REVIEW: The Loneliest Americans is an incoherent rejection of Asian American identity
By Guest Contributor: Sudip Bhattacharya
In The Loneliest Americans, Jay Caspian Kang attempts to argue that mainstream “Asian American” politics is a fabrication: a smokescreen behind which some of us hide, or from which we try to glean some superficial meaning.
Asian Americans are too diverse for one singular pan-ethnic label, argues Kang, and so the class divide within our group continues to fester and grow. According to Kang, some of us choose to manufacture an Asian American community through the trite, with social media postings about boba tea or Lunar New Year celebrations scattered across our Instagram. He writes:
How do you create a people out of such silly connections? And why do we, the children of immigrants, feel the need to fulfill some hyphenated identity when our parents seemed perfectly content to live as either Koreans or Chinese or Indians or Vietnamese in America — or, if they felt particularly optimistic, insisted that they, too, were Americans? (The Loneliest Americans, p. 16)
Kang suggests that contemporary mainstream Asian American politics has been preoccupied with the concerns of upwardly mobile Asian Americans. As such, he argues, the Asian American activist class – overtly English-fluent, second-generation, highly-educated progressives – ignore the issues of “real” Asian Americans – first-generation working-class immigrants who categorically reject their own racialization as “Asian American”.
“The stuff that you generally hear is about that — it’s about the bamboo ceiling, it’s about Hollywood representation, it’s about Scarlett Johansson stealing a bunch of roles,” Kang stated in a recent interview.
Notwithstanding the fact that I do enjoy boba, there is a level of truth to what Kang, now a staff writer at the New York Times, is writing about in The Loneliest Americans, his first non-fiction book in which he challenges the relevance of Asian American identity and politics in a neoliberal age. Obviously, The Loneliest Americans is neither the first nor the only text to discuss Asian American identity politics. Over the years, we’ve seen a growth in research and writings that confront some of the major issues impacting Asian American identity, from Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings to Desis Divided by the political scientist, Sangay Mishra to others. Asian American stories and perspectives are enjoying new interest from mainstream readers, and Asian Americans writers now have greater opportunity to write books that seek some understanding of themselves and the politics they’re surrounded by. Kang’s The Loneliest Americans is the latest contribution to this increasingly popular genre.
I was first introduced to Kang’s political commentary through the podcast, Time To Say Goodbye, where he and co-hosts New York Times writer Tammy Kim and historian Andy Liu tackle domestic and international issues relevant to most Asian Americans. I especially enjoyed their takedown of writer Arun Venugopal, whose myopic and vapid “analysis” of Indian American politics reflect Venugopal’s background as an upper-class Indian American who grew up in a wealthy part of Texas. This was an analysis I craved, and that seemed to be otherwise lacking in the Asian American podcasting and media sphere: it was nuanced and direct about issues like class.
As with the podcast, Kang uses the pages of the Loneliest Americans to critique the vacuousness of contemporary liberal Asian American politics:
If we were called to speak in front of the Panthers, what would we talk about? Unfair college admissions practices? The bamboo ceiling that allows us comfortable professional jobs but fewer places in management? When politics becomes this empty – when it becomes the hand-wringing of the upwardly mobile — where does it go? (The Loneliest Americans, p. 163)
Through several chapters — and drawing from a mixture of reportage and autobiographical reflection on his childhood in a mostly-white area of Boston and his current life as a journalist in gentrified Brooklyn — Kang confronts some of the “neurosis” of modern Asian American life and politics. Kang organizes these chapters topically, meandering from his experiences reporting on the frontlines of Black Lives Matter protests to interviewing Asian men caught in the online world of Men’s Rights Movement activism. But Kang’s main mission is to address the political “divergence” between those he disdains as an upper-class Asian American liberal elite class and the rest of (Asian) America.
A Specter is Haunting Asian America
There is a large — and growing — wealth gap among Asians living in the US. This gap between the richest and poorest Asian American is the widest of all racial and ethnic groups, according to the Center for American Progress. Many Asian Americans — already concentrated in gentrifying neighborhoods of large metropolitan areas — are finding it increasingly difficult to keep pace with skyrocketing costs-of-living, and like most people inside the US, must work long hours for low pay while they still lack critical resources, like affordable healthcare.
Many of my friends (and myself, too) grew up in the middle class, but find ourselves now downwardly mobile. We stagger from one economic crisis to the next. Like many Asian Americans, we feel more stressed and worn down as we face the slow implosion of capitalism. Thus, for me, some of Kang’s bitterness resonates. I, too, am frustrated with Asian Americans who think of themselves as socially-aware and progressive, and yet who promote a politics that is parochial and near-meaningless for most Asians working in the US. Reading Kang’s book, I immediately thought about Kamala Harris and Andrew Yang and the politics of representation and neoliberalism that transforms meaningful policy demands into aesthetics. Harris, whose mother is from India, spoke on issues of race and racial justice earlier in the campaign; yet, as Vice President, she is found imploring Guatemalans to not migrate to the US while she glosses over the crimes and authoritarianism of the existing right-wing regime ruling Guatemala. Yang, of course, is now a bitcoin enthusiast, hopping from one failed campaign to another, grabbing headlines while preaching to Asian Americans that they can avoid hate crimes if they try harder to “assimilate”.
The biggest issue standing between most Asian Americans and a far more radical Left politics is what the political theorist Mark Fischer has once described as “capitalist realism”. For over fifty years now, the role of government has become more about servicing business interests in the name of “efficiency”. Instead of providing programs, the government has instead deferred to the so-called “expertise” of “entrepreneurs” to resolve major issues that ironically, private enterprise has caused, such as the rising costs of healthcare and housing.
With the decline of labor unions and other major Left forces, the scope of mainstream politics has shrunken. To this day, even as progressive movements grow, there is a popular tendency among some Asian Americans to view issues impacting us as something that can also be confronted through small business. This was evident following the shooting deaths of mainly working-class Asian women at a spa in Atlanta. Shortly after, people were encouraged to shop at Asian-owned businesses. Major companies like Amazon even promoted the effort. Let us lionize the man who owns the Patel Cash & Carry as a testament to the Asian American spirit. Let us ignore the Latino worker who stacks the shelves; or, the Desi women working as cashiers, having to stay on their feet while pain shoots up their spine every few minutes; or, the elderly Sikh man, his skin cracking, pushing together wayward shopping carts in the parking lot for barely minimum wage. Let us conceive 99 Ranch as some form of “community”. Let us write memoirs about H-Mart. Let us base our discussions of being Asian American on Netflix shows hosted by restaurant owners who have “made it”. Let us ignore the losers.
Kang’s analysis about the “divergence” between the upper-class and the rest of Asian America best shines through in his chapter on testing centers in New York City. A hot-button issue that has galvanized Asian Americans on both sides of the political aisle, these exclusive, privately-owned testing centers prepare students for high-stakes admissions exams a handful of the City’s elite public schools. Many working-class Asian American parents see their children’s enrollment into these schools as an opportunity for a better life. However, critics of these selective public schools point out that they functionally exclude local students, especially Black students who represent less than 1% of some schools’ student population despite making up nearly a quarter of the City’s residents. To address this issue, New York City seeks to scrap the schools’ admissions exams in favor of a holistic review process that can consider other factors besides performance on high-stakes testing. Kang isn’t against this, given how heavily Asian and white these exclusive public schools have become. But he does push back against reductive narratives that characterize the Asian parents who rely on these centers as “privileged” and critiques upper-class Asian American liberals who can avoid the messiness of the situation by sending their own kids to private schools instead.
A Land of Contradictions
As strong as Kang’s efforts are to complicate the Asian American politic by integrating a discussion of class, this work is lost amidst a larger haze of unfocused and confusing disdain for the idea of an Asian American body politic, itself. He writes:
I certainly did not think of myself as ‘Asian American’ (the term would’ve sounded ridiculous when said out loud) and when my sister wrote an essay for the local newspaper titled ‘What It’s Like to Be an Other,’ inspired by the box she checked under ‘race’ for some state-issued standardized test, I felt like she had betrayed us all by point out something that was obvious but better left unsaid (The Loneliest Americans, p. 66)
Such peculiar statements are littered throughout the text, weighing it down considerably. In an interview with The Nation, Kang claimed he was writing a polemic. But, as far as I know, polemics are meant to be clarifying, inspiring, and focused. The Loneliest Americans is the opposite.
Rather than offering clarity, The Loneliest Americans is incoherent and needlessly overwrought. Rather than inspiring, it is tragic and disheartening —or, as Kang himself would probably suggest, “brooding”. At times, it was difficult to even know how to critique the text given how muddled Kang’s analysis is. The connections Kang attempts (and ultimately fails) to make between Asian American history, politics, and his personal story simply left me frustrated.
For example, Kang repeatedly suggests that he is not a “person of color”. In one chapter, he describes his childhood in a predominantly Boston suburb, and how he befriended one of the Black students at school, Dwayne. Kang quips:
When we were kids, if someone had told me that Dwayne and I were both minorities or had some shared experience as people of color, I would have looked at them like he had lost his mind. (The Loneliest Americans, p. 65)
And yet, Kang also admits to having been bullied for being Asian. In fact, Kang repeatedly brings this trauma up throughout the text. Doesn’t that bullying demand Kang find commonality with Dwayne, or at least that Kang should be self-aware of his status as a racial outsider — a person of color? Kang also devotes a significant number of pages to examining the recent anti-Asian attacks that have swelled following the spread of Covid-19 and the bigoted stereotyping of the Chinese diaspora. Yet, he fails to contend with how Asian Americans can simultaneously not be people of color while still enduring widespread anti-Asian racism.
This confused and contradictory “analysis” reappears in Kang’s chapter on Bruce Springsteen where he implies that neither he nor his friends — both Asian and Arab American — are people of color because of their (upper) class status. While we should not center racial justice movements around only the upwardly mobile, one does not simply “become white” with greater wealth. My family’s middle-class position didn’t protect us from the blowback of 9-11. My dad’s pay stub was no shield for the insults slung against us, calling us “terrorists” or worse.
Ultimately, The Loneliest Americans is a text written by someone who claims to want a discussion about Asian American politics, but who needed to pause and do the work of clarifying his own position before putting proverbial pen to paper. It is a text written by someone who universalizes his own experiences of trauma and lack of direction, peppered with some insights from others who — ironically, like him — are upwardly-mobile Asians.
When we moved to Berkeley, we put our daughter in a ballet class. It felt like almost every toddler stumbling around the tastefully bare hallways of the studio had a white father and an Asian mother. And we – the Asians – regarded one another with the same measured silence while our spouses gabbed freely in the best, multicultural way (The Loneliest Americans, p. 236).
Besides the fact that it’s unclear what Kang means by saying the (white) spouses spoke in a “multicultural” way, I was unsure why Kang had included this seemingly disjointed and irrelevant anecdote in his book. Similarly, in his testing centers chapter, Kang begins that story with attending a loft party somewhere in the City, where he meets a man who wears scarves. For reasons that remain unexplained, Kang suffers a panic attack.
He had tied what appeared to be several pounds’ worth of silk scarves around his neck and folded them into an exploding, origami-like hexagon of color. I complimented him on the work and told him I had never seen anything like that before. He smiled and thanked me. Portnoy walked by. So did Sean Lennon (The Loneliest Americans, p. 102).
Reality Seeps In
I can’t help but wonder: Is The Loneliest Americans a self-conscious text written by an upwardly-mobile Asian about other upwardly-mobile Asians? Or, does Kang intend to talk specifically about Asians who, like him, live among and socialize almost exclusively with upper-class white liberals? Is this meant to be a memoir? A manifesto? A broader critique of Asian American politics?
In exploring the Asian American Men’s Rights Activist circle (which was admittedly fascinating), Kang states: “This, Doug and I both understand, is a pathetic story, but most Asian American stories are pathetic (The Loneliest Americans, p. 171).”
But, if so, why then has Kang dedicated an entire book to his own Asian American story? Are we meant to view the book as an argument for its own political and cultural irrelevance?
Kang concludes about the Asian American condition (without much qualification) that “[i]t’s hard to blame anyone for not caring enough about Asian Americans, because nobody — most of all Asian Americans — really believes that Asian American actually exists.”
Janelle Wong is a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland and a senior researcher at AAPI Data which gathers critical survey data on Asian and Pacific Islander Americans. To collect such data, researchers at AAPI Data are in contact with numerous Asians in the US, including those who are working-class and poor. In the process, AAPI Data, in collaboration with other survey data experts, have been instrumental in producing essential reports documenting the struggle and hardships that many Asian Americans are finding themselves in.
In a conversation with me for this essay, Wong explains:
Kang is right to point out that the label “Asian American” is a constructed one. It is also true that Asian Americans are more likely to identify with their national-origin group than with the pan-ethnic label. That does not mean that it is meaningless across the Asian American community, however. Recent survey data show 21% of Asian Americans say they identify more with the broader Asian American community after the racializing experiences of the pandemic. And this change is prominent across different national-origin groups and among those who identify as first-generation immigrants and non-citizens.
Never mind that for many Asian Americans, being Asian may not be our primary identity, but it is still one of many.
Despite Kang’s insistence that Asians are too diverse to be recognizable as a cohesive group, most share common interests and opinions. Wong says:
Diversity is the hallmark of the Asian American community. That said, one of the most remarkable features of the Asian American community is that there are common issues around which the community shares a much higher degree of consensus than the general U.S. population. Support for gun control, government-sponsored health care, environmental protections, and taxing the rich cut across national-origin, immigrant generation, and, contrary to conventional wisdom, both partisanship and economic status. In fact, this issue consensus exists despite the diversity that characterizes our communities.
Such data don’t necessarily negate all of Kang’s argument. Still, there are political forces among Asian Americans, whether neoliberal or conservative, who can obscure the objective interests of the group. Yet, these findings show that there is growing opportunity for Asian Americans to organize across our differences, including on issues of economic oppression. Like with other communities of color (and to some extent, a growing number of whites), Asian Americans aren’t as confused about what they need and desire politically. Many Asian Americans, like a growing number of other Americans, have started to support progressive candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose district consists of many types of Asians, from Bangladeshi to Nepalese to Chinese.
The question remains: which organizations and organizers will step up to guide and mold and lead us?
The Fight for Power Is the Only Fight
Kang’s theory of power and change in the US is among the most convoluted and poorly-conceived elements of his book. Kang argues that Asian Americans should reject the Asian American identity, and instead organize themselves as “immigrants” allied with first-generation Latinos. But what about African Americans —including those who are descendants of slaves? What about Asian Americans born and raised in the US? Won’t labelling ourselves as “immigrant” – absent of any further political nuance – obscure the actual experiences of Asians who are and who aren’t?
Frustratingly, Kang grapples with none of these problems. This suggests that he may not grasp what he’s arguing for. Early in his book, Kang favors rejecting the pan-ethnic “Asian American” label in lieu of ethnic identifiers such as Indian American, Korean American, Chinese American, and so on. This is, ironically, a post-modern outlook on identity politics, but begs the question: why would they then be compelled to organize across ethnic lines as “immigrants”? How does such a model do a better job of solving issues of class, or gender, or any other form of oppression? Will the owner of the Patel Cash & Carry — freshly self-identifying as an “immigrant” — be absolved in his role as owner?
Kang has none of the answers. It’s unclear if he’s even considered the questions.
Pursuing Power and the Ideal
Contrary to Kang’s inaccurate assessment that Asian American politics has exclusively focused on liberal elites, Asian Americans have long worked to organize and mobilize Asian Americans with focus on immigrants and the working class. Grassroots Asians Rising (GAR) is a national network of grassroots organizations rooted in working-class Asian communities. Cathy Dang is its national director, and a long-time organizer on issues affecting working-class communities, especially among Asian Americans.
“We believe that the working-class struggle is how we can build across masses for a united front, while understanding the role of Asian Americans under racial capitalism,” she explains in an interview with me for this essay. “How GAR members politically agitate their community members is through agitating on class struggles while also providing political education on how Asians are treated by the system among each other and among communities of color. There are policies that hurt working-class Asian communities and there are institutional policies that hurt Black communities that Asian communities benefit from.”
The organizations that are part of GAR include groups such as CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities and Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), two of the more prominent progressive organizations in New York City and possibly in the country. During the trial of Peter Liang —an Asian American police officer who gunned down a black man named Akai Gurley — groups like CAAAV and others expressed support for the Gurley family while also continuing its focus on tenants’ rights campaigns for residents in Chinatown and areas around Queensbridge.
GAR continues to build progressive campaigns around the needs of working-class Asians, even as they increase the broader political consciousness on issues like policing, anti-blackness, and labor, and the gender discrimination and oppression endured by Asian American women, queer, trans and gender non-binary folks — a problem that is only intensified for many low-wage workers. The overall goal is to develop a politics that seeks systemic progressive change, that seeks to steer people away from more parochial and less viable alternatives to improving most peoples’ lives, such as how many conservative Asians are preoccupied mainly with protecting their own class position. It is tough and complicated work, that requires navigating people’s complicated layers of racial, ethnic, gender and class identities — and that is grounded in a finding shared political ground across the Asian American diaspora and with other oppressed peoples.
Even if we didn’t identify or see ourselves as Asian, external to us and how we are understood by institutions, the political parities, and the U.S. is under the umbrella of Asian American. Whether we like it or not, we are racialized and we have to navigate our lives through these lenses. We have to understand how Asians are seen and used within U.S. policies that pit our communities against each other, whether it’s East Asians vs Southeast Asians or Asians are used to justify policies that continue to oppress Black communities. We have to hold all the contradictions of organizing under the Asian American umbrella. While we are seen as Asians and treated as ‘foreigners,’ we are also challenging every day to move our communities to join mass forces.
To his book’s detriment, Kang fails to address either the work of groups like GAR or the survey research produced by AAPI Data. Had he done so, Kang might have avoided the feeling that his book is little more than a colorful description of Kang’s own echo chamber — one which functions only to amplify his own bitterness and cynicism. Instead, had Kang done more work to ground his book in the pre-existing Asian American discourse on these subjects, he might have created a text that is actually in conversation with (and therefore relevant to) today’s Asian Americans and our political reality.
“I generally don’t like activists, even when I admired their courage and support their convictions. They always feel a bit like the actors I have met—the ego warped from the demands of projecting yourself out into such wide spaces,” Kang states as he writes about his experiences at a BLM protest (The Loneliest Americans, p. 141).
Sadly, it is Kang who too often seems to be projecting.
A Class Struggle Reigns On
Like Kang, I too have felt as a South Asian American that I have little in common with other East and Southeast Asian Americans — especially after 9-11. But I was pushed by others, including Asian progressive organizers, to evolve this early perspective. In my time at Rutgers, I became part of Asian American groups fighting for an Asian American studies program and invested in publishing and shaping the broader Asian American politics on campus. Older activists reminded me of the importance of class, gender, and immigration status. I learned about how Perpetual Foreigner status affects all Asian Americans, and how current efforts to target and criminalize Arabs and South Asian Americans were an echo of Japanese American incarceration during World War II. Indeed, following the attacks on the World Trade Center, many Japanese American elders spoke out against Islamophobia, knowing full well where all such hate would lead. And yet, Kang would seem to see no value in such pan-ethnic solidarity.
Since my time as a student, I’ve worked to extend my analysis beyond my own lived experiences. I’ve stumbled along the way, to be sure. Nonetheless, much of my political journey is informed by the research done by Asian American scholars — those whom Kang disdains as out-of-touch and irrelevant. Kang dismisses Asian American studies programs as superficial, but it is often the Asian American social scientist, including the survey specialist, who gathers insights and perspectives from other Asians — critical work that helps us better understand the Asian American community. Research groups like AAPI-Data invest the time and energy to truly uncover what connects us, what motivates us. Asian American scholars push me to think in ways beyond myself and my preconceived biases. Activists like those who drive CAAAV and GAR pulled me out of cynicism. A clarity takes shape when one learns from those who are organizing at the ground-level.
Our main enemies remain the capitalists and the right-wing. Challenging them may seem insurmountable but there is a way. This requires building a constituency that is progressive and a home for all class traitors, including the conflicted upper-class Asian American like Kang. Still, the core of the movement must be rooted in working-class struggle, especially non-white.
It is necessary for Asian Americans to organize with other non-white groups. While GAR’s focus is on working-class Asian communities in various sectors – youth, workers, tenants, queer/trans/GNC folks, even upper-class Asians will be discarded by systems of white supremacy and capitalism. However, GAR asserts that organizing from working-class struggles is the means to transform our economic base that creates greater equity for all communities. We have to move our communities towards left politics. We have to win material changes in economic conditions and working-class governance, not just advance identity politics, in order to win material changes for all of our communities.
Complicated Literary Dreams
If anything, The Loneliest Americans does provide some useful history on certain aspects of Asian American life, including the history of Flushing and some on the 1960s, such as the struggle to save the I-Hotel in San Francisco. Kang also deserves credit for stepping forward and being willing to contend with some of the messiness of reality, albeit not always in a way that is clarifying. Still, I appreciate how he tries to tackle subject matter that may put off other writers, such as the tensions between Asian Americans and other groups of color, especially African Americans, and of course, the ways in which some upwardly mobile Asian Americans have behaved in ways similar to upper-class white liberals, which includes co-opting radical demands, such racial justice, all while refusing to fight for such things in any material way.
Reading The Loneliest Americans was thrilling at times, or at the very least, intriguing, given Kang’s brutal honesty about himself and his willingness again to contend with Asian American life that isn’t always so cut-and-dry and neatly packaged. But, none of that makes up for what often felt like a memoir written by someone who positions himself to speak for an entire group while lacking the evidence or substance to do so. Even when contending with the issue of Asian Americans and African Americans not always seeing eye-to-eye (and indeed, expressing racism toward one another), Kang’s attempt at exploring this felt lacking. When I read Kang’s chapter detailing the tensions between Korean American shop owners and African Americans around the time of the LA uprisings/riots, I couldn’t help but think about Claire Jean Kim’s Bitter Fruit, which did this work far better. There, Kim discussed similar types of conflict between Korean Americans and Black Americans in New York City in the early 1990’s. Through in-depth interviews of activists on all sides of the issue, including Korean Americans and Haitian Americans, Kim was able to paint a complex picture of various ethnic and racial groups being pitted against one another while also making decisions that they believe served their immediate interests.
Anyone interested in reading The Loneliest Americans should do so knowing that it is a myopic take on Asian America that ignores and overlooks far too much within the Asian American community, such as the work of groups like GAR, political scientists like Kim and their seminal writings on the Asian American experience, and historians like Mae Ngai. The Loneliest Americans fails to grapple with those who might contradict Kang’s narrow view of Asian American politics. I believe it is important for other Asian Americans to contend with Kang’s work. We need to encourage Asian Americans who are trying to forge a progressive politics to keep doing what they’re doing, however flawed. But, if anyone is interested in learning more about the state of Asian American politics and being, The Loneliest Americans should not be their main or first text.
Being an Asian American should not be synonymous with being constantly confused or wandering, or always feeling out of place, or frankly, miserable.
Instead, I hope we see more work shedding light on what it means to be Asian American in this time of neoliberal crisis. I hope we see work from people willing to take a risk in seeking answers beyond what’s already familiar to oneself.
Sudip Bhattacharya serves as a co-chair of the Political Education Committee at Central Jersey DSA and is a writer based in New Jersey, having been published in Current Affairs, Cosmonaut, Protean Magazine, Socialist Forum, Reappropriate, and The Aerogram, among other outlets. Prior to pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Rutgers University, he had worked full-time as a reporter across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
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