Hong 2020

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Hong, Cathy Park. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. New York: On World, 2020.


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To recite my poems to an audience is to be slapped awake by my limitations. I confront the infinite chasm between the audience’s conception of Poet and the underwhelming evidence of me as that poet. I just don’t look the part. Asians lack presence. Asians take up apologetic space. We don’t even have enough presence to be considered real minorities. We’re not racial enough to be token. We’re so post-racial we’re silicon. I recited my poems in the kazoo that is my voice. After my reading, everyone rushed for the exit.

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For as long as I could remember, I have struggled to prove myself into existence. I, the modern-day scrivener, working five times as hard as others and still I saw my hand dissolve, then my arm. Often at night, I flinched awake and berated myself until dawn’s shiv of light pierced my eyes. My confidence was impoverished from a lifelong diet of conditional love and a society who thinks I’m as interchangeable as lint.

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In the popular imagination, Asian Americans inhabit a vague purgatorial status: not white enough nor black enough; distrusted by African Americans, ignored by whites, unless we’re being used by whites to keep the black man down. We are the carpenter ants of the service industry, the apparatchiks of the corporate world. We are math-crunching middle managers who keep the corporate wheels greased but who never get promoted since we don’t have the right “face” for leadership. We have a content problem. They think we have no inner resources. But while I may look impassive, I am frantically paddling my feet underwater, always overcompensating to

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hide my devouring feelings of inadequacy.

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Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death.

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Back then, only select professionals from Asia were granted visas to the United States: doctors, engineers, and mechanics. This screening process, by the way, is how the whole model minority quackery began: the U.S. government only allowed the most educated and highly trained Asians in and then took all the credit for their success.

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It’s a unique condition that’s distinctly Asian, in that some of us are economically doing better than any other minority group but we barely exist anywhere in the public eye.

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When America welcomed “the degraded race” back in 1965, it was because they were enmeshed in an ideological pissing contest with the Soviet Union. The United States had a PR problem. If they were going to stamp out the tide of Communism in poor non-Western countries, they had to reboot their racist Jim Crow image and prove that their democracy was superior. The solution was allowing nonwhites into their country to see for themselves. During this period the model minority myth was popularized to keep Communists—and black people—in check. Asian American success was circulated to promote capitalism and to undermine the credibility of black civil rights: we were the “good” ones

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since we were undemanding, diligent, and never asked for handouts from the government. There’s no discrimination, they assured us, as long as you’re compliant and hardworking.

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Whatever power struggle your nation had with other Asian nations—most of it the fallout of Western imperialism and the Cold War—is steamrolled flat by Americans who don’t know the difference.

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The privilege of assimilation is that you are left alone. But assimilation must not be mistaken for power, because once you have acquired power, you are exposed, and your model minority qualifications that helped you in the past can be used against you, since you are no longer invisible.

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When I hear the phrase “Asians are next in line to be white,” I replace the word “white” with “disappear.” Asians are next in line to disappear. We are reputed to be so accomplished, and so law-abiding, we will disappear into this country’s amnesiac fog. We will not be

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the power but become absorbed by power, not share the power of whites but be stooges to a white ideology that exploited our ancestors. This country insists that our racial identity is beside the point, that it has nothing to do with being bullied, or passed over for promotion, or cut off every time we talk. Our race has nothing to do with this country, even, which is why we’re often listed as “Other” in polls and why we’re hard to find in racial breakdowns on reported rape or workplace discrimination or domestic abuse.

Stand Up

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Watching Pryor, I realized that I was still writing to that institution. It’s a hard habit to kick. I’ve been raised and educated to please white people and this desire to please has become ingrained into my consciousness. Even to declare that I’m writing for myself would still mean I’m writing to a part of me that wants to please white people. I didn’t know how to escape it.

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I was experimenting, searching for a structure that pierced through the respectability politics that fogged the literary community at the time. Writers of color had to behave better in their poetry and in person; they had to always act gracious and grateful so that white people would be comfortable enough to sympathize

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with their racialized experiences. I never forgot hearing one award-winning poet of color say during a Q& A, “If you want to write about race, you have to do it politely, because then, people will listen.”

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The ethnic literary project has always been a humanist project in which nonwhite writers must prove they are human beings who feel pain. Will there be a future where I, on the page, am simply I, on the page, and not I, proxy for a whole ethnicity, imploring you to believe we are human beings who feel pain?

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In Pryor, I saw someone channel what I call minor feelings: the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.

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Minor feelings are not often featured in contemporary American literature because these emotions do not conform to the archetypal narrative that highlights survival and self-determination.

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Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.

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Minor feelings are also the emotions we are accused of having when we decide to be difficult—in other words, when we decide to be honest. When minor feelings are finally externalized, they are interpreted as hostile, ungrateful, jealous, depressing, and belligerent, affects ascribed to racialized behavior that whites consider out of line. Our feelings are overreactions because our lived experiences of structural inequity are not commensurate with their deluded reality.

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Writing about race is a polemic, in that we must confront the white capitalist infrastructure that has erased us, but also a lyric, in that our inner consciousness is knotted with contradictions.

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To truthfully write about race, I almost have to write against narrative because the racialized mind is, as Frantz Fanon wrote, an “infernal circle.”

The End of White Innocence

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There should be a word for this neurological sensation, this uncanny weightlessness, where a universally beloved ritual tricks your synapses to fire back to the past, but finding no reserve of memories, your mind gropes dumbly, like the feelers of a mollusk groping the empty ocean floor.

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Rather than look back on childhood, I always looked sideways at childhood.

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But for myself, it is more accurate to say that I looked sideways at childhood. Even now, when I look back, the girl hides from my gaze, deflecting my memories to the flickering shadow play of her fantasies.

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Innocence is both a privilege and a cognitive handicap, a sheltered unknowingness that, once protracted into adulthood, hardens into entitlement.

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One characteristic of racism is that children are treated like adults and adults are treated like children. Watching a parent being debased like a child is the deepest shame.

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To grow up Asian in America is to witness the humiliation of authority figures like your parents and to learn not to depend on them: they cannot protect you.

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The lie that Asians have it good is so insidious that even now as I write, I’m shadowed by doubt that I didn’t have it bad compared to others. But racial trauma is not a competitive sport.

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The white reign of terror can be invisible and cumulative, chipping away at one’s worth until there’s nothing left but self-loathing.

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Suddenly Americans feel self-conscious of their white identity and this self-consciousness misleads them into thinking their identity is under threat. In feeling wrong, they feel wronged. In being asked to be made aware of racial oppression, they feel oppressed.

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As a writer, I am determined to help overturn the solipsism of white innocence so that our national consciousness will closer resemble the minds of children like that Iranian American boy. His is an unprotected consciousness that already knows, even before literacy, the violence this nation is capable of, and it is this knowingness that must eclipse the white imaginary, as his consciousness, haunted by history, will one day hold the majority.

Bad English

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We must make right this unequal distribution but we must do so without forgetting the immeasurable value of cultural exchange in what Hyde calls the gift economy. In reacting against the market economy, we have internalized market logic where culture is hoarded as if it’s a product that will depreciate in value if shared with others; where instead of decolonizing English, we are carving up English into hostile nation-states. The soul of innovation thrives on cross-cultural inspiration. If we are restricted to our lanes, culture will die.

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how can I write about us living together when there isn’t too much precedent for it? Can I write about it without resorting to some facile vision of multicultural oneness or the sterilizing language of virtue signaling? Can I write honestly?

An Education

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Transgressive bad-boy art is, in fact, the most risk-averse, an endless loop of warmed-over stunts for an audience of one: the banker collector.

The Indebted

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If the indebted Asian immigrant thinks they owe their life to America, the child thinks they owe their livelihood to their parents for their suffering. The indebted Asian American is therefore the ideal neoliberal subject.

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A fascinating little-known fact about the Korean War is that an American surgeon, David Ralph Millard, stationed there to treat burn victims, invented a double-eyelid surgical procedure to make Asian eyes look Western, which he ended up testing on Korean sex workers so they could be more attractive to GIs. Now, it’s the most popular surgical procedure for women in South Korea.

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As the scholar Seo-Young Chu puts it, I was exiled back to the uncanny valley, where I was returned to my silicon mold

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and looked out of monolid eyes. To be a writer, then, is to fill myself in with content.

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Our respective racial containment isolates us from each other, enforcing our thoughts that our struggles are too specialized, unrelatable to anyone else except others in our group, which is why making myself, and by proxy other Asian Americans, more human is not enough for me. I want to destroy the universal. I want to rip it down. It is not whiteness but our contained condition that is universal, because we are the global majority. By we I mean nonwhites, the formerly colonized; survivors, such as Native Americans, whose ancestors have already lived through end times; migrants and refugees living through end times currently, fleeing the droughts and floods and gang violence reaped by climate change that’s been brought on by Western empire.