The subject of The Loneliest Americans is the broad incoherence of Asian American identity, but what Kang writes about most lucidly is the way that upwardly mobile Asians like him—the ones who were raised and educated in the U.S., and are now queasily enjoying the lives that their parents always wanted for them—have made it so ...something of a circular project—a book by an Asian writer about how the Asians who write books should cede control of the story—and Kang is its reluctant protagonist ... There’s a friction between Kang’s vision of solidarity and his seemingly fatal allergy to connection ... throughout the book, Kang displays a certain paranoia about fraudulence, and voices his skepticism of the élite Asians who presume to share a bond with people unlike them ... [a] moment of recognition—with one of the book’s least sympathetic characters, no less—is moving, especially because Kang spends so much of the book strenuously distancing himself from the people he describes. His emotional pitch scarcely modulates. It’s animated by nothing as straightforward as anger or sadness but by their sideways cousins: embarrassment, annoyance, suspicion, disdain ... But Kang is as skeptical of himself as he is of others, and his perpetual self-doubt makes the book crackle with life. He preëmptively swipes at his own realizations; he walks to the precipice of epiphany and backs away. This defensive posture can become a full-body cringe ... The lasting achievement of The Loneliest Americans is that it prompts Asian Americans to think about identity in a framework other than likeness. It asks us to make meaning in ways beyond looking out for our own.
If the past 18 pandemic months have offered an intravenous drip of hate crimes against Asians, Kang’s book titrates those events into a potent mix of memoir, cultural criticism, and deep reporting. The ingredients are volatile, the book, hot to the touch ... It’s a book whose lacerating observations about the discontents of the Asian American experience are offset by cauterizing ironies ... Kang...delivers an incendiary message about Asian Americans that curls in on itself, flames licking at the middle-class vessel in which it arrives ... Ultimately, what he’s after is the start of a new dialogue that shakes off hand-me-down homilies. His book is an invitation to think harder and move beyond the existing racial taxonomies that have become distended to the point of futility and that can feel specifically designed to exclude as much as include.
Although Kang does not deny his personal relationship to the stories he is telling, he does make clear, particularly in the book’s introduction where he talks about his family, that he is wary of how his biography might be weaponized to authenticate his point of view and elicit a reader’s sympathy. There is a reluctance to commit to memoir; he withholds an account of the self at the same time that he is compelled to tell it, since such an account is what brings him too close for comfort to his subject matter. This resistant push and pull within Kang’s autobiographical writing produces intriguing moments when discussions of the heterogeneity of Asian America comes up against the unsettling anxiety that there are perhaps only small differences (and some uneasy likenesses) between himself and those he writes about ... The Loneliest Americans can be uncomfortable and frustrating to read when it makes personal and polemical statements that risk speaking on behalf of Asian Americans as a group, with himself included. The hesitation and doubt that Asian Americans might feel about the term under which they live is at times delivered, in Kang’s book, matter-of-factly, in a generalized fashion, as written on behalf of Asian America writ large ... Kang’s book shows how one might teach Asian American studies differently in the contemporary moment, on this side of 1965 ... It is a provocation that leads to other questions more than answers, questions which I ask my students about the limits of constructing one’s political subjecthood, identity, and solidarity with others through the belief that racial trauma, oppression, and injury must always be claimed and assumed to be shared in the same way and for the same ends.
The book calls out that there are huge swaths of Asian Americans who are not upwardly mobile, well-educated members of a 'multicultural elite,' but unfortunately, mostly tells the stories of the high achievers. Consequently, his broad proclamations about Asian Americans, like the following, feel vague ... The Loneliest Americans is most successful when it doesn’t presume to speak for some imagined Asian American community to fulfill the book’s stated purpose ... Kang, perhaps best known for his reportage on unusual mutations of Asian American masculinity for the New York Times and the New Yorker, notes an Asian American fraternity’s hazing ritual that ends in tragedy, as well as his interactions with an Asian American incel (involuntary celibate) group. The introduction and chapters where these appear, along with a fascinating chapter on the rise of Flushing, Queens, N.Y., as an immigrant enclave, feel the most fully baked, and will be edifying to both white and nonwhite readers.
By inserting himself in this argument, Kang displays tremendous honesty and courage ... While effective and genuine, the autobiographical presentation of Kang’s book is also limiting. Because Kang, a Korean American, focuses on his own journey, a book that is supposed to be a commentary on Asian Americans ends up being mostly about Korean Americans ... This narrowness of scope is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Koreans are arguably the most internally diverse ethnicity among Asian Americans when it comes to class, wealth, and the routes they took to the United States ... Kang briefly touches on Irish and Jewish immigration histories by drawing from Noel Ignatiev and his seminal book How the Irish Became White, but he does not explore the parallels very deeply. This is a missed opportunity for a rich source of discussion ... Similarly, if Kang leaned more strongly into the theme of class (as he did in his podcast) and explored the economic stratification among other ethnic groups, he might have unlocked even more parallels ... To be sure, none of this detracts from The Loneliest Americans, which is an essential read ... Through his book, Kang provides a clear-eyed explanation of how we got here.
The Loneliest Americans tells a melancholic story about political knowledge’s emotional rub. Though Kang doesn’t say so explicitly, his book brings together tales of Asians who feel the knowledge they have is useless, corrosive, or impossible to act upon ... Through its blend of memoir and polemic, The Loneliest Americans chronicles the disjuncture between theoretical and felt identity, producing in the process an interpretation of Asian America that is as much a disquisition on knowledge as on race ... Kang’s book is generative and important because it asks the questions that Asian identity politics has until now ignored: What happens when our feelings split off from our well-trammelled intellectual principles, or when we try to cultivate knowledge that we can’t manage, emotionally, to endorse? ... Kang deftly embarks on a kind of truthful naysaying, poking necessary holes in elite Asians’ strained 'racework' ... The result, however, is that Kang’s writing is sometimes burdened by an anxiety over authenticity ... Kang’s book could have benefited from more real-world context around the processes by which a racialized political subjectivity is formed.
His cultural criticism adds a much-needed perspective to the growing body of literature by the children of Korean immigrants in the United States ... Kang's book adeptly blends history, memoir, and current affairs in an attempt to make sense of the individual's place in the current map of the United States.
In this searing treatise, Kang...is refreshingly candid in his analysis, addressing how immigrants who come from Asia lack the intrinsic solidarity that has been foisted upon them—either by American ignorance or well-intentioned, but often misguided, activist efforts. He adds texture to this sentiment by making the historical personal, detailing his experience as the son of two North Korean refugees who moved to the United States in 1979 ... This excellent commentary on the Asian American experience radiates with nuance and emotion.