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Jay Caspian Kang Book Explores Asian American Identity

  • Jay Caspian Kang’s book The Loneliest Americans probes the shortcomings of Asian American politics.
  • The new, reported memoir explores how AAPI communities miss opportunity to show solidarity.
  • It calls for upwardly mobile Asian Americans to “take up the concerns of the less fortunate.” 

Children of immigrant families who attended predominantly white schools often share the experience of being ridiculed for their “smelly lunch.” 

In fact, getting teased for bringing ethnic food to school is such a common phenomenon, particularly for Asian Americans, that it’s become a hallmark of diaspora narratives. 

Jay Caspian Kang isn’t interested in writing “smelly lunchbox stories,” however. 

As he writes in his latest book The Loneliest Americans, he learned early on in a middle school English class that “there were two types of race writers.” 

There were “those who wrote straightforward narratives about oppression and whose work should be studied through an anthropological lens. Then there’s those who “engaged in the serious business of literature.” 

Both a novelist and a journalist, Kang wanted to find a way to combine both approaches. 

“The book in a lot of ways is an attempt to clear up some of the neuroses about how I should write about my immigrant story or how I should write about my race,” Kang said of The Loneliest Americans, which was released earlier this month. 

“I thought it would be good to start with some sort of acknowledgement that the process of writing immigration stories is pretty fraught and contested and I myself as I’m writing the book am feeling that,” the writer told Insider. 

In avoiding formulaic anecdotes about what it was like to grow up in the US as the child of Korean immigrants — including what is now known as the “smelly lunchbox” cliche — Kang is not attempting to undermine the painful and serious nature of being bullied over your race. 

He is simply more concerned with steering the conversation about Asian American issues beyond microaggressions and Hollywood representation. 

To Kang, the lack of Asian representation in C-Suites or white chefs appropriating Asian cuisine  get such outsized attention that they take the focus away from the significant struggles of poorer Asians and prevent Asian Americans from forming cohesive political movements. 

“Should we form our concerns around people like us, people who are doing alright,” Kang questioned. “Or should we form our politics around the people who are really precarious in our community?” 

“There are a lot of them,” Kang told Insider of unrepresented voices in the community. “Asian Americans have the highest gap between the wealthy and the poor of any racial group.” 

What does it mean to be Asian American? 

At the heart of The Loneliest Americans are several questions; among the most prominent is whether the categorization Asian American, a term so broad that Kang says it encompasses everyone from “Indian Americans, who have the highest incomes of any group of Asian-Americans to people from Cambodia, which tend to have much lower incomes on average,” is futile.  

“If we see things and we feel that we as a community are experiencing something that is happening to our people, what is that people?,” Kang asked. 

“How do we define that term?” he added. “How do we define who’s in that group and who’s out of that group?”  

As Kang details in the book, the term “Asian American” originated from the political activism of Berkeley students who founded the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA). 

Upwardly mobile Asian Americans must drop our neuroses about microaggressions and the bamboo ceiling, and fully align ourselves with the forgotten Asian America: the refugees, the undocumented, and the working class Jay Caspian Kang

“The term was directly political: an appeal for solidarity among people of Asian descent and a recognition that they shared the same struggle,” Kang writes. “What the struggle was — and is — remains largely undefined.” 

Kang situates the question of contemporary Asian American identity in an overarching historical narrative of Asian Americans’ presence in the US after the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act in 1965 – which lifted restrictions on Asian immigration, and through his own family’s personal history. 

He said the threads about his own family were among the most challenging parts of the book to write. 

“You feel like you’re betraying your family in some way and you wonder what they’re going to think,” Kang said. “I think a lot about my own kid and the country she’s going to inherit and how she’s going to think about herself.

He then posed a question to himself: “Do I really want this child to have to read this and to know about the anxiety of her parents?” 

The Loneliest Americans has sparked intracultural criticism 

Kang has cause to be concerned about how the book is received; The Loneliest Americans has sparked intracultural criticism, though not necessarily in response to the sections in which he writes about his own family. 

Instead, most of the feedback seems to be centered around the book’s call-to-action to reimagine Asian American identity so that AAPI communities and other marginalized groups will garner strengthened political power. 

“To find a meaningful place in politics,” Kang argues in the book’s epilogue. “One that doesn’t require us to lie about ‘white adjacency’ or ignore the pain of everyone who looks like us, upwardly mobile Asian Americans must drop our neuroses about microaggressions and the bamboo ceiling, and fully align ourselves with the forgotten Asian America: the refugees, the undocumented, and the working class.” 

A cover of Jay Caspian Kang's "The Loneliest Americans"

Jay Caspian Kang’s “The Loneliest Americans” calls for politics that center the most marginalized Asian Americans.

Courtesy of The Crown Publishing Group

Critics argue that while the sentiment of his argument may be well-intentioned, Kang dismisses decades of academic research and activism that centers the most marginalized AAPI communities in making it. 

“He despairs that no one—not a single person!—examines the lives of underprivileged Asian Americans, but then focuses on the slice of the community most proximate to himself: middle-class + East Asian Americans,” wrote one critic on Twitter. 

Kang noted that he decided to write the book after more than 10 years writing on Asian American issues and that he only decided to write The Loneliest Americans versus as a way for him to more deeply “interrogate” his own ideas and engage with previous research.

“I felt a few years ago that I was starting to come to some conclusions I felt confident in — and I don’t think these conclusions necessarily need to be held up as statues,” Kang said. “But I did feel more confident that I was right about some things about Asian Americans and immigrants, which is when I decided to write a book.” 

Kang and others, including several Asian American studies professors have argued that the book  draws significantly on past scholarship, including archival work and histiographies — something they say is especially notable for a book that’s geared towards a general and non-academic audience. 

“If they had just opened up the book, they would see that they’re wrong,” Kang said of some of his online critics. “I’ve spent the past 10 years reporting on these communities. To have that all erased and have people lie about the work you’ve done, to have them classify it as some self-hating rich kid who’s just talking about himself, I don’t know how to respond to that besides saying, ‘that’s just not true.'” 

“I’ve just stopped responding [to the online criticism], because there’s nothing I can do about it,” he added. “I hope that anyone who has these questions will just Google the work I’ve done and I think they’ll find the truth is very different from what some of the people are accusing me of.” 

The Loneliest Americans calls for greater unity with the most marginalized Asian Americans

Despite controversy over the book, The Loneliest Americans is inspiring dialogue about how Asian Americans of more privileged positions can show up and avoid further marginalizing the most vulnerable members of their ethnic group. 

By the end of The Loneliest Americans, the question remains: what would a class-conscious multiethnic coalition look like in practice? 

Kang told Insider “it requires people who are generally in control of the messaging around Asian Americans and who are generally upwardly mobile professional people to take up the concerns of their group who are less fortunate.” 

He added that issues like Asian representation are harder to organize multiracial and multiethnic groups of people around compared to issues of immigration and economic justice. Those movements affect multiple groups. 

“Right now Asian American politics are so obsessed with microaggressions and Hollywood representation and I don’t think those are fertile grounds for solidarity,” Kang said. 

“But if we shift the focus and location of those politics to the people who are struggling the most, we’ll have a better chance at solidarity with other groups who can say they also have these same struggles.”

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