Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings and Asian American Erasure
A new book explores the erasure and devaluation of Asian American women.
Posted Mar 10, 2020
I eagerly downloaded the preview of acclaimed poet Cathy Park Hong’s newly released book of autobiographical essays,
I noted that her opening paragraphs revealed hypervigilance and insecurity about her perceived facial tic and her overall physiognomy and body image—anxieties that were familiar to me, being shared by many others of all races and genders, but particularly by Asian American women, in my experience. This mirrored (no pun intended) the opening to Wesley Yang’s award-winning 2011 New York Magazine article “Paper Tigers,” in which he describes his estrangement from his own face and what it represents.
Soon, Hong’s anxieties and burgeoning depression lead her to seek professional help. She finds a Korean American therapist on her insurance panel and sees her, out of an admittedly naïve hope that another Korean American would just know her by looking at her. The fraught tension of similarity and difference, being welcomed and being rejected, becomes excruciating as therapist “Eunice Cho” (not her real name), with an “enormous face,” first touches her deep wounds of family trauma by asking, “Was there ever a time in childhood where you felt comfort?”—collapsing Hong into sobs and cathartic recounting—and then peremptorily shuts the door to future therapy with unreturned phone calls, excuses about insurance coverage, and then a statement that they weren’t “right for each other.”
Hong has just been rejected on the brink of what she hoped would be total cultural embrace, what therapists might call a “corrective emotional experience,” making up for the voids of the past. Instead, she gets a repetition of experience, as the crack of light offered in that first session becomes a painful illumination of her alienation from society and from herself.
I clicked the “buy” button immediately. As a psychiatrist, I couldn’t not read Hong’s journey. Minor Feelings is a must-read for anyone interested in the issues of Asian American women or anyone else whose identity is left out of or devalued by a limited cultural imagination.
Like all therapists, I’ve had lapses of empathy in my career, and sometimes had patients who were painfully close to issues I’d struggled with. I’m sure Eunice Cho had her reasons for not working with Hong, though I might have suggested that being more transparent rather than less would have been the more therapeutic choice. This episode underscored for me the need for all therapists to really invest in their own therapy, particularly around issues of relating to their patients.
Culturally competent therapy (particularly language competence, when needed) can be life-saving, but it’s really hard to find. This doesn’t mean the therapist has to match the cultural identity of the patient, but rather that they are compassionate and humble in trying to understand their patient’s world and life from their point of view.
My residency mentor, Seymour Boorstein, always told me that therapy won’t work unless you love your patient. This has always been an imperative to me to work harder at loving and understanding my patients, especially when it’s difficult. Compassion is “how we do human”; and most of our patients come to us because of failures in love and compassion, in a world that is run through and through with those failures, from empires to socio-economic systems to cultures to communities, families, and all kinds of relationships.
Individually and collectively, these failures of love and compassion dehumanize us. Psychoanalyst Michael Balint called this “the basic fault,” that “missing something” (love) in early childhood relationships. Bowlby said as much in emphasizing relatedness in identity: “There is no such thing as a baby. There is a baby and someone.”
As I wrote in Facebuddha, “we are who happens to us and what we make of the happening.” Or in the Ubuntu proverb, “people become people through other people.” You can’t have good relatedness or a stable social being without compassion.
Hong provides ample examples from her own life and the lives of other Asian American women of traumatic failures of love and compassion and their visible manifestation, justice. Her mother and grandmother (and father), victims and survivors of the Korean war; the writer/artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who was raped and murdered in 1982 in New York City; her college roommates “Erin” and “Helen,” who strive for artistic visibility and expression, Helen while struggling with mental illness, and Erin worried about acceptance in the art world. Hong herself experienced physical and emotional abuse in her family, as well as a lifetime of racist and sexist incidents in the context of a racist and sexist society.
Racism, to Hong, is the cornerstone of the vast edifice of a malevolent empire that has traumatized us all. At times she holds these personal and cultural traumas self-consciously as not being “as bad” as other minorities have had it, particularly Blacks. But she is transformed by devouring the comedy of Richard Pryor, who is able to expose his own "minor feelings" of shame, anxiety, and inadequacy, as well as provoke his white audiences into discomfort and laughter about racism and race relations all at once. Pryor’s genius and example was in unflinchingly inhabiting and exploring his own identity onstage—something which Hong strives to do herself, in life, in poetry, and also as a stand-up comedian. Minor feelings are subterranean, dismissed by the conscious mind, yet powerful, capable of continental upheaval.
As she went deeply into cultural wounds as reflected in the lives and art of these women and herself, I found resonance with my own life. It was perhaps not coincidental that the week I read her book I also experienced an incident of what I felt was erasure in my own life. I cycled through moments of trying to appease, placate, mollify, and win over those who I thought I might have offended and whose displeasure I read between the lines of emails that seemed to be “missing something,” and then moments of feeling frustrated and angry myself.
Since I’d just taught another round of compassion classes, I did my best to channel compassion for those on the other end of the communication stream. What I tried to remember was that what I was experiencing—a deprivation of connection and respect and a devaluation of my contribution—was likely in the histories of the people consciously or unconsciously meting these out to me. In the heat of the moment, many of us can only give as good as we’ve gotten. And there’s a lot amongst us who haven’t gotten enough.
What might reduce Hong or any of these individuals she writes about to tears, anger, or artistic expression are not only Eunice Cho’s question, “Was there ever a time in childhood where you felt comfort?” but also the questions, “Have you ever felt deprived, devalued, abandoned, erased, alienated, or alone?” For those of us who have experienced these, it’s where we go when we again experience aggression, disconnection, or unfair or seemingly insurmountable barriers. How to dig ourselves out?
Hong ends on a hopeful note, contrasting the losses and struggles of the women she’s described with the life journey of the Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama, who among other accomplishments was one of the leaders of the Redress and Reparations movement. The blights of social injustice and personal trauma can only be eradicated through political consciousness and activism, in this view.
She quotes another activist, Tom Ikeda, protesting immigrant detention at Fort Sill, Oklahoma: “We need to be the allies for vulnerable communities today that Japanese Americans didn’t have in 1942.” Hong writes, “We were always here.” I read this as a somewhat ambivalent and self-conscious call to arms, as in, “we are here, but we aren’t always what we need to be.” We do need to be—here for each other.
If this book had any flaws, it would be in the way Hong projects whiteness as a harsh, unrelenting, rejecting monolith—perhaps the manifestation of all the rejection she’s experienced in her life. Perhaps it is the common thread, for her. It may be useful for us all to interrogate whiteness with this kind of pointed critique, and it certainly reflects the kind of narcissistic, tribalistic, antagonistic, zero-sum, win-lose—and let’s say it, white supremacist—politics that have risen to the fore, but it makes it hard to negotiate the uncertain, slippery reality of identity.
White people are not all the same, of course. (I'm sure Hong knows this.) And for me, at least, the problem lies in how individuals and institutions embody power, lose empathy and compassion, and can tend to devalue those who are different, disagree, or dissent. Individuals and institutions can get so attached to themselves, and their opinions, that they become detached from interdependent reality, in an attempt at self-preservation and “victory” which can only be pyrrhic.
If this abuse of power is the ultimate problem, then only the practice of love—including the practice of justice and equality—can be the solution. I don’t think anyone can win in a battle of identities. I think our only hope is in growing into an interdependent identity through listening, understanding, and valuing both our common humanity and the differences that make us who we are.
The last few years have made the web of trauma palpable. Asian American memoirists like Hong, Ocean Vuong (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), and Jia Tolentino (Trick Mirror) come at a crucial juncture in the awakening of our collective psyche. They bring us closer to transforming the web of trauma into a web of healing.
I urge you to read them all.
(c) 2020 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.
For more on Asian American issues and compassion, see these lectures.
including "Compassion in Difficult Times"