Each book on its own tells a part of the Asian American experience and together shed light on the complexities of the roles we play.
After spending seven years immersing myself in the creative Asian American community––think YouTubers, Crazy Rich Asians, even subtle asian traits––I’m pretty familiar with how the conversation about representation in media goes. It boils down to the lack of roles, the lack of opportunities to tell our own stories, and the stereotypes Asians in entertainment get pigeon holed into. Half a decade of listening to and discussing all that got tiring, so I initially avoided reading Charles Yu’s latest book. Turns out Interior Chinatown is less in conversation with Hollywood, and more alined with Cathy Park Hong’s book, Minor Feelings. Reading each tells different perspectives of the Asian American identity, and together unlock a sharp commentary of how that experience shapes us.
Charles Yu’s third novel, Interior Chinatown, takes place in Chinatown, USA, because Chinatown can be anywhere and represent anything. It’s the constant backdrop of China in America that’s supposed to represent a foreign place carved out of the American existence. Exotic and other, even though its history goes as far back as the United States itself. The main building the story takes place functions as the Golden Palace restaurant on the first floor and single room housing (SRO) in the units above. Willis Wu spent his entire life in Int. Chinatown living in one of the units and working in the kitchen of the Golden Palace when he’s not an actor. As an actor, he’s relegated to the jobs of Asian Guy and Background Oriental Male on the cop chow, “Black and White,” that’s perpetually filming in the neighborhood. Wu dreams of being the ultimate character for an Asian man in acting––Kung Fu Guy––and moving his life beyond the SRO. As he moves up the ladder of bit players in TV, Wu starts to realize the different roles he plays in his life; in the end, being an Asian person in America means there’s no real moving on from Int. Chinatown.
I think the back of the book did a really bad job explaining Interior Chinatown, but it did the best it could given Yu’s abstract and absurdist style. The book is a satirical look at being Asian, specifically Chinese, in America and the parts we take on. How we’re taught to fit into these molds, how and why we’re expected to behave to conform to those expectations, and why we end up doing exactly that. Minor Feelings, on the other side of the coin, offers thoughtful insights as answers to the questions Interior Chinatown asks. Starting from Hong’s definition of minor feelings––“The radicalized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” –– her book reflects on the marginalized space Asian Americans occupy. The margins not only in America, but also how we marginalize ourselves within our minds. Circling back to Yu’s book, then, he takes those minor thoughts and feelings and shows that lived experience.
Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings is, I think, less biography and more essay collection. It’s based on her experiences as a writer, teacher, poet, and Korean American, the intersection of all those identities at once and as its own facet. By retelling her friendships in art school, finding a therapist, investigating the history of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and her book Dictee, bad English, and the uneasy mixture of privilege and guilt of being neither Black nor white in America. Minor Feelings is also a contemplation on what even being “Asian American” means, what strenuous ties unite this community and ways we’ve internalized our proximity to whiteness. Hong’s Asian American reckoning means looking at and thinking about uncomfortable questions and history rarely taught in schools. I found myself reading her words with a pen in hand, underlining constantly or adding my own thoughts in the margins. I recognized her thoughts as my own, for better or worse, from the guilt, the anger, and the questioning my own feelings. But as much as I recalled my own memories and examples, reading Interior Chinatown later crystalized Minor Feelings in sharper relief.
“Hollywood, an industry that shapes not only our national but global memories, has been the most reactionary cultural perpetrator of white nostalgia, stuck in a time loop…” Minor Feelings.
This comparison sounds the most obvious given Interior Chinatown takes place in a fictionalized world trapped within a TV show. That obviousness is what sets off how well matched the two books are––Interior Chinatown is set in a literal time loop, its rules or reality dictated by Hollywood’s outdated mindset and standards. Willis Wu can’t escape, nor imagine what a life outside Int. Chinatown could be because his existence has been laid out before him, shaped by false memories of an industry never built for him to begin with.
“Pity the Asian accent. It is such a degraded accent, one of the last accents acceptable to mock. How hard it is to speak through it to make yourself heard. […] I have noticed that a new TV Asian accents has emerged, an accent used by no Asian except for Asian American actors onscreen: this accent is gentle, sitcom-friendly, easy listening.” Minor Feelings.
Yu’s characters are all aware fo the scripted world they inhibit, breaking the formatted style to add their own meta asides to one another. His use of the accent, one of the most debated topics in the media rep circles, is therefore a tool. Willis Wu, as all Asian American actors, uses it to appease the show runners, perceived audience, and the larger metaphor of whiteness itself.
“Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy.” Minor Feelings.
This quotes come sin the middle of a section where Hong talks about how Asian Americans are viewed as passive and invaluable in popular imagination. The section after the quote goes on to detail the result of internalizing that ghostly status, unsatisfied with everything about your appearance, seeing others as competition and not community, and the need to elevate yourself in their eyes…whoever “they” might be, even though we all know. That self-hatred drives the angst of Interior Chinatown, the conflict beginning as between person vs. self and ultimately person vs. society. Willis Wu is trying too hard to fit into the white view, and fails, and he hates himself and those around him for it.
“I have to address whiteness because Asian Americans have yet to truly reckon with where we stand in the capitalist white supremacist hierarchy fo this country.” Minor Feelings.
In the end, Interior Chinatown arrives at this same conclusion. It doesn’t offer definitive answers––the same way Minor Feelings sets up the point, lays out the evidence, but doesn’t absolve readers, us, Asian Americans of our guilt, privilege, and compliance. There’s no simple answer, plan of action, place to start, or easy way out. Is it enough to live a life aware of the spaces you occupy in the larger American scheme? What does a life in the margins look live, versus one actively in struggle? To loosely combine quotes from each book, living a life in the margins, made up of different little bits, begins with viewing our consciousness free of the conditions set up for us. We, Asian Americans, don’t need to justify our existence––“We were always here.”––but what does that continued existence look like?
I only understood Minor Feelings after I read Interior Chinatown. Thinking about each one on its own is a great place to start questioning the “Asian” “American” “experience” and start figuring our place in each part of that equation. Together, however, is where I felt the full picture came into view. Interior Chinatown is about examining the roles we, Asian people living in America, play in our lives. Minor Feelings examines the impact of how being those roles affects us throughout our lives. Together, both books create a novel Asian American reckoning.
Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown is available now: Bookshop.org.
Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings is available now: Boookshop.org.