In a phone conversation, Berkeley-based writer Jay Caspian Kang speaks his truth in a multiplicity of voices—and reveals he may forever be a man in search of a singular identity.
We’re talking about Kang’s most recent book, The Loneliest Americans, an energetically researched 272-page chronicle of Asian-American history in the United States that rises to relevance with contemporary perspectives and crosses into memoir with details of his life story.
First, there is the dynamic voice of Kang, the writer for The New York Times Magazine and that paper’s opinion page, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker and, before that, Vice. Writer Kang likes to pull the pin on the grenade of various topics with provocative declarations he believes in but is constantly re-evaluating and sincerely hopes will lead to public discussion. Shadows linger of Kang’s launch into journalism; blogging for a literary basketball blog called FreeDarko, named after the Serbian player Darko Milicic. His first post, “The Lives of Others,” suggested Chinese-American basketball player Jeremy Lin and Chinese-American rapper Jin the MC offered alternative conclusions of what it means to be Asian-American. He references with equal ease rap artists, elite academic scholars, his ancestors and young kids he has met on the street or on the internet.
A secondary Kang “character” is the boy he once was: Born in Seoul, South Korea, his parents came to the United States—as did immigrants from all over the world—after passage of the Hart-Celler Immigration Act in 1965. Hart-Celler opened up America’s floodgates to allow entry to people from not only Asia; but Africa; East, West and Central Europe; Mexico and many other countries. Growing up with first-generation Asian parents and his sister in a public housing project in Cambridge, Mass., Kang moved with his family to Chapel Hill. Eventually, they migrated to the West Coast. Kang-the-boy recalls his mother’s agenda for her children that included keeping journals in which he and his sister were forced to record the disheartening blandness of their daily existence. Boy Kang holds onto a healthy skepticism—and wicked sense of humor—about rules, writing, regimes and coercion.
An additive third voice emerges next; the college guy who finally began to write propelled by his own volition while attending Bowdoin College, a private liberal arts college in Maine. At Bowdoin, a course he took and conversations he had with visiting scholar Noel Ignatiev, a radical Marxist who had applied his revolutionary ideas about immigrants to address false workforce alliances and the need for cross-racial solidarity, formed a lasting foundation for Kang’s left-leaning philosophies and political views.
Finally, there is Kang of today; a product of a toney education, comfortably working from home in Berkeley, earning an upper-middle-income salary, father of a five-year-old daughter. He shops at Berkeley Bowl, goes camping and worries about his daughter’s education. He is a man aware of, and alternately guilty and practical to the point of sounding dismissive of, the white-tied privileges from which he has benefited. Casting about for why—despite the “brutal assimilation” about which he writes in the book—it is that he and many other Asian Americans of his parents’ and his generation are left with the feeling that although they are not white, they are also not really people of color, he decides the term “Asian American” is a misguided label. Lacking a tribe, Kang therefore places himself and many other people of Asian descent among the loneliest Americans.
The book’s premise and central argument, Kang tells me, is simple. “How is this history really our history?” he asks. “Is it only a history of a much smaller Asian population with much different politics and different thoughts about race in America? That’s a large conversation and theme in the book: Whether or not this Asian American history and identity actually fits the vast majority of Asian people in the United States. My argument is that it doesn’t. That’s led to a lot of people getting mad and lots of debate. I think that’s better than not talking about it at all.”
In chapters effectively brisk and uninterrupted by footnotes, Kang’s deep research is evident. He covers, among other topics, the Hart-Celler’s profound influence on demographics in the United States; how businessmen transformed Flushing, N.Y., into an aggressively commercial immigrant hub; the historical tension between Black and Asian communities during and after the Los Angeles riots in the 1990s; microaggressive and vitriolic digital dialogue and politics in contemporary times; men’s-rights activists on the internet who rant about intermarriage or Asian men who troll Asian women for marrying white men; and protesters who participate in Black Lives Matter rallies holding “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power” signs.
“The brute assimilation idea isn’t exclusive to Asian Americans,” Kang says. “But for the first generation of Asian Americans who came to the United States after 1965, there was much more pressure to assimilate. You could find Asian communities in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, but it’s like we were on our own. If you’re a parent with a child who’s going to grow up in this country, what are you going to tell them? It’s ‘I don’t really know what’s gonna happen. I don’t really understand this country. But you go out to school and figure it out. Do everything you can to fit in.’ That was the mentality given or imposed on us: Make sure you can make it through here, but we don’t have advice to give you. My sister and I, there was a ‘we have to figure it out or we’re not going to make it.’ That does seem brutal to me, in retrospect.”
Asian kids Kang encounters today seem to him to be less pressured, less desperate to fit in with white or any other culture. “They grow up around many more Asian kids,” he says. “They have a better sense of retaining a type of culture. They’re not as quick to be ashamed of that. Outside of hate crimes right now, society accepts them as people who can exist in the American context without relinquishing everything that they brought over with them. In the ’80s, when my sister and I were growing up in Boston and North Carolina, there wasn’t that sort of tolerance. There was an expectation that we were going to assimilate. We got funneled right into that.”
“That same pressure to assimilate was likely true for first-generation Irish immigrants in the 19th century and most Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century,” he continues. “You lived in places where you are forced to interact with the dominant culture, and you either make it work or you don’t. That immigrant experience writ large has exceptions in places like here in the East Bay where certain migrant populations aren’t thinking of staying in America for a long time. They’re here to work and then to return [to their home countries]. But for people who envision multiple generations living in this country, I do think assimilation is the path.”
Often, he believes readers expect Horatio Alger stories from immigrants. He deliberately chose not to tell his story as one of emotional overcoming and triumph over adversity. “I read a recent story in a publication about a kid who grew up a lot like me, a Korean who grew up in the Boston area,” Kang says. “I grew up much poorer, and I’m older than him and probably went through more. But the way he framed his story was all about struggle. You’re talking about a childhood in Brookline, Mass., one of the wealthiest suburbs in America, one of the most progressive areas in the country. Why frame every immigrant story as victimization and ultimate triumph? I don’t think people’s lives are structured that way.”
“I could also tell my story in a certain way: My parents were born in South Korea, my grandparents escaped North Korea, my parents did not have a great childhood, born during the war, came to the United States and lived in a housing project for a while,” he adds. “But my story is not a story of incredible struggle and overcoming, even though all those things are true. The actual life of an immigrant is not experienced in that constant narrative. The reality is that I went to college and my parents were comfortable by the time I was in high school and now I’m fine. That seems more the story: ‘How does one become fine?’”
I ask Kang if “becoming fine” for his generation of Asian Americans demands that they fulfill a desire he writes about: “to be as white as white allows.” He says he lives an upper-middle-class, comfortable life. “And that’s sort of the point, right? That’s why your parents moved to a new country. They understand that, back in the home country, maybe that’s not a possibility,” he says. “In America, that was expressed through a certain type of whiteness in my experience. But my cousins, for example, all grew up in Koreatown in Los Angeles. They’re much more enclave-y than I am. They were raised entirely among Korean people. They don’t live there now—they’re all in the suburbs, in up-and-coming neighborhoods. So, even when you’re connected to your people within an immigrant mentality, your goal is to always move up in white mainstream society. I think that’s still true.”
Ignatiev’s central ideas about race and how whiteness operates and his belief that working class or oppressed people are impeded by false racial alliances and divisions that prevent them from finding solidarity, continue to sway Kang’s writing. “The best thing for [people other than the ultra-rich] would be that they join in solidarity with people who seem different because of artificial barriers,” he says. “My work is trying to dispel some of those [thought] barriers—not just in white people but in Asian, Black and Latino. The racial divisiveness that exists today makes people believe the divisions are real. My purpose in this book is to acknowledge that people on the left, like myself, we also pick up privileges and use them to divide from other people. All these things are somewhat illusory. Noel’s ideals were formed in the 1950s, in steel mills in the Midwest and gigantic factories with a whole bunch of Black and white workers. You have this setting for solidarity that doesn’t exist because the workforce is divided by race.”
“That’s not the situation you and I would have today in terms of our daily lives,” he continues. “We work in our houses or service industries where we’re all very isolated from each other. How does that work in today’s work life and a country that is no longer just white and Black? That is what I was hoping to accomplish with the work I do and in this book. I’ve taken his ideas and tweaked them for my context, for today.”
Realistically, Kang writes in the free-for-all digital environment that is rife with disinformation, shit-posting, fear mongering, manipulation of data and resource dumping. “We have this problem now that basically the internet allows us to be pretty well informed, but it also allows us to create any kind of narrative,” he says. “All a narrative is is stringing together three to four different points. If we accept those points as true, then we can create whatever story that we want.” He uses as an example the recent recall of three board members of the San Francisco School District. “Any type of narrative comes out of that, right? You could argue that the San Francisco School board election proves that school closures are so unpopular that Democrats are going to lose every election. Deep blue San Francisco did this. Another narrative is that they should have never screwed with Lowell High School. Asian people care deeply about Lowell. So in every city with a magnet school with a lot of Asian kids in it anywhere in America, the Asian population will vote against any progressive candidate that tries to address equity matters.”
In reality, either or both narratives might be false, but because of the internet and because anyone can find statistics that fit, they can be made to seem equally true. “Is it a bigger problem than when one person behind the New York Times desk put out one narrative and everyone else had to follow it?” Kang asks. “I don’t know, but I do know we’re living in a place of chaos. People can convince people of anything. We’re fractured in the way we process information. I think there’s no coherent narrative anywhere for the country, and that’s pretty harmful.”
I ask Kang if there is one thing he hopes will always be true about his writing. He mentions that, as a person who ironically benefited from an elite education and other privileges, he hopes to always hold central a responsibility to write about more than what happens at Yale or Google. He avoids judging whether or not his writing is consequential, good or bad, aiming instead for true feelings and to avoid posturing. “I judge it by whether or not I lied,” he says. “It tries to maintain honesty. I hope that I can keep going, because it’s the most important thing to me. If I can’t do that, I guess I’ll stop writing. I might fail at times, but it’s my ambition to write the truth.”