'Anti-Asian racism has come roaring back with Covid-19': Cathy Park Hong on being Asian American

The Minor Feelings author talks about stereotypes in the wake of the coronavirus and being inspired by Richard Pryor

When the state of New York received its first confirmed coronavirus patient, both the New York Times and the New York Post published articles with accompanying pictures of East Asian people, even though the diagnosed woman in the news report had recently travelled to Iran.

“Anti-Asian racism has come roaring back with the coronavirus scare,” says Korean American writer Cathy Park Hong. “People don’t think Asians face racism, but it’s always lurking under the surface. For instance, my friend is worried for his kids. He lives in New York City, and he has a son in school who has been bullied and made fun of for having the coronavirus. There’s this yellow peril stereotype that never goes away.”

Minor Feelings, Hong’s collection of essays, explores how society’s perception of Asian American identity shapes the experience of being an Asian American. Growing up in Los Angeles, Hong was reminded almost daily that how white America viewed her community clashed with her own experiences. For instance, she writes: “You are told, ‘Asian Americans are so successful,’ while you feel like a failure.”

“Minor feelings” are defined in the book as the feelings that arise “for instance, upon hearing a slight, knowing it’s racial, and being told, Oh, that’s all in your head”. Hong explains: “When I was a kid, I would see my mother clearly being condescended to by white adults, by white women especially ... they would dumb down their words.” She points out that there has been “no critical vocabulary for this dominant culture that was constantly gaslighting my lived experience. Because my experience wasn’t being acknowledged, I had these feelings of shame, suspicion, melancholy, and paranoia.”

Asian Americans are often stereotyped as successful, model-minority immigrants. At the same time, they are also often excluded from discussions of US culture. Hong points to the recent primary elections: “Asians are hyper invisible. We’re not even included in racial breakdowns in polls. We’re always listed as ‘other’, if we’re listed at all. For example, with Super Tuesday, there was so much news about the black southern vote, the Latinx vote, the white rural vote, the white urban vote, the white college-educated vote, but nothing on Asian Americans ... Did they vote for Bernie or Biden? We’re not statistically visible.” Hong sighs. “It almost feels like we’re not publicly participating in this country.” The racism takes many forms. She writes about how Asian American women are seen as “fetish objects”, while Asian American men are often considered “unmasculine, untrustworthy, suspicious, and foreign”. Also: “Chinese is synecdoche for Asians the way Kleenex is for tissues.”

Minor feelings are not only felt by Asian Americans, of course. Hong cites Claudia Rankine’s Citizen as a book that investigates the phenomenon among African Americans, and explains how “Minor Feelings explores the trauma of a racist capitalist system that keeps the individual in place. It’s playing tennis ‘while black’ and dining out ‘while black’.”

Hong is the author of three poetry collections; Minor Feelings is her first set of essays. It took shape, she says, from watching the comedy films of Richard Pryor while experiencing a period of depression. “It was revelatory. The way he talked about race was so brutally honest and funny and unvarnished. It made me think that I had never encountered Asian identity being written in that way.” Watching Pryor also reminded Hong of the Korean term han, “which is a collective national Korean emotion of affects that includes bitterness, melancholy, nostalgia, and resentment, that’s rooted in the trauma of war, colonialism, and now, late capitalism”. Hong realised that han “isn’t isolated to South Korea … There’s this specific combination of feelings when you can’t overcome the structural inequities you’re living under.”

As a daughter of immigrants in Los Angeles, Hong says she “was alienated in the way that a lot of Asian kids are alienated”. Though born in Koreatown, her family moved to the Westside in her early childhood, with her father eventually buoying them to a level of success that allowed Hong to attend private high school and college at Oberlin in Ohio. “On paper,” she writes, “my father is the so-called model immigrant.” Behind closed doors, however, the family had to contend with his anger and heavy drinking. Hong says: “For my family, there’s still this anxiety to assimilate. That’s also a survival tactic, to look ahead and not look back, and to be, if not white, then white-adjacent, which is destructive.”

The dissonance between her life at home and the perceptions put on her by the outside world, led Hong to art and writing in her teenage years. Oberlin was where she began to embrace the “bad” English of her childhood. “My teacher said: ‘You don’t have to be ashamed of the broken English you grew up speaking. You can use that as a strength in your writing.’ That really stuck with me.” Hong’s essay “Bad English” details her evolving relationship with language. “It’s one of the best benefits of growing up bilingual, right?” she says. “You realise that meaning is slippery.”

Minor Feelings “started out as poetry, then fiction, and then it became this collection ,” she says, and points to the subtitle of her book: An Asian American Reckoning. “It’s not the Asian American reckoning.” Hong wants to overthrow the monolithic story of one Asian American identity. “Maybe what I’m responding to is how white America has flattened our experience to a single story, how they perceive us as one kind. The book is an attempt to overthrow that.”

Hong is careful to emphasise that she is exploring race through her specific life experiences. “There’s this fear of exposure, of presenting the right narrative that will put your family on a pedestal rather than knocking them down. I felt that greatly.” She knew, though, that she needed to embrace vulnerability. “I wanted the book to be as persuasive as possible, and in order to be so, it had to reach the reader’s heart, not just their mind.”

  • Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong is published by Profile. (£16.99)

Crystal Hana Kim

The GuardianTramp

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