Thursday, August 12, 2021

CBR13 #2: Minor Feelings By Cathy Park Hong

This will be a tough one to review. Cathy Park Hong's Minor Feelings wasn't just good – and it was unbelievably good. It was both recognizable – like a familiar friend who I just nodded along to as they spoke – and a revelation. She skillfully put into words a shade that has maybe always been super-imposed over my world view, feelings I never knew was nagging at me before. Her seven essays also covered so much ground that any review I write – and anything I've read by other outlets – will fall short what it felt like to just experience her writing.

I am what I'd call a biased reviewer. An unreliable narrator. My Asian-American-ness makes me someone already aligned with "identity politics", so how could I be counted on to give a full picture? 

It was hard for me to shake this feeling in the beginning as I started her first essay, "United". I kept thinking to myself, Do I identify with this because I'm Asian, or because it's so well-written? Both is the answer, but that nagging feeling could also be a way I was diminishing the value of my own perspective – something that Hong says Asians are well-acquainted with doing in the face of some classic American gas-lighting. 

And "United" is a doozy to start with. It covers a lot of ground, but it begins with a very frank assessment about her state of mind – her depression and how a Korean American therapist rejected taking her on as a patient. The therapist said they were not right for each other, and Hong flipped out. She essentially kept harassing her by phone, and attempted to leave her hateful reviews online.

There was a short prelude about a young Vietnamese teenager doing her nails, who kept clipping harder and harder on her toes despite her protests. She thought, "You should respect me like you're forced to respect those Iowan blond moms who come in here." By the end of the session, Hong was convinced that they were like "two negative ions repelling each other. He treated me badly because he hated himself. I treated him badly because I hated myself."

But what evidence do I have that he hated himself? Why did I think his shame skunked the salon? I am an unreliable narrator, hypervigilant to the point of being paranoid, imposing all my own insecurities on him... I was so privileged I was acquiring the most useless graduate degree imaginable. What did I know about being a Vietnamese teenage boy who spent all his free hours working at a nail salon? I knew nothing. 

I marvel at Hong’s honesty, her fearlessness at being seen as a terrible person. I don’t know how long it took to come to this point of self-awareness, where you’re willing to lay yourself out, filleted with all your ugly bits out, just so that you may be understood. 

Maybe part of that fearlessness comes from also no longer giving a fuck about how you’re perceived. Whether if readers think she was awful to that therapist or that Vietnamese teenager, the message it sent to me was this: Enough is enough. We are more than all the labels and things that saddle Asian Americans – a too-broad term but a rallying cry for unity nonetheless. And sometimes, what we are is just not pretty.

There's a lot of amazing literature about being Black in America, Hong said. But there really isn't that much self-examination by Asian Americans. Her seven essays, in short, attempts to tackle and parse out her feelings on being the model minority – or the minority that gets forgotten, the minority that "has it so good," the minority that's basically white-adjacent so they should be grateful.

She's also reluctant to use the plural "we". She is aware that the experiences of Asians in America are so vast and varied that it would be difficult for everyone's lived reality to be the same.

But the term “minor feelings” – which she explains in the incredible second essay “Stand Up” (which is also largely about Richard Pryor) – is very likely to feel familiar to any ethnic minority. Minor feelings come on when “American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.”

You are told, “Things are so much better” while you think, Things are the same. You are told, “Asian Americans are so successful,” while you feel like a failure. This optimism sets up false expectations that increase these feelings of dysphoria…. Minor feelings are also the emotions we are accused of having when we decided to be difficult – in other words, when we decide to be honest.

There’s so many infuriating encounters she has with white people, but I think the more poignant ones are when the good encounters go awry. Like when a white woman came up to her after a reading and said “I wish you’d read your poems… We need poems to heal.” Hong told her gently, "I'm not ready to heal."

I felt a tight knot in my chest when I read that. I think a lot about race issues – such an odd, throwaway term to use when I feel so much of my life, my place in the world and in journalism has been so shaped by this. My anger and disappointment is almost like a flame that grows with any small indignity I see around me, and ebbs as I get weary.

But it also warms me.

Forgive me for speaking abstractly, but I don’t know what "peace of mind" means when it comes to this. Reading Minor Feelings, I got the sense that this "peace” or “being healed” just does not exist. Maybe one "solution" is not to care so much, not to be “hypervigilant to the point of paranoid” – but then I don't know any other way to be, just as Hong has been shaped so much by her personal, family, and cultural history to be the type of writer that she is.

I have now written over a thousand words on this – most of them are hers. But there are two more things I would like to highlight. 

The first is one of my favorite essays of hers, “Education”, which was about her time in Oberlin. Her closest friends were Helen and Erin, both art geniuses who reveled in being better than all of their white classmates. The teachers loved them; their peers were terrified of them – it was a period of naked ambition and boundless creativity that was later stifled with the challenges of a Real World once they’ve left college. It’s also a really cutting examination on tumultuous female friendships, and about the necessary endings we sometimes need.

Her temperament was distinctly familial to me. She could be me, if I could unzip my skin and release all my fury. 

An amazing line – and they're everywhere throughout Minor Feelings, showcasing Hong's training as a poet. I look forward to seeing “Education” as a big-screen movie one day.

The second is her final essay "The Indebted", which serves as a reminder for why she's here to do what she's doing in case you got lost in some of the more academic writing. It deals with the idea of how “they’re everywhere now” – Asians sneaking into communities rich and poor, in political circles and in CEO boardrooms. Decades ago, Asian Americans soldiers were among those in Vietnam, confusing the Vietnamese who shared rice with them; and they were the ones held in internment camps after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Marrying history with the demand for “gratitude” often yelled by right-wing pundits – “If you don’t like it here, then go back to where you came from” – she highlights the absurdity that Americans fails to understand: the connection between “here” to “there.”

Or as activists used to say “I am here because you were there”… I am here because you vivisected my ancestral country in two… My ancestral country is just one small example of the millions of lives and resources you have sucked from the Philippines, Cambodia, Honduras, Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, El Salvador and many, many other nations through your forever wars and transnational capitalism that have mostly enriched shareholders in the States. Don’t talk to me about gratitude. 

But make no mistake, Minor Feelings wasn’t just born so that Asian Americans can hear themselves reverberated and acknowledged – though that too exists, of course. Writing this must have taken an enormous amount of self-awareness and emotional labor by Hong. She left me with a sense of admonishment. How have we become so willing to be recruited to be the "junior partners in genocidal wars"? How have we allowed whiteness to conscript us to be anti-black and colorist? To prosper in a system that hates us and demands for our invisibility is not a win.

Conscription is every day and unconscious. It is the default way of life among those of us who live in relative comfort, unless we make an effort to choose otherwise.

So here I am, sitting in Bangkok, a Singaporean-American working as a foreign correspondent – a concept that is very much steeped in colonialistic ideals – bathed with both that rallying sense of indignation, and also feeling really called out. What have I done recently, in any meaningful sense, to further the cause of anti-racism? I used to say that my existence at the table is an act of revolution in and of itself. My presence can serve as a challenge, a rebuke to those who otherwise would say awful things outloud about Asians (and believe me, I’ve heard a lot, even among liberal circles).

I do still very much believe in that. But it also means that what Hong says is true – my temporary seat at that table is not really one of belonging. “If the Asian American consciousness must be emancipated, we must free ourselves of our conditional existence,” she says.

I don’t know what this will look like for me, but I’m grateful to have a writer as amazing and exact as Hong to grab me by the shoulders. I needed a good shaking, a rattling to my senses.

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