A Bonus Good Read while Sheltering in Place
KABLAMMO! A Mini-Review/Reflection on Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, a collection of essays by poet and Korean American Cathy Park Hong
Written by Jenny Fan, MFA
Manager, Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion (IMTFI)
UCI School of Social Sciences
I finished this review as we enter week 8 of the shelter-in-place order imposed by Governor Newsom for the state of California. It’s the time of coronavirus, and the pandemic is disrupting world systems of food, healthcare, economics, education, and politics—and we as a nation, as individuals, and members of humanity are being forced to confront ourselves: sequestered at home. As the disparate impacts of COVID-19 for Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and certain AAPIs (see the COVID Racial Data Tracker) are being made known, along with an uptick of anti-Asian hate crimes, the publication of Cathy Park Hong’s new book, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning could not be better-timed.
On April 17 (week 5 of shelter-in-place), I posted to my Facebook page: “Just finished Cathy Park Hong's Minor Feelings last night--it made my brain go: KABLAMMO! It was so good.
After seeing that post, a friend of mine asked me if I would be able to write about why I liked the book, why it deserved a Kablammo and double blow-your-brains-out emoji, and I was like, nah—isn’t my visceral reaction in the world and shout out enough? But I knew I had to go back and take this on because this is what Cathy Park Hong is asking each of us to do—to take a good look at ourselves.
She does this by looking at herself first, a bold, risky, and powerful move, one of many that continues throughout this collection of seven essays, each individual, yet connected personal think pieces/musings on race, identity, and craft. Hong literally begins the book by looking at her reflection in a mirror and trying to find the “imaginary tic” that’s been the cause of her depression. She lays out a ruthless, relentless self-interrogation of her Asian self—who she is, her history, her art, her place, and therefore our place--in relation to the racist “capitalist white supremacist hierarchy” of our country. By taking a hard close look at herself, she invites the reader to do the same.
Hong is not afraid to admit to her minor feelings. What are minor feelings? Hong defines them as, “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. Minor feelings arise, for instance, upon hearing a slight, knowing it’s racial, and being told, Oh, that’s all in your head.” Her frank honesty is eye-popping and fully intentional. Each time she makes a confession—whether it’s about her own fallibility or self-loathing; her own internalized condescension towards herself or other Asians, her own desire for white approval, her shame over the antiblackness in the Korean community during the 1992 LA riots and “for belonging to a group who have been given advantages over black and brown people”—it gives me a moment to pause and reflect, confirm or deny, and question and assess my own minor feelings.
There is a myth that assimilation affords a kind of protection against racism and hate. Some of my Asian friends say they don’t experience racism. To them I ask: have you ever considered that you have made yourself so invisible to the people in your surroundings that they don’t even see you anymore, because you have come to look so much like them? Assimilation makes you recede into the background, so much so that you begin to dissolve under their gaze—you’re seen as the Good Working Asian, but you also may be seen as the cause and source of the pandemic. Invisibility is not a new theory or concept. It’s a slow strangulation—that makes you want to disappear, making your children want to disappear—because minor feelings can be passed down generation after generation. I know this because I’ve experienced it. One ingests and absorbs the dominant culture so that it lives inside, so one can only know oneself as the other, severing the self. Hong consistently describes these kinds of minor feelings succinctly through her point-of-view, “The most damaging legacy of the West has been its power to decide who our enemies are, turning us not only against our own people, like North and South Korea, but turning me against myself.” I was raised well—no matter what was roiling on the inside, I had to make it appear everything was just fine and work harder, better, and of course, it was never enough. Women of color get the double whammy, inheriting the gender roles on both sides of the cultural divide.
My parents immigrated from Taiwan in 1968 after the 1965 Immigration Act. Whenever people ask me where I come from, I always say, “I was born in Baltimore” or “I live in Irvine”, I always eventually relent and say, “My parents come from Taiwan, but…we’re not Taiwanese. We’re Hakka.” And then, depending on my audience, I explain how Hakka translates as “Guest People”, and how we’re a wandering minority tribe that roamed China and migrated not only to Taiwan but also to North and South America, Mauritius, the Caribbean, India—looking for a resting place, poor as can be, hardy workers. The Hakka are the frugal gypsies of Asia and when they arrived in Taiwan, they took to the hills to live, where land was less fertile and less desired. Hakka women did not bind their feet, instead working alongside the men. The running joke was that a pregnant Hakka woman could work out in the rice paddies all day, go home for lunch, have her baby, and go back to fields without anyone even noticing. My family, the Fan-Chiang clan, has been in Taiwan for 18 generations. But here, in the United States, I am seen as Chinese, Asian, Other.
My own face has been mistaken for another Asian face so many times in my life that I’ve been honestly convinced that I have the features of the Asian Everywoman. “Oh sorry, that’s not me,” I say, “I’m not that person” or “I’m not so and so’s [some other Asian child’s] Mom.” Sometimes I’m tired, at times it’s just not worth my time to say anything. My favorite is when they insist that I am the person that I’m not. Even after having lived, worked, and parented for the last 20 years amongst the plethora of Asians in Orange County, I can assure those mom-friends, relatives, co-workers, Asians and whites alike, that we are not post-racial, no matter how many times I’ve had to hear it (mostly pre-coronavirus). The surge of anti-Asian racism should not be surprising, as it has been bubbling at the surface since, forever). The hate exists, it’s been here in Orange County since the 1920s and it’s an integral part of our nation’s history, built into all of our institutional infrastructures. The hate was there the day after the 2016 election, when a cross was erected in the front yard of a friend’s parents, an interracial couple living in Aliso Viejo and the current climate has only emboldened the next generation of hidden haters. A man wore a KKK hood in a grocery store just this week, one hour south of us in San Diego County. The stories and list of coronavirus-related hate crimes against Asians grows across the country—a mentally ill Asian homeless man with no physical ailments turned away from an OC hospital, an Asian PhD student at Harvard being spat upon in the street, a NYC man tried to forcibly remove an Asian nurse from the subway—and racist incidents towards our other communities of color continue to come out, one after another, with community members being stopped for going to the library while black, tackled for picking up a transcript while black, and killed for running while black.
What are the remedies for invisibility? Speaking up, naming things and detailing and affirming lived experiences—Hong does all this while deftly exploring the interwoven themes of shame, silence, and invisibility. She’s deliberate about what she shares and doesn’t share—and is respectful of the boundaries of storytelling that set aside some subjects (like her mother) for another time or her friend’s family tragedy, which remains untold. Throughout the collection, Hong traces and pays homage to her friendships with other Asian women, her models, and mentors; she claims and pays tribute to her literary/artistic lineage: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Myung Mi Kim, and herself, Cathy Park Hong. By mapping and detailing her own path, she marks her own way of being in this world. An anthropologist mom friend of mine to whom I was talking through the KABLAMMO effect said, “to give yourself a genealogy, from an anthropological point of view, is very significant…It’s about casting off that shame and [by] giving herself a history and contextualizing where her gifts come from [, Cathy Park Hong] destabilizes the master narrative.”
Yes, yes, and yes—ALL mentioned above are true, significant, and striking but the KABLAMMO piece for me arrives towards the end of the book, in Portrait of An Artist, where Cathy Park Hong excavates the indisputable silences around artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s gruesome rape and homicide in 1982. She was working on a review of Cha decades after her death and was curious why no one had written about it. “There was no news coverage except for a brief obituary in The Village Voice. This lack of coverage, I suspect, is because she was—as the police described her—'an Oriental Jane Doe.’” Cathy Park Hong queries and probes and receives the following answers from both the Asian and white community: “They probably don’t want to retraumatize the family,”; they didn’t want to sensationalize; they didn’t want to mention it out of respect to the family; “she was just another Asian woman. If she were a young white artist from the Upper West Side, it would have been all over the news”; the lack of news coverage was unusual enough for the New York prosecutor to bring it up when Hong spoke with him and even he had no clue, responding that he “just didn’t know”.
It’s a profound impact, all these silences and no one can put their finger on it. All the things that are erased, not told, not spoken, cut off, not having had a chance. And trying to figure it out, with Cathy Park Hong, is like watching oneself get extinguished at each turn with her where she faces that wall of silence. But as we journey with her, through her long and careful investigation, there is a resurrection that happens, with words. KABLAMMO.
To that security guard, Theresa Cha was just another “Oriental Jane Doe.” An Asian with no name, no face—she is invisible and objectified, Hong writes, “From invisible girlhood, the Asian American woman will blossom into a fetish object. When she is at last visible—at last desired—she realizes much to her chagrin that this desire for her is treated like a perversion.” She reveals that by not speaking up, we perpetuate the illusion of our own anonymity, that we are in agreement with society’s faulty projections. The silences surrounding Theresa Cha’s assault and killing are nestled within an even larger frame of missing and murdered women of color, especially in indigenous communities.
As we enter this new world in the age of coronavirus and witness all the weaknesses in our systems being laid bare and tested. Artifice is being stripped away as we move into a two-dimensional world—leaders, workers, and families alike—peering into each other’s lives from one Zoom meeting to another, the hate continues and is amplified through these virtual platforms that enter directly into our homes. It’s more important now than ever to understand our histories and combat our own racism so that we can form alliances across our differences and transcend them. Asians are comprised of multitudinous identities and histories, as are the other made categories, Latinx, African Americans, Native Peoples. “Anti-Asian racism is what brings us [Asians] together, and we must combat it by talking about it,” says Viet Than Nguyen in the recent Digital Town Hall – Asian Americans in the Time of Covid-19, “it is not enough to be against anti-Asian racism, we must demand justice for others.”
Cathy Park Hong’s own open and honest reckoning provides tools and offers up an example for all of us to look to and examine our own positions, calling for us to say something, do something, and break those silences. We are all still learning, and can do it together, if we allow ourselves. There is so much that is possible we can’t know yet, germinating in the midst. Crack open Minor Feelings, it’s an important addition to the growing canon of anti-racist literature and expands the Asian American consciousness.
Updated May 31, 2020
Two weeks have passed since the completion of this review, and protests and riots have erupted across the country over George Floyd’s killing on May 25th. The country is witnessing a stark unveiling of what’s been there, all this time. The business of our unresolved history continues its return.
“The future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country," said James Baldwin (1963). "It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives - it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face and deal with and embrace this stranger whom they relied on so long."
#AhmaudArbery 25 years (Feb 23) – Brunswick, Georgia
#BreonnaTaylor 26 years (March 13) – Louisville, Kentucky
#DreasjonReed 21 years (May 6) – Indianapolis, Indiana
#GeorgeFloyd 46 years (May 25) – Minneapolis, Minnesota
#TonyMcDade 38 years (May 27) – Tallahassee, Florida
Join UCI this Wednesday, 12pmPST: 'Yonder they do not love your flesh': Mourning, Anti-Blackness, and Claiming All of Us. Register for Zoom Link: bit.ly/MourningAntiBlackness.
Also this Wednesday, from the African American Policy Forum, June 3, 5pmPST/8pmEST - Part Ten: SOS Emergency Episode of “Under the Blacklight: The Fire this Time” as part of the Intersectional Vulnerabilities COVID Lays Bare series. Register for Episode 10: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_6dsJtmcaQdid4ZGjZjiyeg