Transpacific Dissonance: Asian Americans, Americans, Asians

Yi-hung LIU (劉羿宏)

Mahatma Gandhi Statue at MLK Jr. National Historical Park, Georgia, Atlanta. Photo taken by the author.

On March 16, 2021, six Asian women were killed in the Atlanta mass shootings. The immediate response from the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department parroted the perpetrator’s claim that he was having “a really bad day” and framed the killing as unrelated to anti-Asian racism. The Asian American communities were infuriated. Asian American organizers, scholars, and writers have been in action demanding for justice. Meanwhile, reactions from Asian countries varied. On March 18, the Foreign Minister and the National Defense Minister of South Korea held a joint press conference with the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense, acknowledging that four of the victims—Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, and Yong Ae Yue—were of Korean descent. On March 22, the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed that two of the victims—Daoyou Feng and Xiaojie Tan—were of Chinese descent, urging the U.S. government to do justice and protect Chinese citizens in the U.S. Taiwan, while at the center of the heated U.S.-China conflict, did not react much to the Atlanta mass shootings. The lack of response from Taiwan would be surprising when considering that one of the massage parlors where the shootings happened, Gold Spa, was owned by a Taiwanese entrepreneur, Sue-ling Wang, whose success in business is recognized by the government of Taiwan.

These reactions to the Atlanta shootings reflect not only the ways that Asians have migrated to and settled in the U.S., but also the ways that the U.S. maps out its interests in Asia and the Pacific. In this essay, I juxtapose the former with the latter to illustrate a historical, geopolitical gap between Asian America and Asia. I begin with how Asian American writers responded to the Atlanta mass shootings to show that their understanding of Asia would delimit how “Asian solidarity” is imagined and can be achieved. At the same time, the understanding of Asian America in Asia reveals certain imaginations about the U.S. I then turn to Taiwan, a significant strategic location for the U.S., to explain its lack of response to the Atlanta mass shootings. I contend that these responses to anti-Asian attacks, or the lack thereof, indicate the gap between Asian American communities and Asia. The gap between Asian America and Asia manifests the histories of wars and migration, and the anti-Asian violence is a manifestation of white supremacy and racial capitalism. Without addressing the gap and how it has come into being, anti-Asian violence would be reduced to a number of unfortunate incidents in the U.S. and Asia.

Asian American Writers and their American Stories

In the context of the Cold War and the 1960s social movements, Asian American literature was institutionalized as a field. With the publication of Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers in 1974. Asian American writers came to see themselves as representing a pan-ethnic collective. Diverse and at times divisive as they are, Asian American writers tend to write about their connections with Asia and the U.S., and in so doing construct their Asian American identity.

Literature has become a means for Asian American writers to increase the visibility of their communities in the U.S. society and express their feelings of being a minority. Their achievement has also been widely acknowledged by grand prizes of literature. Taiwanese American writers Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown won the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. Korean American writer Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning won the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, and they have been very vocal in response to the Atlanta mass shootings. According to Yu’s op-ed on Los Angeles Times, the Trump administration and the COVID-19 outbreak have led to a severe increase of anti-Asian incidents (March 21, 2021). These racist attacks serve as a “plot twist” in the Asian American immigrant story, which used to be about assimilation. The Atlanta shootings demonstrate how Asians are dehumanized, and such dehumanization “cuts across race, sex, gender, religion.” At the end of his op-ed, Yu encourages Asian Americans to “tell our own stories” and “amplify the stories of other marginalized people who seek the same thing.” But Yu indicates that these stories are still American stories in that Asians who have lived in the U.S. for decades are by all means “Americans.” Living in both worlds as Asian and American is the Asian American stories that are theirs to tell. Likewise, Hong highlights the Asian American identity and urges Asians in the U.S. to speak up their own experiences and feelings of being a minority. She has been active on social media to—in Yu’s words—tell stories about Asian America.

After the Atlanta mass shootings, Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning has become even more influential in Asian American communities. Minor Feelings is Hong’s first essay collection based on her experiences of living in the U.S. She criticizes the hierarchical racial relations in the U.S. society and underscores how she as an “Asian woman” has been caught within everyday racial inequity. Hong elaborates on how she feels about this racial reality, and especially the contradiction between American optimism and racism that result in what she calls “minor feelings.” She explains further in first-person plural pronoun: when Asian Americans (“we”) “decide to be honest” and express “our” minor feelings, white Americans interpret those feelings as “hostile, ungrateful, jealous, depressing, and belligerent” (57). Hong records her own life and feelings, presenting how she copes with American society and literary landscape that have been dominated by the whites. But Hong also illustrates a longer Asian American history with special attention to the rape and murder of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in November 1982, urging Asian Americans to act as “we” and assert their presence in the U.S. Minor Feelings was indeed a timely and apt response to the increase of anti-Asian attacks in the U.S.

Distance between Asian America and Asia

Compared to Yu’s op-ed, Hong’s Minor Feelings underscores Asian America more than America. For Asian readers like me, however, her account still reads outright American. When she relates her Asian America to Asia, her “Asia” is mostly refracted through the prism of America as expressed in her elaboration on “bad English” for instance. Hong describes, she appropriates “bad English” that she has found on T-shirts or signs in East Asian countries into her poems because English is “a weapon in a power struggle” (101). She wants “bad English” to challenge the conventional English writing and unite those whose English is not standard. But Hong also admits, “I can’t just write about my bad English next to your bad English,” in that she must acknowledge the distance between people of different races and classes; so she tries to “speak nearby” (108-109).  Indeed, unlike Hong, Asian migrant workers (e.g., Asian women working in massage parlors in the U.S.) would not want to show their bad English in public to confirm their foreignness. Their foreignness and Asian-ness may cause them troubles and sometimes cost their lives. Bad English is more of a stigma than a weapon. Hong seems to be aware of the class difference between writers and workers, but she pays less attention to how bad English would generate a complex of feelings for Asians, including foreign students like myself. In most East Asian countries where Hong looks for bad English, learning the English language is considered necessary to enter the global system, be it economic, political, or academic. For Asians, the bad English that Hong cherishes may cause a sense of inferiority, resentment, or at least embarrassment.

In Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, learning English is closely associated with Asia’s experience of U.S. neocolonialism and militarism in the region. As a Cold War legacy, the acquisition of the English is a necessity, as it is part of the cultural fetish, along with Hollywood films and American jeans, that was brought in with the U.S. economic and military aid to Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. The presence of the English language would become more commonplace as American literature and culture were introduced through institutions such as the American Cultural Center and the United States Information Service. Until today, English is still taken as a means to be on a par with (or closer to) the developed countries in the Anglosphere. Taiwanese government, for instance, has proposed to become a “bilingual nation” by 2030. The objective of “elevating national competitiveness” works in tandem with “cultivating people’s English proficiency.” When Hong discusses “bad English” of East Asia as a means of creative power, the neocoloniality of English is perhaps beyond her scope.

Hong does recognize the distance between her bad English and that of others. But whereas she tries to “speak nearby” people of different races and classes in the U.S., she seems less conscious of the distance between herself and Asians. When Hong discovers bad English in Asian countries, she exclaims, “I have found my people” (97). Her “people” are not Asians who inadvertently use bad English. Hong’s embrace of bad English as her “heritage” is to “share a literary lineage with writers who make the unmastering of English their rallying cry—who queer it, twerk it, hack it, Calibanize it, other it by hijacking English and warping it to a fugitive tongue” (97). In other words, the heritage is not shared with Asians, but with writers who intentionally incorporate bad English into their works. At the same time, while Hong celebrates her connection with Asia through bad English, she is well aware of the gap between herself and Asia, particularly Korea. Toward the end of Minor Feelings, she states, “I can’t live in Seoul” (189). She provides a list of difficulties that she would have to deal with were she to live in Seoul: cosmetic surgery that degrades women, the merciless education system, the hellish working condition, and the air pollution that causes health problems. Hong then tells herself, “Then be grateful that you live here [the U.S.]” (190). In Hong’s honest description, although she feels isolated as an Asian woman living in the U.S., Seoul is perhaps an even more distant Asian city that she would not consider living in.

The distance between Asian America and Asia compels us to think what Asian solidarity means and how it works. In order to combat anti-Asian racism, we must recognize how it is undergirded by white supremacy, a system that has formed through transatlantic slave trade and transpacific migration. Racism against peoples of African and Asian descent in our time indicates the histories of imperial conquest, colonization, and exploitation. Asian American writers must employ a historical-global perspective, reconsidering how they tell their Asian American stories in ways that might relate to their Asian counterpart across the Pacific. For “Asian solidarity” to work beyond the U.S. borders and hence address white supremacy, emphasizing the ethnic connection between Asian Americans and Asians is inadequate. It is imperative to confront the histories of Asian migration under the shadow of U.S. empire, whose capitalist expansion, militarist endeavors, and neocolonial practices have the two groups entangled with one another. As Taiwanese American Nathanael Cheng argues, when confronting anti-Asian racism and critiquing white supremacy, the lack of understanding between Asian Americans and Asians must be changed.

Asians and the Understanding of Asian America

In Taiwan, the lack of understanding of Asian America in fact connotes a specific understanding. In the context of the global Cold War and the ongoing Chinese Civil War, only a small number of Taiwanese such as politicians, business persons, and college graduates with scholarship could go abroad. Their destination was often the U.S. due to the alliance between the U.S. and the Nationalist Party regime in Taiwan. Those who were able to visit—or immigrate to—the U.S. implied they were in possession of cultural, economic, and social capital. The ways in which Taiwanese understood “Asian America” could be traced back to the launch of the Aid Refugee Chinese Intellectuals, Inc. (ARCI) in the early 1950s, a refugee relief organization funded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In the 1950s, the ARCI along with the State Department assisted the immigration of Chinese refugees from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia to the U.S. In line with the tactic of the U.S., the assistance provided by the ARCI was meant for chosen ones. As historian Madeline Y. Hsu explains, Chinese refugees brought to Taiwan from Hong Kong and admitted to the U.S. were screened for their educational and economic credentials. In 1965, as the immigration laws were re-written and national-origin quotas were abolished, the Immigration and Nationality Act (Hart-Cellar Act) opened the door wider for Asian immigrants to the U.S. Nevertheless, the Act prioritized educated immigrants and those with specialized skills. A substantial number of Asian professionals immigrated to the U.S. and thus caused the “brain drain” in Asia. Consequently, in Taiwan, the martial law regulation that restricted the mobility of commoners and the U.S. policy that determined the eligibility of Chinese immigrants might have contributed to the understanding of “Asian Americans” as an elitist group. Immigration to the U.S. signified privilege from the outset. The path from Taiwan to the U.S. indicates a success story in which the already privileged—rather than those migrant women working in the massage parlors—would triumph in the land of opportunity. Their model minority status is expected, embraced, and envied.

Andrew Yang, former presidential candidate and now running for the Democratic nomination in the New York City mayoral election, for instance, conforms to the image of a typical Asian American. Dubbed by Taiwanese media “the son of Taiwan” (Taiwan zhi zi), Yang graduated from Brown University and Columbia Law School. He worked first as a lawyer and then became a successful business person. Yang’s parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s; both graduated from University of California, Berkeley. Yang not only once talks about the immigrant story of his parents as fulfilling the American Dream. After the Atlanta mass shootings, Yang denounced anti-Asian racism while emphasizing that “Asian Americans are just as American as anyone else.” The owner of Gold Spa Sue-ling Wang also has an immigrant success story to share. Wang entered the U.S. from Taiwan as an international student on a scholarship. After he obtained his PhD, Wang started his own business in Atlanta and stayed in the U.S. Now a successful business person, he was recently elected the 28th Director of the World Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce. As the New York Times reporters succinctly put, the immigrant path of Wang diverged from that of the victims of the Atlanta shootings: “One led to wealth, the other ended in death in Atlanta.”

The success story of Taiwanese immigrants to the U.S. might have prevented Taiwanese from relating themselves to the Atlanta mass shootings. Unlike the Korean and the Chinese governments, Taiwan did not issue any official statement in response to the rising anti-Asian attacks. Indeed, the prompt reactions from the South Korean and Chinese officials bespoke not only their concerns for their nationals, but also their respective relations with the U.S. When the Atlanta shootings occurred, the U.S. Secretaries happened to be in Seoul during their four-day East Asia tour. The diplomatic tour aimed at consolidating the shared interests and security cooperation between South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. On the other hand, the ongoing conflict between China and the U.S. inevitably cast political overtones on the PRC’s official request for justice. Caught within the China-U.S. conflict, Taiwan must be cautious about its reaction to the Atlanta shootings—neither causing problems for the precarious U.S.-Taiwan relations nor being deemed as “Chinese” working in the service industry. The lack of response from Taiwan may be interpreted as siding with the U.S.’s anti-China policy, which has always been the stance of the ROC government, but at the same time, it may also suggest how the island democracy has turned a blind eye to the violence against Asians.


Six Asian women were killed in the U.S., but anti-Asian racism and xenophobia is not just a contemporary American story, nor is it a story concerning a single Asian country. The anti-Asian violence has a long history in which the U.S., Asian America, and Asia are entangled. In their co-written essay responding to the Atlanta mass shootings, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Janelle Wong illustrate a history of anti-Asian racism since the late nineteenth century (The Washington Post, March 21, 2021). The Page Act (1875) and the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) prohibited the Chinese—deemed as with disease and immorality—from entering the U.S. In the early 1980s when the U.S. was alarmed by Japan’s booming economy, Asian-bashing and hate crimes increased. Chinese American Vincent Chin was mistaken as a Japanese and murdered in 1982. Nowadays, as Nguyen and Wong show, China has replaced Japan as the economic enemy of the U.S., with which Sinophobic sentiment intensified; the pattern suggests that the U.S. policy tends to consider Asian countries as a threat, and it has taken a heavy toll on Asian American communities. But the racism and violence are not just about Asian America. Dylan Rodríguez’s abolitionist approach compels us to consider anti-Asian violence as “a persistent, unexceptional presence in the long historical, Civilizational terror-making machine that is the United States.”

Yet, making critical sense of the U.S. is not enough. The regional complexity of Asia poses difficulties to Asian solidarity. In East Asia, the unresolved conflict between Taiwan and China since 1949 and more recently that between Hong Kong and China, the division of Korea, and the legacies of Japanese colonialism and imperialism, have perpetuated the dissonance between Asian countries. The dissonance has been reinforced even more now by how the U.S. relates itself to each Asian country based on its own interests. The U.S.’s geopolitical tactic simultaneously increases the distance between Asian America and Asia. We must realize that racial capitalism and white supremacy have bound us together, and recognize what exactly is dividing us besides borders and oceans. As Yuri Kochiyama said, “Unless we know ourselves and our history, and other people and their history, there is really no way that we can really have a positive kind of interaction where there is real understanding.”

Yi-Hung LIU(劉羿宏)is postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica, in Taiwan. She is completing a manuscript on Cold War exchange and the institutions of creative writing.