Written by Pai
Graphic by Emma Li
The summer before my senior year of high school, I was standing on the practice field for a marching band rehearsal when I saw a couple of band members clustered together, laughing and pointing at a parent standing in the parking lot. I realized the person they were directing this towards was my own mother, who was there to pick me up from rehearsal. I heard a few snide whispers about “Asians” in between their laughter at a Chinese person doing nothing but standing in a parking lot.
The leader of this group was a white boy in my friend group named Ken,* whom I had often heard make racist “jokes” before. Later that night I decided to message Ken, telling him I overheard his degrading jokes at band practice. I told him that I supposed he was no different than the rest of our high school classmates. Ken did not address my accusations but instead attacked me for saying that he’s no different than the rest of our peers, telling me that comment was deeply offensive to him. I was so afraid he would turn our friend group against me that I ended up profusely apologizing for apparently offending him, leaving the racism issue completely unaddressed.
I think back to this incident often and was reminded of it when I read Korean American author Cathy Park Hong’s “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning.” “Minor Feelings” is a collection of essays, dealing with various themes in her life such as racial identity, art, and family. Hong attributes the term “minor feelings” to critical theorist Sianne Ngai, who wrote about “ugly feelings” in 2005. Minor feelings, Hong writes, “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….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.”
The essay that resonated with me the most was “The End of White Innocence.” Hong recalls an incident where her elderly Korean grandmother greeted a few white children playing in a cul-de-sac; these white children proceeded to mock her accent and one girl kicked Hong’s grandmother to the ground while the rest of the white children stood and laughed. Reading this passage felt like being splashed with ice water. I began to re-experience every instance where white adults have turned on their “talking-to-children” voice when speaking to my parents or where my friends have called my parents “so cute.”
Hong writes “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. I cannot count the number of times I have seen my parents condescended to or mocked by white adults.” In mainstream Asian American “discourse” (whatever that is), we often talk about the former, as seen through endless memes detailing young Asian American children translating government documents or utility bills for their non-English speaking parents. The latter however, is almost never talked about, whether because of a lack of racial reckoning in the diaspora community or because it’s too painful to talk about openly. Perhaps we share stories of the former because they can be packaged in a funny, inoffensive way to a white audience because there is no aggressor in that situation. There’s no way to sanitize the latter, not for other Asian Americans but especially not for a white audience either.
Towards the end of the essay, Hong discusses the concept of the “grateful” immigrant. Being a demographic that is largely recent to this country, mainstream Asian American “discourse” (again, whatever that is), has not examined the causes of why many of our families immigrated. Hong writes about “our shared history that extends beyond this nation, to our countries of origin, where our lineage has been decimated by Western imperialism, war, and dictatorships orchestrated or supported by the United States.” A shared history of imperial violence is a crucial aspect of Asian immigrant dynamics that gets drowned out by the tropes of “piano lessons,” "my parents came to this country with nothing and worked hard,” and “actually I was born here.” We are confined to endless mindless debate on whether Disney movies and chopsticks as hair accessories are the biggest threats to Asian Americans’ self-actualization when our own motherland family members are at risk of US geopolitical or military violence.
Hong concludes the essay with her own call to action, a commitment to “overturn white innocence” in the collective conscience of Americans. Similarly, as Asian American writers and creatives, we must reckon with overturning our own community’s “innocence” away from the tropes that we are constantly pigeonholed into. What would it look like if we wrote about diaspora solidarity and anti-imperialism as much as we wrote about cultural appropriation of Asian food? We are so protective of our cuisine but somehow not of the land and people where the cuisine comes from. As we create, we must constantly ask whose purposes do our writings and art serve?
*Names have been changed for privacy.