Identity awakening of an Asian American – Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning

Essayist and poet Cathy Park Hong takes a deep dive into examining racial consciousness in her new book Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. This collection of thought provoking essays explores Hong’s personal journey growing up Korean in America, and how her experiences have shaped her identity as an Asian American.

Photo Credit: Cathy Park Hong

THE FEELING OF JEONG

In the first essay “United”, Hong starts by offering a vulnerable account of her experience seeking out a Korean American therapist to treat her depression. 

She brings up the Korean term, jeong, which is “an instantaneous connection” often felt between Koreans. It’s the idea that Koreans think other Koreans will understand them better because of their shared heritage. It’s seen as a “shortcut to intimacy.”

“Asian Americans inhabit a vague purgatorial status,” she wrote. Asian Americans always seem to be caught somewhere in between the black and white binary because they are “not white enough nor black enough; distrusted by African Americans, ignored by whites.”

THE SELF-HATING ASIAN

Who let in all the Asians? Hong emphasizes that there is a lack of literature around the self-hating Asian American – not enough has been said or written about it. She touches on her father’s story as an Asian immigrant and how he was a prime example of the “model immigrant,” highlighting his charisma and kindness. 

Asians are perceived as the middle men, or “middle managers,” as Hong calls it. “I am frantically paddling my feet underwater, always overcompensating to hide my devouring feelings of inadequacy,” she wrote.

Photo Credit: Cathy Park Hong

WHAT ARE MINOR FEELINGS?

In the essay “Stand Up”, Hong introduces the meaning of the book’s title. 

Minor feelings are “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic,” she wrote. They are built from bits and pieces of everyday racial experiences. It’s being told “Oh, it’s all in your head,” and having your reality constantly be questioned or dismissed.

Minor feelings create cognitive dissonance. Hong explains how these feelings occur “when American optimism is enforced upon you,” contradicting your own racialized reality. 

“Minor feelings are also the emotions we are accused of having when we decide to be difficult,” she wrote. Once externalized, minor feelings are interpreted as “hostile, ungrateful, jealous, depressing,” and out of line.

She also touches on respectability politics as a writer.

 “Writers of colour had to behave better in their poetry and in person; they had to always act gracious and grateful so that white people would be comfortable enough to sympathize with their racialized experiences,” she wrote. She was always reminded of the whiteness in the room during her experiences doing poetry readings and stand-up.

SHAME AND INNOCENCE AND HOW IT RELATES TO RACIAL TRAUMA

In the essay “The End of White Innocence”, Hong talks about the minor feelings of shame and narrates some of her childhood memories of racial trauma. 

She recalls a time her mother dressed her in a Playboy shirt and sent her off to school. She also recounts the times she witnessed her immigrant parents be mocked by white adults. “I am a dog cone of shame,” she wrote.

The flip side of shame is innocence – a sheltered unknowingness that often hardens into entitlement. Hong describes “white innocence” as the refusal to engage with shame surrounding their white identities. 

The ironic result of innocence is that white Americans are “unable to understand the world that they themselves have made.” Oftentimes, they “live in segregated environments that protect and insulate them from race-based stress.” 

As a writer, Hong is determined to help overturn the “solipsism of white innocence.”

TAKEAWAYS

This book offers an honest and refreshing perspective examining Asian American history, psychology, and identity. Hong has provided a unique lens that uncovers the complexities of racial consciousness, and here are four insights/lessons learned from Minor Feelings:

1. We must seize this opportunity and change American literature

For too long, Asian Americans’ stories have been shaped and framed by white imagination. This is why writers of colour must tell their stories of racial trauma. Hong writes about the need to “overhaul the tired narratives” that have automated the identities of Asian Americans. 

2. Writing about race is polemic

As Asian Americans, we must confront the white capitalist infrastructure that has erased us. “To truly write about race, you have to write against the narrative because the racialized mind is an infernal circle,” Hong wrote.

3. Understand the differences between innocence and shame

Innocence is both a privilege and a cognitive handicap, while shame is sharp and prickling awareness. “Our shame is caused by our repressive culture,” she wrote. Bad English was once a source of shame for Hong, but now it’s part of her heritage. Her shame is not cultural but political.

4. Indebtedness is not the same as gratitude

“Throughout my life, I had felt the weight of indebtedness,” she wrote. To be indebted is to be “cautious, inhibited, and to never speak out of turn.” Hong emphasizes that indebtedness is not the same as gratitude. To be indebted is to fixate on the future.

Featured image by Cathy Park Hong

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