First World Problems
The Loneliest Americans, by Jay Caspian King, Penguin Random House, 272 pages, $27
Jay Caspian Kang’s life story is both extraordinary and somewhat normal for families like his.
His parents’ family had roots in North Korea, although they fled to the South in the leadup and aftermath of what is known in America as the “Korean War.” Upon getting married, his father and mother moved to the U.S. They arrived with relatively humble means, yet his parents enjoyed significant social mobility and their children flourished in the U.S. too. Although his path was far from straightforward, Kang ultimately attained a B.A. from an elite liberal arts college (Bowdoin) and an MFA from an Ivy League university (Columbia). He published a well-regarded novel. He worked as a reporter and/or editor for ESPN, The New Yorker, Vice, and elsewhere before joining The New York Times, where his columns are consistently great.
His latest book, The Loneliest Americans, draws on his own family’s story and his reporting over the years to explore what it means to be Asian in America today. It deftly situates his own life and work within the broader journey of Asians in America, from the mid-1800s through the present. The book was inspired by the birth of his daughter, whose mother is non-Asian. Thinking about how his child would come to navigate her hyphenated identity led Kang to reflect on his own struggles with these questions, and on the struggles of his peers, and on those of the generations that came before.
A New Identity
“Asian American” as an identity was born in Berkeley in 1968. The term was coined by the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA), which sought to forge a new pan-ethnic coalition, modeled on the black power movement (and the nascent Chicano movement), to address challenges that different Asian groups held in common.
Through the 1960s, one thing most of the largest Asian groups in America shared was an intimate connection to U.S. military intervention abroad, from the pacification and eventual conquest of Hawai’i, to the colonization of the Philippines, to World War II and the subsequent occupation of Japan (where roughly 55 thousand U.S. soldiers remain stationed to this day), to the Korean War (nearly 29 thousand U.S. troops continue to be stationed in Korea) and the Vietnam War (where U.S. withdrawal was accompanied by ambitious refugee resettlement programs).
Large numbers of Asians became Americans in the wake of these conflicts by marrying one of the U.S. soldiers occupying their home country. Family unification policies eventually allowed parents, siblings, and other relatives of military spouses to come over as well. These migrants ended up living, and building rich community ties, on or near military bases. Other Asians directly served in the military themselves throughout U.S. history, with many attaining naturalized citizenship in exchange for fighting on America’s behalf.
Consequently, from the late 1800s through the mid-1960s, Asian America had a particularly intense, ambivalent, and complicated relationship to the United States and its war machine.
Beyond the invasions and occupations abroad, the U.S. has a long and shameful history of domestic oppression, exploitation, exclusion, and violence against Asians. In many respects, Chinatowns and Japantowns are living monuments to this history. (As Kang notes, Koreatowns were a bit different. They were established later, as a positive project, to carve out an ethnic enclave for Korean Americans that rivaled or exceeded the Chinatowns and Japantowns that were flourishing in many U.S. cities at the time.)
The AAPA constructed an “Asian American” identity around this common history, organizing students of Asian ancestry to resist discrimination at home and military adventurism abroad. But from the outset of the project, there were tensions along the lines of ethnicity and class. And before long, even the common threads of war and domestic oppression would grow more tenuous.
Kang details how immigration was tightly restricted during the period that American oppression, violence, and exclusion of Asians was most pronounced. At the time the U.S. began to open up again, the most egregious hostility and restrictions had been done away with. Indeed, one reason the laws could be liberalized is because the public had grown less hostile towards immigration in general, and to Asian Americans in particular, in the period following World War II.
Despite this liberalization, when the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act relaxed U.S. immigration restrictions, the White House downplayed its likely impact. President Lyndon Johnson insisted that the legislation wasn’t that big of a deal and that it wouldn’t change the fabric of U.S. society much in the long run. He was wrong.
Today, immigrants’ share of the total U.S. population is approaching levels not seen in more than a century. Asian migrants have been key drivers of that growth. Through the 1970s and ’80s, a plurality of all U.S. immigrants hailed from Asia. Asian migrants were briefly outpaced by immigrants from Latin America in the ’90s and early ’00s, but since 2008 a plurality of new migrants to the United States have been Asian once again. Since 1965, Asian Americans have risen from less than one-half of one percent of the U.S. population to more than 6 percent (according to 2020 U.S. Census estimates). The total number of Asians in America today is roughly 20 times what it was when Hart-Celler was signed into law.
Consequently, for most Asian Americans, their family history in the U.S. begins after 1965. In Kang’s verbiage, they are children of Hart-Celler.
These post-Hart-Celler waves of migrants generally had no direct connection to the worst of America’s mistreatment of Asians. Neither they nor their parents nor their grandparents nor any direct ancestor experienced internment, legal exclusion, or the most vicious strains of racism and racialized violence against Asians in America.
Moreover, after the fall of Saigon in 1975, U.S. military operations largely pivoted away from East Asia, growing increasingly focused on the Middle East and North Africa instead. Immigration patterns also shifted away from Asian countries where the U.S. had waged major conflicts. In recent decades, Chinese and Indian immigrants have come over in much higher numbers than migrants from other Asian countries, with these two groups now amounting to nearly half (45 percent) of the contemporary Asian-American population. As a function of these changes, the imprint of the United States military and its campaigns abroad—both the scars and the ties—have grown markedly less pronounced within America’s Asian population as well.
For the children of Hart-Celler, America largely represented freedom, opportunity, and hope. For all its flaws, America was less corrupt, nepotistic, and parochial than the countries they hailed from. There were fewer barriers to mobility. There was more stability and opportunity. Many from ethnic or religious minority subgroups faced markedly less persecution in the U.S. than they did in their countries of origin. The post-1965 immigrants flocked to the U.S. because they believed in the American dream, and their children often embody the realization of that dream, even if they come to hold a more jaundiced view of the U.S. than their parents.
Generally speaking, Asian migrants have been able to build comfortable lives in America and to see their children flourish here. According to several conventional metrics of success, Asian Americans have managed not just to match whites on average but to exceed them. But not all Asian Americans have been able to flourish the same way. Asians are the most socioeconomically polarized racial and ethnic bloc in the U.S., with particularly stark divisions along the lines of national origin.
Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Taiwanese, Thai, Malaysian, Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Pakistani, and Indian Americans all enjoy educational attainment rates and average household incomes that are significantly higher than overall U.S. averages. Vietnamese Americans are roughly at level with the U.S. averages on these measures. Bangladeshi, Hmong, Cambodian, Burmese, Bhutanese, and Laotian Americans, however, have much smaller and less-established populations in the U.S. Consequently, they do not have the same access to ethnically oriented networks and infrastructures to help them, and they often mig
Article from Reason.com