstract” thoughts, instead of thoughts about the students themselves. The ambivalent detachment of moments like these might be scrutinized as the reprimand of young Asian students. However, for others, who have felt compromised or shaky in their identity, loneliness comes with the search for what gets overlooked and left out when the political desire for legibility coheres around an identity that Kang, and the students he sees on campus, might not fit into, and perhaps, should not have to.

In this particular chapter, Kang takes issue with nostalgic attachments to the radicalism of the student movements that protested for Third World solidarity during the Vietnam War and fought for the establishment of ethnic studies departments, the hiring of faculty of color, and the implementation of more diverse curricula. He writes of the co-emergence of “Asian American” as an identitarian term and Asian American studies as a field, stating that often times, the latter benefits from the usage of the former. In light of this critique, some Asian Americanists and Kang might see their relationship as solely an antagonistic one. Importantly, though, there are Asian Americanists who share Kang’s line of questioning. It would be a mistake, then, for either to see one against the other, as if the other were an enemy or a threat. The inability to reach consensus around what constitutes “Asian America” as well as the liberal incorporation of minority difference into the university become a call for all parties to find another way of relating to this history that moves past idealization and into the harder, more urgent, question of what kinds of coalitions can be built with Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, not solely as and under the name “Asian American,” but under something else not defined by the sameness of a shared history, and, instead, by the imperative to fight for others with histories of oppression different from one’s own.

I would hope that Asian Americanist academics would want more public discussion about Asian American identity, politics, and culture beyond the reach of the university classroom. As an academic who came to Asian American studies somewhat belatedly — and in part due to the expectation that I teach what I am — I value its importance as a field from which I can critique that very expectation in the first place. Kang’s book shows how one might teach Asian American studies differently in the contemporary moment, on this side of 1965. It draws attention to the constraints of territorial, institutionalized modes of knowledge production alongside the tiresome diversity initiatives of the university, both of which foreclose other kinds of engagement, lines of inquiry, and objects of study. The question of whether or not “Asian American” “works,” politically and otherwise, is not an attack or dismissal of anyone’s personhood or a movement. It is a provocation that leads to other questions more than answers, questions which I ask my students about the limits of constructing one’s political subjecthood, identity, and solidarity with others through the belief that racial trauma, oppression, and injury must always be claimed and assumed to be shared in the same way and for the same ends.

“This book is about that desperate need to find oneself within the narrative of a country that would rather write you out of it,” Kang writes. “When I say Asians are the loneliest Americans […] 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 racial ‘identity.’” This reads like an indictment of the narratives we choose in order to get by. It also presents the challenge to grapple with the assimilative and derivative as flawed, existing forms of relating that our culture offers and with which we must contend. To be the loneliest Americans, then, is to necessarily seek out other kinds of affiliation in the meantime, for an uncertain future.

The book’s title comes from an article Kang wrote in 2017 for The New York Times Magazine on Michael Deng, a college freshman who was killed during a hazing ritual for an Asian American fraternity in the Northeast. The article connected the history of these fraternities to the political organizing of Asian students around affirmative action and protests in the wake of the murder of Vincent Chin. Revisiting the article, Kang writes in his book that Deng’s death was the result of a hazing ritual in which a pledge’s bond with his brothers required reenactments of historical moments of Asian and Asian American oppression. “Identity was forged through a history of violence that was taught to the pledges in informal classroom settings,” he writes. “The rituals were the physical manifestation of these new connections. A way to earn heritage through blood.” The Loneliest Americans seeks other methods for forging “new connections” — not through blood but through what there is to learn in being lonely.

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Summer Kim Lee is an assistant professor of English at UCLA.