2020 — the pandemic-induced anti-Asian hate crimes and the much delayed American (re)awakening of our continued disembodiment of Black bodies — has forced me to reckon with being Asian-American. Jolted from past ambivalence, I happened upon Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong and Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu which were respectively published in February and January this year.
Why is it that Asian-Americans — or I? — never neatly fit into our country’s racial dialogue?
I finished Minor Feelings in late March. It was the apex of violence towards Asian-Americans, a renewal of confusion on what faces get to assimilate into this country and a reminder that some may never shed their outsider baggage (re: Andrew Yang’s ‘proving your Americanness’).
I remember feeling struck by Hong’s assertion that “Asian Americans inhabit a vague purgatorial status: Not white enough nor black enough; distrusted by African Americans, ignored by whites, unless we’re being used by whites to keep the black man down.”
In her essays, Hong embraces with precision the nuances of how Asian-Americans are societally positioned and perceived. She retells an encounter with a white man who claims that ‘Asians are next in line to be white,” but her retrospective lens allows her to vivisect the experience. Hong writes: “Patiently educating a clueless white person about race is draining … It’s like explaining to a person why you exist, or why you feel pain, or why your reality is distinct from their reality.” As our narrator, Hong doesn’t allow us into her past without injecting her dissection of it, preventing voyeurism of her life; instead, Hong subjects us to her complex and full understanding of what it means to be Asian-American today.
This pocket of personal history flows into a cultural one: Excluding to recognize the Chinese laborers who died over building the Transcontinental Railroad but “[made] Manifest Destiny a reality.”
What makes Hong such a trustworthy writer is her acknowledgment of all flaws and biases — including her own. She writes, “I have to confess, though, that I have a hard time embracing the nineteenth-century history of Chinese America as my history, because my ancestors were still in Korea, doing what, I don’t know.”
Because, as Hong also points out, to most white Americans, “Asian American” is a conglomerate faceless term, a catch-all bucket rather than a “tenuous alliance of many nationalities.”
Although the Asian-American ‘alliance’ creates solidarity, it has also, for the ignorant, wiped away individuality, creating a lump sum of our differences and taking the averages rather than asking, as Hong does, “Do I mean Southeast Asian, South Asian, East Asian, and Pacific Islander, queer and Straight, Muslim and non-Muslim, rich and poor?”
Hong develops a structure of fluidity between her personal histories, stories of friends and family, and cultural memory; this provides multiple perspectives for seeing the fullness of Asian America and its formation. This wealth of sources is also the catalyst for Hong’s coming-to-terms with the Asian-American aspect of her identity, because central to this text is it’s subtitle: “An Asian American Reckoning” (my italics) — a reminder that each person’s reckoning can take different forms. In following Hong’s process, we can also gain insight into our own journey.
Written as a screenplay, Interior Chinatown couldn’t be more different in form from Hong’s Minor Feelings, but it explores similar questions of race relations and what it means to play a pre-written role.
Quasi-realistic, partly absurdist and mostly satirical, Interior Chinatown tells the story of mediocre actor Willis Wu who lives and works in the Golden Palace — a TV set, restaurant and SRO (referencing both single room occupancy and standing room only).
The story begins: “Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy. You are not Kung Fu Guy. You are currently Background Oriental Male, but you’ve been practicing. Maybe tomorrow will be the day.”
Woven in between points of dialogue is Charles Yu’s narration (or creation) of this TV show universe within the Interior Chinatown universe. He explains: “BLACK AND WHITE. Two cops, one of each race. In the opening credits they drive around in a black-and-white police car, even though they’re detectives. Which doesn’t make sense…But the template works, and you don’t mess with a working template.”
In the TV-show universe (within the Interior Chinatown universe — the meta nature of the novel blends the layers of reality so that they become nearly indistinguishable), no one has a name, as they play flattened depictions of themselves. Black, White, and Generic Asian Man are little more than their race. In pursuing acting, Willis sometimes loses himself in his Generic Asian Man persona, his own consciousness becoming what external forces expect of him.
Yu continues meandering us through this world, where the heroes are Black and White (and occasionally a “Floating Latina”), because
“There’s just something about Asians that makes reality a little too real, overcomplicates the clarity, the duality, the clean elegance of BLACK and WHITE…The decision is made but it’s not a decision at all, it’s the opposite. It’s the way things are. You do the cop show. You get your little check. You wonder: Can you change it? Can you be the one who actually breaks through?”
“You” refers to Willis, whose dream of becoming Kung Fu Guy pretty much sums up his life’s ambitions, but for the Asian-American audience, it also asks us the same questions — though it may not be Kung Fu Guy, what roles are we limiting ourselves to? What interior ‘Chinatown’ do we trap ourselves in? Does the arc cut by our livelihoods render us a caricature, merely filling in a pre-drawn outline of who we are expected to be?
The choice of second person narration in Interior Chinatown is a telling one. Beyond extending these questions to us, our protagonist Willis Wu is finally in the spotlight as an anti-hero, one who barely holds the agency to tell his own story.
Whereas Minor Feelings was Hong’s Asian-American reckoning, Interior Chinatown is Willis Wu’s; it’s his coming-to terms with his feelings of ‘internalized inferiority,’ the futility of his prescribed dreams, and the tension between assimilation and cultural preservation. Though heavily dependent on tropes like kung-fu and Yao Ming, Interior Chinatown allows for a re-foray into the perpetuation of cliched roles, and how we allow them to be perpetuated — hopefully, also allowing us to reconsider the stereotypes and tropes that rule into our own lives.
Cecilia Lu is a junior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. She can be reached at [email protected].