Minor Feelings is a series of autobiographical essays in which Hong examines the microaggressions in her life as a Korean-American artist.
Part of the task of fighting racism involves education: educating oneself about the many facets of white supremacy and racism, the many forms it can take, like a seven-headed Hydra.
So when an antiracism working group on my campus got together for some reading and discussion this summer, I was all in. One of the books made an impression on me, and not just because it’s so beautifully written. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning is a compelling portrait of anti-Asian-American discrimination in the U.S., providing a hard and necessary look at the impacts of racism in the U.S.
The book is a series of linked autobiographical essays in which author Cathy Park Hong examines the stereotypes and microaggressions in her life as a Korean-American artist.
Like me, Hong grew up in Los Angeles. But unlike me, she had a precarious life there: her parents had moved to the States from Korea, and worked in Koreatown in a variety of jobs, scrambling to become established.
Immediately, Hong shares stories that demonstrate the impact of Asian-specific racial microaggressions. Hong went to Oberlin for college; when her father helped her move into her dorm room, her roommate’s father asked where he was from. South Korea, was the answer, and the roommate’s father replied that he fought in the Korean War. The bizarre eagerness of white Americans to assert dominance leaves little choice for Asian-Americans: Hong’s father “smiled tightly and said nothing” (15). What else is the “model minority” supposed to do? If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s a stereotype about Asian-American successfulness used to pit them against other ethnicities in the U.S.
Hong became a poet, and while in grad school, deliberately chose not to write about her ethnic identity. But when she discovered an anonymous blog post by a classmate declaring that “the poetry world would be better all if all mediocre minority poets, like myself, were exterminated” she felt her decision to stay silent tested. Risk speaking up and brand herself as an identity politics poet but also a spoilsport? Or stay silent and endure yet more indignity?
In addition to memoir, Hong weaves history into her narrative, recounting the trials of the first Chinese people in the U.S.: the men brought in to work under ruthless conditions, and the women imported to be raped in brothels, which the Page Act of 1875 purported to outlaw, but which also prevented the Chinese laborers from establishing families. From the various wars the U.S. waged in Asia up to the Islamophobia after 9/11, Hong reminds readers of the horrifying history of human rights abuses against Asian people.
None of this should be a surprise, if you know you’re familiar with U.S. history. But what Hong does is take the facts and use them as the tools they are, pointing them toward present-day narratives that like to pretend like the past is firmly in the past.
She recounts the experiences of a fellow Asian woman friend in academia who was gaslit out of her program directorship because the program had really wanted a meek secretary. She describes her resilient grandmother from Incheon, Korea, who while walking through Southern California neighborhoods, was mocked and kicked to the ground by some white kids. She remembers the life of artist and poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, raped and murdered in New York City, one of many Asian American women to face such sexual violence. The anti-Asian misogynistic sentiments of the recent mass murderer in Georgia are just one more example of this.
These minor feelings which Hong writes about are:
“the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed” (55).
Asian American citizens are told to be grateful—that America is a post-racial society, a meritocracy—while their private experience of this society strikes a discordant note with the messaging. The 1871 massacre of 19 Chinese migrants in Los Angeles did not, after all, happen that long ago.
Watching the model minority stereotype be forced onto a person? Minor feelings.
Wondering if a small but cutting remark was due to thinly veiled racism? Minor feelings.
Knowing that your status is always conditional, that “belonging is always promised and just out of reach so that we behave”? Minor feelings.
While Hong carefully emphasizes that nothing truly terrible happens to her, the unsaid peeks out between the lines, like the alcoholism and abuse she saw close to home, and when one of her college friends struggled with mental illness and substance use.
And when her own depression and anxiety fought to break her. Surely, these minor feelings were never that bad.
Throughout all the mild and understated agonies, Hong gives us glimpses of hope, optimism, and beauty, too. In a chapter titled “Bad English,” Hong calls for accountability for cultural appropriation but still encourages cultural exchange:
“The soul of innovation thrives on cross-cultural inspiration. If we are restricted to our lanes, culture will die” (102).
Hong recounts her college adventures with her Asian American friends and all the hijinks they got up to; their presence helped her become “unapologetically ambitious” (122), notable in an art world that was and is dominated by white men.
Subtle but brutal, Minor Feelings is a must-read if you want to understand the shame and dissonance that so often accompany the pernicious manifestations of anti-Asian-American discrimination in the U.S.