The New Yorker:

Near the beginning of his new book, “The Loneliest Americans,” the journalist Jay Caspian Kang imagines the memoir he could have written. It would begin with his parents arriving at the airport in Los Angeles, or unpacking boxes in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Kang’s father completed his postdoctoral research in the eighties. If brevity were of no concern, he could start even earlier, with “General Douglas MacArthur’s liberation of Seoul,”and with “some line like ‘On the day my mother was born, the skies over the 38th parallel lit up red.’ ”

The story would then wind through the affluent college towns where Kang grew up and experienced minor racial traumas and revelations—maybe we’d see him shoved on the playground by white kids, or glimpse his friendship with a Black boy who lived down the hall—and eventually deposit us into the present, where he writes for national publications, signs a lease on “the prewar apartment with the good bones,” and gets his child into private school. The plot would adhere to a particular logic, in which these “spoils of assimilation” justify the sufferings of the past. “You might find it edifying,” Kang writes, “to see that the gears of upward mobility in this country can still grind out someone like me.”

Kang describes this largely untroubled narrative in a detached, ironic frame because it has the rather embarrassing distinction of being true. 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.

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