The Myth of Asian American Identity
During the first days of the Trump administration, when my attention was split between the endless scroll of news on my phone and my infant daughter, who was born five days before the inauguration, I often found myself staring at her eyes, still puffy and swollen from her birth. My wife is half Brooklyn Jew, half Newport WASP, and throughout her pregnancy, I assumed that our child would look more like her than like me. When our daughter was born with a full head of dark hair and almond-shaped eyes, the nurses all commented on how much she looked like her father, which, I admit, felt a bit unsettling, not because of any racial shame but because it has always been difficult for me to see myself in anyone or anything other than myself. But now, while my wife slept at night, I would stand over our daughter’s bassinet, compare her face at one week with photos of myself at that delicate, lumpen age and worry about what it might mean to have an Asian-looking baby in this America rather than one who could either pass or, at the very least, walk around with the confidence of some of the half-Asian kids I had met — tall, beautiful, with strange names and a hard edge to their intelligence.
These pitiful thoughts quickly passed — for better or worse, my talent for cultivating creeping doubts is only surpassed by an even greater talent for chopping them right above the root. The worries were replaced by the normalizing chores of young fatherhood. But sometimes during her naps, I would play the “Goldberg Variations” on our living-room speakers and try to imagine the contours of her life to come.
My daughter spent her first two years in a prewar apartment building with dusty sconces and cracked marble steps in the lobby. The hallways had terrible light because the windows had been painted over with what in a less enlightened time might have been called a “flesh tone” color. Such cosmetic problems will improve with the arrival of more people like us — the shared spaces will begin to look like the building’s gut-renovated apartments, with their soapstone countertops, recessed light fixtures, the Sub-Zero refrigerators bought as an investment for the inevitable sale four to six years down the road.
At the time, it seemed like the other markers of her upper-middle-class life — grape leaves from the Middle Eastern grocery Sahadi’s, the Japanese bridges of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, weekends at her grandparents’ home in Newport — would keep pace with the changes in the building. If she enrolled at St. Ann’s or Dalton or P.S. 321, in nearby Park Slope, she would join other half-Asian and half-white children at New York City’s wealthiest schools.
In December 1979, my mother flew back to Korea from the United States to give birth to me, because she assumed her stay in America would be temporary and I would need Korean citizenship. I have since renounced that Korean citizenship, because it would have required me to serve in the Army, and today my parents live on a farm that sits on five flat acres on an island in Puget Sound. Nearly two acres have been planted with springy, waist-high lavender bushes that bloom in mid-June and are cut down and composted or burned at the end of the summer. There are 20 rows of grapes, a greenhouse filled with tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and Korean herbs, several hundred bulbs of garlic, an overgrown patch of buckwheat and an assortment of potatoes and onions. I met my wife at the farm. She and her best friend had come to pick lavender to sell at a farmers’ market.
A couple of houses down the road, there’s a retreat for female writers. Every summer, the residents stop by the farm to pick lavender for their cabins. Gloria Steinem used to come for many years and got to know my mother. When Steinem gave a talk in Seattle some years back, she acknowledged my mother in the crowd and told everyone that she was happy that her “good friend” had come to see her.
All this, I suppose, is the fruit of assimilation.
I don’t find my family’s narrative to be particularly sympathetic, but for those who might disagree, let’s construct a happy way to tell the story. You could begin with the birth of my mother during Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s liberation of Seoul, amid all the exploding bombs, and some opening like: “On the day my mother was born, the skies over the 38th parallel lit up red.” You could also point out that both sets of grandparents were refugees from North Korea and that dozens of our relatives who stayed behind were very likely killed. We will never know, either way. I suppose that would count as generational trauma.
Or you could start with the moment that my parents stepped off the plane with two suitcases. Then go straight to the Rindge Towers, where we spent our first year in Cambridge, Mass. Those three brick slabs rising up over Fresh Pond are pitch-perfect markers of poverty for someone like me because they are familiar to anyone who went to school “around Boston” — the same people who will be reviewing your books, managing your finances, protecting your legal interests.
From there, you could construct the story of a family on the way up.
Act 1: We open in that Cambridge housing project. Some details of our poverty paired with an anecdote about a friendship with a Black kid down the hall. We close with me coming to some nascent realization about race.
Act II: I tell you about being shoved onto the concrete of the playground at my elementary school by a group of white kids screaming “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these.” (My reaction, which I can recall more vividly than the bullying itself, was to bargain with them.)
Act III: I talk about our move to Chapel Hill, N.C., which I suppose I could more vaguely call “the South” — with all its implications. In this telling, I caught the expected amount of harassment in the South. My teachers never seemed to like me. I was kicked out of Social Dance, a genteel weekly event where the white kids in my town dressed up in modest suits and floor-length dresses and learned the fox trot and the waltz. The official reason was that I had worn a pair of white Nike Air Maxes instead of the usual brown or black dress shoes. (This might suggest some slightly hip-hop rebellion, that I was rocking Nikes as my truest form of expression. The reality was that I simply did not have a pair of dress shoes.)
This litany of racial moments would justify the eventual happy ending. The audience would be satisfied that I had suffered for the spoils of assimilation — the prewar apartment with the good bones, the summers at the family farm, the creative networks that could get my child into the Grace Church 2-year-olds and the St. Ann’s 3-year-olds. It might be edifying to hear that the gears of upward mobility in this country can still grind out someone like me.
Credit…Artwork by Kensuke Koike. Photograph by Tommy Kha for The New York Times.
What is an Asian American? For decades, the label has been defined by stories like mine, and the politics of the “race” or “group” or whatever you want to call it have reflected the upward mobility of the Asians, largely East Asians, who came to the United States after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, often referred to as Hart-Celler, after its congressional sponsors, which lifted restrictive quotas on migration and effectively opened up the country to millions of new Americans. The confusion and the vagaries of “Asian American” result, in part, from necessity: What else could you possibly do with a group that includes everyone from well-educated Brahmin doctors from India to impoverished Hmong refugees? How could you tell a unifying story that makes all those immigrants feel as if they’re part of some racial category, especially those, like my daughter, who will grow up mixed-race?
According to the latest census figures, there are nearly 20 million Asian Americans who come from more than 20 different countries. This constitutes a tripling of the 6.6 million Asians who lived in the United States in 1990. And over the past two decades, they have been the fastest-growing demographic group in America. These recent immigrants are settling not only in New York and California, but all over the country, whether the Dakotas, Indiana or West Virginia. Most have no real connection to the term “Asian American,” which was coined by student activists at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968. It was meant to be political at a time when consciousness groups like the Black Panthers and the Chicano Movement were emerging on college campuses. Today, “Asian American” is mainly a demographic descriptor that satisfies almost nobody outside the same upwardly mobile professionals who enter mostly white middle-class spaces and need a term to describe themselves and everyone who looks like them. I know many people whose families emigrated from Asia. I know almost no one invested in the idea of an “Asian America.” And yet, while most Asian Americans may not feel any fealty toward the identification, that’s the box they check whenever they’re asked to check a box. And if people who look like them are being attacked in the streets, they understand that the attackers almost certainly don’t care about the differences between, say, a Vietnamese immigrant and a Chinese one.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, Asian American politics tended toward the ornate and insular. An unusual amount of energy seemed to be expended on matters of Hollywood representation, which, when distilled to its essence, is a demand by the already privileged for access into one of the few industries that won’t have them. The more radical version of Asian American politics was ultimately nostalgic — an attempt to reclaim the ’60s and ’70s and genuine civil rights heroes like Grace Lee Boggs, the labor and Black Power activist, and Yuri Kochiyama, who had lived in an internment camp and famously cradled Malcolm X’s head as he lay dying — and called for solidarity with Black and Brown people. These ties are nice and inspirational, but they do not mean anything to a vast majority of Asian Americans who came to this country post Hart-Celler. The Berkeley students who coined the phrase “Asian American” had probably come from families that were in this country for generations and lived as anomalies in a country that was Black and white. Given a choice, those activists identified with Black people and tried to forge solidarity among all those who had suffered under American imperialism and white supremacy.
But the immigrants who came to the United States after Hart-Celler, and who now constitute an overwhelming majority of the 20 million Asian Americans, do not see the country in such binary terms. They — we — are many other things, but we are not all that political, nor are we particularly interested in race per se. According to the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans have the widest internal income disparity of any racial group in America: The median Indian American household in America earns $119,000 a year, while the average Burmese family earns $44,400. Twenty-five percent of Burmese immigrants live below the poverty level. For Filipinos, the rate is a mere 7 percent.
Our politics are also diverse. A summer 2020 survey showed that 65 percent of Indian Americans planned to vote for Joe Biden in the 2020 election, 28 percent for Donald Trump and 6 percent said they didn’t know. For Vietnamese, the numbers were 36 percent for Biden, 48 percent for Trump and 16 percent didn’t know. A full 23 percent of Chinese Americans didn’t know.
We, the 20 million, are either poor or we are assimilation machines. Those are the two outcomes.
Every few months I come across assimilated Asian men venting on social media about the time one of their white neighbors in buildings just like mine in Brooklyn mistook them for delivery men, inevitably followed by a firm statement of their credentials: “I guess he didn’t know, I am a journalist/doctor/lawyer/hedge-fund manager!” It’s embarrassing for both sides when this happens, but the implication has always felt so bizarre to me; the real offense is being mistaken for being poor. What sets modern, assimilated Asian Americans apart, when it comes to these sorts of differentiations made by so many immigrant groups, is that our bonds with our brothers and sisters are mostly superficial markers of identity, whether rituals around boba tea, recipes or support for ethnic-studies programs and the like. Indignation tends to be flimsy — we are mad when white chefs cook food our parents cooked, or we clamor about what roles Scarlett Johansson stole from Asian actors. But the critiques generally stay within those sorts of consumerist concerns that do not really speak to the core of an identity because we know, at least subconsciously, that the identity politics of the modern, assimilated Asian American is focused on getting a seat at the wealthy, white liberal table. Or, if we want to be generous, we fight about food and representation and executive-suite access because we want our children to live without really having to think about any of this — to have the spoils of full whiteness.
We, in other words, want to become as white as white will allow. For the first three decades of my life, this process felt inevitable. I tried on several different selves with wildly contradictory politics: a radical, a revolutionary Marxist in my teens, a Buddhist in my early 20s, followed by a bout of self-destruction and then a more stable period as a professional writer. During those phases, each of which was deeply felt, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t end up fine. In retrospect, I don’t really know why I believed that — things could certainly have gone wrong, and for a while in my 20s, they did — but because I knew all my middle-class Asian and white friends would be fine, it followed that I would be, too.
On those rare instances when I would think about having a child, I assumed her life would be less complicated than my own. The stubborn optimism of the immigrant dictates that while your own life often shows just how quickly things can get catastrophically worse, American progress remains immutable. The second-generation immigrant envisions progress as an incline: Our immigrant parents push us halfway up the slope, we hike the rest of the way and then gently roll our own kids over the summit.
In March 2020, as Covid-19 spread through the Seattle area, my parents locked themselves down on the farm. When the president started saying “China virus,” I FaceTimed them every night so they could see their 3-year-old granddaughter. They remained cheery and upbeat but admitted that people had started giving them a wide berth when they went to the supermarket, one they had shopped at for 15 years. My mother volunteers at a thrift store that mostly serves a population of white, octogenarian treasure hunters who talk endlessly about “Antiques Roadshow.” These are her friends. When she told them she wouldn’t be working her shifts for a while because she didn’t want to scare the elderly shoppers, they thanked her for being so considerate. Perhaps there are first- and second-generation Asian Americans who would be appalled by such sentiments, but their pride has been purchased through the repeated wash of concessions. When the second generation “learns their history” — the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the lynchings in Los Angeles’s Chinatown in 1871, the World War II internment of the Japanese — there’s a tendency to rebel against the meek who accept the abuse, seemingly content to squirrel their cash away. I’ve never really understood the intolerance for meekness. What is that forbearance but the solemn acknowledgment that our claims to citizenship are rooted in shallow ground — and the hope that the next generation will find the footing to stand up for itself?
In the spring of 2020, news outlets began publishing stories about attacks on Asian Americans, and my social media feeds were peppered with testimonials from actors, journalists and politicians who had been berated or assaulted. An Asian woman in her 60s knocked to the ground and kicked outside the lobby of a condo in New York City; another spat on in San Francisco; a young family in a Sam’s Club in Texas stabbed by a lunatic who said he thought they were Chinese and therefore spreading the virus. No doubt these cases represented only a fraction of the whole — if the assimilated were being attacked in big cities, then the delivery men, restaurant workers and domestic laborers were most likely getting it worse.
An old Chinese woman was lit on fire in Brooklyn. A different woman in Brooklyn was burned by chemicals thrown on her. A friend of mine told me he didn’t feel safe in Los Angeles anymore and had ordered a Taser on the internet. He suggested I do the same. Some Asian American activists started plotting these incidents on a map and begging both the media and politicians to care. As prominent figures began telling their truths, social media campaigns like #StopAAPIHate, with its shorthand for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, emerged.
After enough of these stories, I began to worry about my parents. They are some of the only Asian people on the south side of their island. Their immediate neighbors, mostly white senior citizens who still post passionately about Hillary Clinton and their animal rights organizations, posed little threat. But the middle and north sides of the island are rural in a way that is easily caricatured: populated with Trump flags and poor men in RealTree camo hats who idle their pickup trucks outside the gas stations and weed dispensaries. I had visions of those trucks tearing up the farm’s long dirt driveway and breaking through the gate. That’s when the visions would end, the brain editing out the unspeakable parts.
My parents understood this and pointed out that their best friends on the island were Trump supporters. The people who kept their distance, they said, were invariably the well-heeled Democrats.
When my sister and I were growing up, American politics never really entered our household. When, in 2016, my parents came out as rabid Bernie Sanders supporters, I could not figure out what had gotten into them. Their goal had always been to live in some comfort in their new country, regardless of the politics of their neighbors. Ignore race enough, and maybe it would disappear.
On one of the first days of the George Floyd protests in Oakland — we had moved, prepandemic, to Northern California — I saw a young Asian couple standing on the sidewalk near Oscar Grant Plaza, the downtown square unofficially named after a young Black man who was shot in the back and killed by a BART cop on New Year’s Day 2009. They were both holding signs that read, “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power.” The history of that exact phrase can be traced to the Free Huey movement of the late 1960s and Richard Aoki, the most well known Japanese American member of the Black Panther Party whose apparent role as an F.B.I. informant would be revealed in 2012. (“Yellow Peril” dates to the anti-Asian propaganda of the late 19th century.) In a photo taken just blocks from Oscar Grant Plaza, Aoki stands in the traditional Panther uniform — beret and black shades — with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. His right hand is raised in a fist. The left holds the “Yellow Peril” sign.
Aoki’s family was interned in Utah during World War II and when they returned to California, they settled in a largely Black neighborhood in Oakland. Aoki attended Merritt College, where he befriended Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the founding members of the Black Panther Party.
I understood why these two young protesters wanted to carry signs with that phrase, but the action seemed nostalgic and inert. Aoki, after all, probably betrayed the Panthers. A young Japanese man whose family had been interned by the state might well find solidarity with Black, radical students in the late 1960s. But what, exactly, do the children of immigrants who came to the United States after Hart-Celler have in common with Richard Aoki? If we were called to speak in front of the Panthers, what would we talk about? Unfair college-admissions practices? The bamboo ceiling that allows us comfortable professional jobs but fewer places in upper management? When politics becomes this referential — when it becomes the hand-wringing of the upwardly mobile — where does it go?
After the Georgia spa massacre last year, when eight people, including six Asian women, were killed by a gunman, academics and media figures took to social media to outline a history of Asian America. In a Washington Post editorial titled, “Why Don’t We Treat Asian American History the Way We Treat Black History?” Michael Eric Dyson went through the litany of trauma from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Japanese internment to Vincent Chin, the engineer whose 1982 killing sparked a second wave of Asian American activism. “Disparate groups, having overcome oppression, have made this country whole,” Dyson wrote. “Until we understand the ways in which the Asian American story is in many ways like the African American story, we won’t be able to reckon with tragedies like Atlanta. Vincent Chin ought to be as well known, and as righteously mourned, as George Floyd.”
These were stirring words, but the grand reckoning that took place after the Georgia massacre cut right to heart of the incoherence of Asian American identity. Black American history is lived, both through the contemporary oppression and violence that Black people face in this country and through a direct lineage to slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement. This is not true for a vast majority of Asian Americans. Our great-grandparents weren’t herded up in Los Angeles; our parents did not stand with the Panthers or the Third World Liberation Front.
Our narratives are ultimately nation-building exercises — a way for “Asian American” to mean something more than “someone with ancestry from the continent of Asia.” But they also work to erase the more meaningful differences between ascendant, educated individuals and the working-class, sometimes undocumented people who seem to be most at risk to fall victim to the sort of violence that has been on the rise. Six of the eight people murdered in Georgia were Asian, yes, but they also were mostly poor women with a shallow foothold in this country. (The dead also included a white woman whose Latino husband was in the spa when she was killed. He was handcuffed by responding police officers who, according to Spanish-language news sources, ignored him for hours while he pleaded to know if his wife was alive.) In the days after the attack, social media was full of Asian Americans talking about their collective trauma: the shame of Americanizing one’s name and complaints about strangers asking, “Where are you from?”
I do not mean to judge these responses; they were made by people who were grieving and scared and who wanted to reclaim the status of “people of color” and remind everyone that we, too, suffer violence from white supremacy. Nor is this merely a taxonomical complaint. But as long as these tragedies reroute the specific class, immigration and gender politics at play into the squishier problems of professional Asian Americans, the nation that’s built will too often ask, “Why aren’t we treated like white people?” instead of, “What can we do to liberate ourselves and all other oppressed people?”
In the winter of 2018, I started listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen. This was an unexpected development. Some bouts of anxiety had made it nearly impossible for me to set foot on the New York City subway, so I had mostly been driving my Honda station wagon everywhere and listened to whatever the streaming algorithm threw at me. Townes Van Zandt and John Prine, my pretentious college loves, led to Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, which led to Neil Young and finally to Bruce’s cornfed folk albums, which I played on repeat for weeks.
In the past, I dismissed Bruce as the avatar of a hip-thrusting parochialism filled with farming equipment, domestic cars and sunburned truths, none of which really interested me. But now something clicked. My daily drive went through the Hasidic neighborhoods of South Williamsburg, and I always found myself caught behind school buses stopping every couple blocks, wildly wedging themselves in front of all incoming traffic, from which small children wearing thick pants and skullcaps spilled out onto the sidewalk to greet their mothers. The somber order of their affections reminded me of my own upbringing, and I began to imagine, in the best American way, the parallels in our lives.
Around the same time, the New Yorker writer Hilton Als wrote an essay about Springsteen, whose one-man show had been selling out night after night on Broadway. Als asked: “My Springsteen problem, ultimately, was my problem with white masculinity in general: Was it possible for straight white men to empathize with anyone or anything other than themselves, in the way that Joni Mitchell, say, could identify with that black crow, or Laura Nyro with all the inhabitants of her native New York, or Chaka Khan with the confusion and joy of a genderless world?”
Als was describing a specific type of identity aesthetics, one that anyone who isn’t a straight, white male should be able to recognize. When we listen to bold evocations of Americanness in music, can we be certain that we have actually been invited to the party? There are several easy ways to answer this question, from the refreshingly honest “no” to the more infuriating “music is whatever you make of it,” which implies that a human being, regardless of race, creed or sexuality, should simply be able to envision a party for one. According to this impulse, belief in America summons the spirit of America, which then means that Bruce sings for everyone who can see their own salvation.
These readings should be separated from the more familiar condemnations of art that have to do with the politics of the artist. Those cancellations, which I have always found odd and mostly beside the point, look outward at classrooms filled with impressionable minds. Als’s lament only looked inward at the struggle between his own hopeful imagination and the evidence accrued over a lifetime of being gay and Black.
But there’s a distinction between “I wanted to see myself in ‘Thunder Road,’ but just couldn’t,” and “ ‘Thunder Road’ is bad because I could not see myself in it.” In this second “personal is political” interpretation, “Thunder Road” — a paragon of white, heterosexual norms — turns into something sinister whose very existence threatens anyone who can’t imagine themselves speeding down the highway with Bruce.
The first person I ever met who truly believed in Bruce Springsteen was one of my college roommates, a Palestinian American kid named Naseem who had played tennis and basketball at one of Boston’s finest prep schools. His father was a doctor, and he grew up in one of the posher suburbs of Boston. These details seem important now, but at the time, they simply meant he just fell in line with everyone else at school. One of our other roommates — a fellow Korean who ran track and played football — came from a wealthy Boston suburb. The three of us, I suppose, were “people of color.”
Naseem didn’t drink as much as the rest of us nor did he seem particularly content to waste four years in a haze of bongs and Red Sox games. He was a biochemistry major, which meant he had much more studying to do than the rest of us who had sidled into far less labor-intensive humanities majors. He also seemed a bit more finely tuned — he played the guitar, wrote his own songs. When he wasn’t studying, Naseem would sing in his room in a twangy voice that I found ridiculous. But the subtext of an Arab kid named Naseem singing white American anthems never really came to the surface. Neither of us had the language, or the desire, to investigate all that.
A year after he graduated, Naseem was living in an apartment in the Allston neighborhood of Boston with some of our friends from college. I drove down from Maine to see them. This was more than a year after Sept. 11, and everyone was still struggling with what it meant. That night, we went to a bar that seemed to cater exclusively to fratty recent graduates of liberal-arts colleges, before later staggering back to Naseem’s apartment. He and I talked for a while about his musical ambitions, which had been put on hold as he finished up an internship and waited on tables at night. He didn’t mind the delay, he said, because he wasn’t even really sure what he wanted to sing about.
“Well,” I said, “you have to find a voice.”
“Yeah, but what does that mean?”
There was something I had been meaning to say to him. Today I can’t quite figure out why this thought crossed my mind, but I only know that it felt new and even daring at the time. “Why don’t you write songs about being an Arab right now?” I asked.
After a long pause, I continued: “You know, it’s just very honest, and I haven’t heard any songs from Arab Americans about this. And it makes more sense than doing this honky-tonk folk stuff you love so much. Like how do you even credibly pull off standing on a stage and pretending this isn’t happening to you?”
“I don’t want to sing songs like that. Don’t want to rely on that.”
We argued for nearly an hour, but I could tell he didn’t want to keep going. The memories of this conversation make me clench with embarrassment — the bald vision of identity, the reduction of a friend into the version of himself that would have been most profitable. We didn’t talk very much after that and quickly drifted apart. He eventually started a band that plays folk-punk around the country. Their songs, clearly inspired by Springsteen’s various acoustic phases, are about class, faith and failure. None of their fans seem to have any problem with this. I went to school to be a novelist, and after 10 years of disappointment, published a book about an angry, young Korean man grappling with questions of identity.
We each, in short, made our choice. More vigilant critics might point out that Naseem, more or less, looks white. They might also say that nonengagement is just another word for privilege. There have been times when I’ve thought these things myself, but I don’t think our differing perspectives had much to do with our specific identities. When Als and I listened to Bruce, we could not see ourselves in the songs. When we watched the stadium-concert videos with tens of thousands of crazed fans singing along to every word, we mostly thought about how much we would stick out in the crowd. Naseem listened to the same songs, watched the same videos and simply asserted himself, identities be damned, into Bruce’s empathetic pastorales.
I do not think that Naseem’s acceptance is any worse or better than my perpetual angst. Whiteness is political in almost every way, but for those of us stuck between the binary, it’s also personal.
Bruce does a few versions of “Thunder Road,” but generally there’s acoustic “Thunder Road” and stadium “Thunder Road.” Acoustic is a bit of a snooze — he just stands under a blue light and mumbles out the words with gravelly, deeply felt crescendos at all the expected parts. The stadium version is the one that gets to me more — it starts with a deliberate, clunking piano and then steadily adds instruments — drums, guitar, saxophone, bells — until it explodes at “IT’S A TOWN FULL OF LOSERS AND I’M PULLING OUT OF HERE TO WIN. …” But its true climax comes early on, when a strutting, snarling Bruce sings: “Don’t run back inside/Darling you know just what I’m here for/So you’re scared and you’re thinking/That maybe we ain’t that young anymore.” He then points the microphone at the crowd and waves everyone in. You hear a chorus of thousands screaming: “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night/You ain’t a beauty but, hey, you’re all right.” Then Bruce grins, satisfied, and finishes up on his own, “Oh, and that’s all right with me.”
Bruce has been having the crowd sing “you ain’t a beauty but, hey, you’re all right” for more than 40 years now. There’s a black-and-white, grainy video of him performing the song in a white tank top at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, N.J., in 1978. And I’m sure there’s video of Bruce doing the same call-and-response at some recent concert. I can’t imagine there has ever been a more relatable verse in American music: two ugly people, who, when it’s time for their catharsis, decide to hop in the car and take a drive down the highway — the small rebellions of those of us who have settled into our weary lives. Bruce’s genius, which I believe accounts for his mass popularity, comes from his understanding that there is “magic” in these gestures. Those who sing along with him acknowledge that they, too, are no beauties, but they’re affirming the dignity in their mundane lives. And perhaps unwittingly, after they sing their part, Bruce, who is a beauty, growls, “And that’s all right with me.”
The time I was driving around Brooklyn listening to Springsteen coincided with my daughter’s first birthday. Under the pressure of the milestone, I thought I was realizing something every day, and, in the annoying habit of a new parent, I mistook small insights for epiphanies. I realized, as they say, that nothing would ever be the same. I realized I had saved more money than I had ever thought possible. I realized that I could probably retire to one of those enviable, partly employed lives in which you teach a couple classes, write the occasional article, but spend most of your day on some better pursuit, whether building shelves, endless travel or renovating a four-bedroom, three-bathroom Tudor in Maplewood, N.J. I realized, absent disaster, that I could provide a relatively comfortable life for this daughter.
But I also realized that I would never enter a room without taking a silent accounting of everyone’s race. Of all these revelations, perhaps the only one that still seems relevant was the understanding that “people of color,” as it was popularly used, did not seem to mean all “nonwhite people,” but rather the multicultural coalition of the upwardly mobile and overeducated. For us, assimilation was an issue of class — “whiteness” meant the ability to slide into a place where everyone was doing well enough to celebrate their differences. Selfishly, I hoped this daughter, who, according to the language of elementary-school pie charts, was “of two or more races,” would not need to live under such contradictory pretenses. That she would not have to even wonder if Bruce was singing for her, because she would so obviously be included in the mainstream American narrative. I pictured her in college in the crowd, singing along to “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night/You ain’t a beauty but, hey, you’re all right” as a geriatric Springsteen gave his last reassurances. There was no concrete reason I thought this could happen — certainly the forces that made Trump’s election possible should have given me pause — but I kept, and continue to keep, the blind hope that the next generation will always inherit a better world. Which, of course, is also a very American belief.
I still don’t know if my daughter will reach this full citizenship or if the journey will evoke the classic paradox of logic in which the bullet shot by a soldier never reaches its target, because at some point that bullet will have traveled half the distance between gun and enemy — and after that, the remaining distance can be cut in half again endlessly: 4 inches becomes 2 becomes 1 becomes ½ and so on, infinitely. But I am certain — relatively — that this thoughtless whiteness would require her to expel my neurosis about belonging in American songs. She, in other words, would have to betray her father’s anxieties about belonging and identity and step into something that I do not understand.
When my daughter turned 18 months, my wife signed her up for soccer in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The other parents were what you would expect: midcareer, late 30s, dressed in some mix of athleisure and performance outerwear. Of the 12 children who showed up, eight had one white parent and one Asian parent. On one of the first days, I stood on the sidelines with an Asian guy about my age who was wearing a Seattle Seahawks jersey. Our half-Asian kids did not seem particularly focused on the task of kicking the ball. I considered making a joke about Asians and their poor athletic skills, but I had no idea if those jokes — the baseline of any other interactions among Asians — would still be appropriate or even relevant when directed at our mixed-race children.
It has occurred to me on several occasions that I should just not worry about any of this, much less write about it in such a public way. There’s a grace to suppressing your nagging doubts for the comfort of the people you love, and while it’s one thing to explain yourself to your children, what do you say when you’re unsure whether they will walk the same privileged path?
During my more radical youth, I obsessively reread the letter James Baldwin wrote to his nephew in “The Fire Next Time,” which I first read in high school. I still have my copy from back then. On Page 8, I underlined the passage: “Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.” In the margins, I wrote “hip-hop symbology.” It’s the only note in the entire book, and I have no idea when, in the past 22 years, I wrote it, but I imagine it must have come sometime during college, when I began annotating all my books because that’s what I thought serious people did. The meaning of the note is far easier to recall: Like most confused, but ultimately dissatisfied, young people, I put way too much stock in the idea of authenticity. This metastasized as a sort of juvenile mania: Everyone else was fake or putting on airs and not staying true to their genuine selves, whatever that meant.
But the connection I felt toward Baldwin’s writing always felt slightly misaligned, because Blackness is intractable and Asianness evolves with each generation. At the end of his letter, Baldwin writes: “You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” This line filled me with immense hope when I was a teenager, and even though I knew it might not exactly be about me, it still felt closer than even Bruce does today. Perhaps this is wrong or improper, but I am just telling you how I felt at 16 and again at 30 and even today at 41 with a daughter, who is my concern in the same way Baldwin’s nephew was his, who may grow to not see herself in his writing at all (or mine, for that matter). Will assimilation have run its course? Will she read “The Fire Next Time” with the white liberal’s empathy for the less fortunate?
Whenever I’m in Boston, I find my way to the Rindge Towers and try to have a moment. I’m not entirely sure what such a moment would entail beyond some acknowledgment that I used to live there and now live somewhere better. When I look through my family’s photo albums, I not only cannot remember ever being in the featured places, whether Glacier National Park or Mount Washington or the Smithsonian; I also cannot recognize myself in the photographs. Who is this scowling child and who gave him that haircut? Where did he come from? I remember almost nothing about living in the Rindge Towers except the sign of a nearby tiki-themed restaurant called Aku Aku, which has remained lodged in my brain — one of those vestiges from the past that act almost as the thumbnail image for your memories.
In 2019, I took my daughter to Cambridge, and we drove past the towers and then to the squat, almost Soviet graduate-student housing that my parents moved us to after our stint in the towers, where I took a photo in front of the same spreading ginkgo tree that my sister and I played under as children. I have no memories of this second home either, but I do recall a craftsman-style house a few blocks closer to campus where my friend Brennan lived. The yard was overgrown, but inside, there were sturdy tote bags, durable puzzles and wooden toys and extensive, arguably ostentatious, libraries. My parents had enrolled me in a prestigious nursery school, and almost all my friends lived in houses like this, and I remember those houses much better than our own apartment.
On a recent trip to Boston, I tried to look up Brennan’s old house on a real estate app. I didn’t know where it was, exactly, but I dug into my memories — the sturdy, craftsman build, the squared-off, pragmatic eaves, the drooping ginkgo trees in the yard — and found something pretty similar. It was comfortably out of my price range. I felt ashamed — for my vanity and greed, yes, but also because I couldn’t afford it. Most times when I ask myself why I am in this country, I realize I am mostly here to buy Brennan’s old house so that I can surround myself with his tastefully worn things.
In these moments, I look at my daughter and can’t quite figure out what happened to make her possible. My parents, when they left Korea for the United States in 1979, could not have conjured the details of their future granddaughter’s life. But they must have been after something like it.
Hair and makeup: Markphong Tram and Crystal Choo. Clothing: Von Ford.
This article is adapted from “The Loneliest Americans,” by Jay Caspian Kang, to be published by Crown in October. Jay Caspian Kang is a staff writer for the magazine and the opinion section. He is also the author of the novel “The Dead Do Not Improve.”