Monday, February 8, 2021

The Making of Asian-American Identities

Jay Caspian Kang’s recent New York Times Magazine feature on Steven Yeun is not really a story about Steven Yeun. It is an exploration — through the medium of a famous body — of what it means to be an Asian-American in the United States. It is a slog through what Kang refers to as “prismatic neurosis”, a mild, yet controllable, disorder that he equates with our immigrant identity.

This slog feels apologetic, though nestled in the folds of the New York Times Magazine. Kang refers to his endeavor as “narcissistic self-exploration of an upwardly mobile immigrant”, something he believes no one else cares about, even as I scrutinized every word. He asks Yeun whether he wants to talk about “Korean stuff” and assume the risk of being seen as “some Korean guy”, as if that is somehow negative. It is a self-conscious, public conversation between two men discussing the intimate plight of identity and ambition under the gaze of unknown faces whose political existence may contribute to the construction (or destruction) of those identities.

On one hand, this exploration is a protest. It is a protest against the type of immigration story often associated with us. Of stories defined through the lens of others, where we play the good ones needing redemption, where we don’t exist on our own but only in relation to the white majority, where we are placed into cookie cutter narratives. There is a come on to his protest, like come on, really? I too carry those. Are we ever more than parables of acceptance and tolerance? Must we always be pitted in stories between Black-Korean struggles, as white adjacent? Must our parents be reduced to binaries between success and exploitation?

In Kang’s writing, I sense a fear: will we ever be more than middle-persons, in service of other identities? I wonder if he feels the unfair pressure of being put up as one of the few representing the rest of us, the way Joy Luck Club (incompletely) represents the Asian-American story, the way Steve Yeun represents all Korean Dads with his rendition of the immigrant accent. That would certainly give me a tinge of neurosis.

The article is also a protest against the perceived universalism of certain kinds of bodies, but not ours. The stories that emanate from our bodies are relegated to a niche, while others — like a man’s relationship with a dog or the chasing of a whale or the desperation of having to marry off a daughter — get elevated to universal truths. Out bodies and corresponding stories must be justified while others simply get to exist.

On the other hand, his article also reads like a plea, a plea to be seen in all the complexity that is our racial identity muddle, one constructed not by minoritized groups alone, but by the interplay among various groups. It is a plea for others to acknowledge their part in this, and not to pit the “neurosis” on us alone, the way Yeun’s father’s frustration at Murray’s Auto Shop was not an individual act but a response.

As Asian-Americans, we have been churning in post-structuralist waters, navigating differing and shifting perspectives, power dynamics, and the tyranny of self-evident truths, while waving desperately to be seen by those blithely sipping martinis on shore, tipsy with the blissful ignorance of modernity.

Kang, as a challenge, asks what is a typical immigrant story. The framing of this question already stakes a position. It is not a story about emigration, where one departs — but a story of coming to. To ask this question is to draw the arc of arrival — where we are to be delivered to a place of stasis, of elevation, of achievement. To pursue a typical immigrant story is to circumscribe the story, where all else fades except for factors relevant to the making of the journey.

To be an immigrant is to live aspirationally, to be in the process of becoming. This implies a wanting, a deficit. We are forever on a trajectory, yearning for some redemption, to become some rendition of the Great Asian Hope, whether it’s on behalf of our parents, our peers, or strangers who look like us. Implicit to the state of being an immigrant is the foregone: the life left behind, the losses, the sorrow. We can never escape the greener pastures of what could have been.

The story of immigration is framed from the perspective of those who came before us, as they watch us land as huddled masses. Imagine the story of colonialists told through the lens of native Americans. In the American imagination, the colonialists are not rendered as immigrants, but as settlers, as conquerors. As immigrants, we arrive, not to conquer or dominate, but to be accepted, to be assimilated. The power dynamic is implicit in the immigration status.

We should stop calling ourselves immigrants — or at least “only immigrants”. To be trapped in the immigrant story is to be trapped into an identity shaped by the gaze of others. We are othered when we are immigrants. We are the kids who did not fit in school, who sat inches away from the rest of the class. We are the kids who cried throughout school. We are the ones who cannot be as we wish except at Korean churches. All of these stories are book-ended by the rejecting gaze of those who already belong.

Like those beset with Stockholm syndrome, we are trapped in the perspective and language of the dominant majority. Like a giant slingshot flung from us through them and back to us, we see ourselves through their eyes, as the outsider, the minority, the misfit. We see ourselves in the reflection of their eyes, as their eyes glaze over. To be rendered invisible — even as we actively beckon — is an invitation to shame and rejection.

In this vacuum, we pit ourselves as the problems, the neuroses. We often perceive ourselves as outliers or aberrants, despite our tireless efforts. In this vacuum, we wonder if these conversations are worth having. Does it matter? Does anyone care? Kang’s so-called neurosis is a conundrum. His story may get relegated to the immigration shelf. But the dearth of our own stories traps us in the stories of others. How do we find ways to thrive when our stories are still largely untold, unknown, and unfamiliar? How do we make sense of our reality through our eyes? How do we begin to imagine different ways of relating, of understanding ourselves, or taking up space in this country if we are pigeon-holed, only told what we are to be?

In the language of narrative therapy, we have to dig for the details that have been rendered invisible. Research shows that we struggle to absorb details that do not conform to our preconceived notions. Why do we see Minari as an immigration story, and not a kin to Grapes of Wrath? Why do we think of Sandra Oh as Christina in Grey’s Anatomy but forget her role as Stephanie in Sideways? Why do we remember Margaret Cho’s failure in All American Girl and downplay her crude, hilarious social critiques?

We have to train ourselves anew, to see ourselves outside of the narrative of the dominant majority that makes sense of us solely through their perspectives. We have to fight the human tendency to miss the details that do not fit in the prescribed story of what it means to be Asian immigrants. Instead, we have to search actively for details that do not conform to the stories imposed on us. We have to learn to see ourselves through untrained eyes.

We have to show up with a slice of fuck you attitude. One that says I don’t give a fuck if you get my story. The attitude that says it is not my responsibility alone to bridge the gap between our lived experiences. It’s not solely my responsibility to make myself understood. We have to put aside the humiliation of the professor’s stale and untested assumptions and ask why that professor’s words are given universal truth status. Whose job is it to see the universality in a story: the writer or the reader — or both? We have to stop ceding power to others to construct our identities.

In the article, the two men talk about the therapeutic value of their conversation. We need not solely rely on so-called experts to tell us what we could be; we can talk to each other. To be seen by each other is enough. At its core, this article is the display of an intimate construction of an Asian-American identity, where one man sees his image reflected in another, which allows him to expand the possibilities of what he could be. The commonality and the differences between the interviewer and the interviewee is what allows each to examine his stories. This is how we make sense of our lives.

Would this conversation have been any less valuable if it had not been performed in front of the New York Times audience? What did the gaze of others do to the conversation? I wonder how the article would have differed if Kang had written it for a Korean-American audience.

Something in Kang’s writing feels like a silencing — of ourselves, an enactment of the invisibility Yeun notices of the Asian-American identity. It is as if in writing for a larger audience, Kang forgot that we — Korean-American readers — are here too, or did not deem us worth of mention. As if writing for people like us isn’t enough, even in the age of BTS, Psy, and Parasite. As if there is some implicit hierarchy between an actor like Yeun and other “identifiably Asian-American” actors. The way we are only talking to non-Koreans when we claim, “But we’re American too.”

But perhaps this is the plight of being American, a fictional identity created by paper, not history. As Richard Rodriguez writes in Hunger of Memory, we bring our private conversations into the public arena. Our intimate exchanges become public affairs. The stories of our parents become the birth of American identities. And in this making, there is also a parallel loss. In making ourselves comprehensible to others, we sacrifice some of what only we know.

Kang suggests we remove ourselves in the telling of our parents’ stories. It is a plea for everyone to own the subjectivity of their gaze, as Lee Issac Chung did in the making of Minari, even as Kang acknowledges the difficulty of doing so. There is a hope that stripped of personal agenda, our views of others avoid distortions, which in turn helps us see ourselves more clearly through them.

I wonder if extricating ourselves is the solution — or even possible. The idea of distortion exists only if we subscribe to the idea of objectivity, authenticity. We must abandon such ideas. Authenticity does not exist, and we have never had the luxury of living with such a notion. If anything, displaced people are by definition inauthentic. We arrive with a certain set of values and jettison them in lieu of others. Or invent a new hybrid.

We have something better than authenticity. We know the power of context, as we have always had to move from one context to another. We weave in and out, and with each context, we access a different story. There are multiple stories at our disposal — as there are multiple identities for each of us. In the words of Walt Whitman, we contain multitudes.

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