A writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine explores what he identifies as an existential loneliness in himself and in other Asian Americans who try to locate themselves in the country's racial binary, drawing on his own family history as well as the stories of other Asians and Asian Americans.
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.
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.