He prefers to focus on the dilemmas, successes and struggles of particular Asian-Americans, including Cho; Eddie Huang, the rebel celebrity chef; and Amy Chua, the notorious tiger mom. While he admires Huang more than Chua, he considers both to be resolute individualists who refuse to back down when faced with the disapproval of Asian-Americans or Americans as a whole. They know who they are, even if who they are happens to be contradictory and provocative. This self-assertion — or brashness — makes them characteristically American.
Cho represents the flip side of their success, and Yang’s essay on the shooter, which was first published in n + 1 in 2008 and established Yang as a writer to reckon with, remains his best work, probably because here he comes face to face with himself most vividly. Cho was an Asian-American man whose depression and rage appeared to be tied to his misogyny and his experience of being rejected by women. Contemplating Cho, Yang says: “The Asian man knows something of the resentment of the embattled white man … and something of the resentments of the rising social-justice warrior. … Tasting of the frustrations of both, he is denied the entitlements of either.”
Cho was an extreme manifestation of this resentful, racialized masculinity, and Yang confesses an ambivalent kinship with him as an “unlovable” man himself. Looking at Cho’s face, Yang feels “a very personal revulsion. … Those lugubrious eyes, that elongated face behind wire-frame glasses: He looks like me.” This is the emotional crux of the book, one Yang barely pursues beyond this essay. If Yang had pressed further in examining himself or other Asian-Americans, he might have been able to develop a new approach to the Asian-American condition, one that addressed the hatreds and self-hatreds born from racism and internalized racism.
The older approach to this problem emerged after 1968, when radical college students coined the term “Asian-American.” Being “Asian-American” meant being anti-imperialist, antiwar, antiracist and anticapitalist. If racism harmed you as an individual, the solution was both to change yourself, by developing a political consciousness, and to undertake collective action, by attacking racism and everything related to it. That legacy of merging individual and collective transformation still exists today in nonprofit organizations, grass-roots activism, some campus student groups and even among some elected politicians, including Jane Kim, who serves on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, and the California congresswoman Judy Chu.
This Asian-American legacy in politics and art is invisible to Yang, who does not even mention Frank Chin, the writer who most forcefully dealt with the agonies of Asian-American manhood. Chin, who connected racial emasculation to the treatment of Asian-Americans as objects of “racist love” (as opposed to the “racist hate” directed against African-Americans), argued that Asian-American writing had to be a form of fighting. Yang flails rather than fights, which suggests that there is something inadequate about the Asian-American legacy for him. He may not be alone. His neglect of historical forebears and his almost exclusive focus on the personal is indicative of a generational shift in Asian-American thinking; revolution is not very fashionable today.