Below are a couple of the core themes introduced in Kang’s book that are generating discussion:
- The Paradox of Feeling Isolated Despite Presumed Group Membership
Originally introduced in Kang's 2017 article in The New York Times Magazine, Kang describes Asians as the “loneliest” Americans to signal feelings of estrangement that he believes are widespread amongst AAPI people today. Further, Kang argues that prevailing narratives used to frame the contemporary Asian American community not only fail to capture differing lived experiences but can also exacerbate psychological distress.
In Kang’s article, he elaborates: “The collective political consciousness of the ’80s has been replaced by the quiet, unaddressed isolation that comes with knowing that you can be born in this country, excel in its schools and find a comfortable place in its economy and still feel no stake in the national conversation. The current vision of solidarity among Asian-Americans is cartoonish and blurry… A common past can be accessed only through dusty, dug-up things: the murder of Vincent Chin, Korematsu v. United States, the Bataan Death March and the illusion that we are going through all these things together…”
- “Asian American” Identity is More Complex Than Meets the Eye
Kang explains that “Asian American” initially emerged as an identity on college campuses in the 1960s as part of an AAPI-led effort to reclaim their identities from racist epithets like “Oriental” that were widely used at the time as well as unite disparate communities under a common identifier that reflected the ways that Asian-descended peoples were already being grouped by others. Their collective action focused on issues including immigration, exclusion, labor exploitation, isolation, land dispossession, racism, discrimination, and transforming education to represent AAPI and other marginalized peoples better. AAPI activists advanced this agenda in connection with the Third World Liberation Front—a pan-Asian collective that worked in partnership with Black, Chicanx, Arab, and Indigenous groups to establish Ethnic Studies on college campuses for the first time.
Despite its political origins, Kang observes that “Asian American” has since become more of a demographic descriptor that is no longer tethered to the agendas noted above and is now simply invoked to describe an ever-expanding array of peoples with radically different lived experiences and political priorities. Kang argues that for AAPI people who are refugees, undocumented, and/or supporting themselves through working-class employment, their lives look nothing like those of counterparts who are more wealthy, educated, and/or have U.S. citizenship. Many in this latter group, in Kang’s view, have adopted an identity politics that disavows the needs of the former group and focuses, instead, on assimilation into the white middle-class elite via elite education and careers.
- Immigrant Solidarity Must Be Rebuilt
Despite the unceasing complexity and heterogeneity of today’s AAPI community and the term “Asian American,” Kang ultimately asks what it would look like to recapture meaningful pan-Asian solidarity in the present that can advance a number of important political agendas and quell the “loneliness” he describes.
Despite their differences, these recent works of writing and film reflect some of the different ways that AAPI people are experiencing, navigating, and actively transforming “single story” narratives about Asianness. We invite educators to consider the following questions that tie these broad themes to their work in the classroom:
– How are the themes and debates that these AAPI figures are touching upon surfacing in your own classroom or community?
– Do these ideas inspire you to revisit the histories you cover and the materials (e.g. texts, films, primary sources, etc) that you employ to teach them? If so, how?
– What resources are you exploring and/or insights may you be offering as your community contends with these questions?