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Minor Feelings

A Reckoning on Race and the Asian Condition

By Cathy Park Hong
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Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

Minor Feelings (2020) is poet Cathy Park Hong’s searing account of life as an Asian American. Drawing on her own experiences alongside penetrating insights, it paints a picture of the purgatorial status that Asian Americans still face.

Key idea 1 of 7

Asian Americans exist in a purgatorial state, neither Black nor white; their own identity is poorly defined.

While experiencing a depressive episode, the author, Cathy Park Hong, had to go to Wyoming to give a poetry reading. She is a poet, but these are not events she enjoys, even in happier times.

Reading her work to the audience, she felt newly conscious of her lack of stage presence. Asians in general, she thought, just don’t make a strong enough impression for this sort of thing.

They don’t even make a strong enough impression, in fact, to be thought of as a minority in the same way as Black people. Asian people are sometimes thought of as post-racial – but often that just means they’re ignored.

The reading was not a success. When she finished, everyone hurried to leave, including Hong.

The key message here is: Asian Americans exist in a purgatorial state, neither Black nor white; their own identity is poorly defined.

On her way back to New York, Hong received a call from her therapist. Hong had sought out a Korean American, like her, and they’d had one session. She was keen to carry on.

But she was disappointed. The therapist was cutting her off. The only explanation given? They weren’t right for each other.

Her mind flashed back to a visit to a busy Vietnamese nail bar at an Iowa mall. She was given a pedicure by the owner’s unenthusiastic teenage son, who grimaced at her, squatted down, and scalded her feet with hot water. He dug the nippers in sharply. She told him to be softer; he dug in harder. It was agony.

Despite their dissimilar family backgrounds and levels of privilege, Hong and the scowling pedicurist shared a sense of self-hate and shame. They were like two equal forces pushing against each other.

Being Asian in the United States is complex. In 2017, a video went viral of David Dao, a 69-year-old Vietnamese American, screaming in pain as he was violently forced out of an overbooked plane.

The media portrayed Dao as an everyman, as if his Asianness were irrelevant. But what memories did the incident spark in Dao’s mind? He’d fled Saigon in 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War.

Some people claim Asians are doing so well in America, they’re “next in line to be white.” But aren’t they more likely to disappear – to lose their sense of identity? Perhaps they really are quietly assimilating into American society. But isn’t that the same society that ripped their homelands apart and uprooted their families?

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