About two thirds of the way through “Paper Tigers,” Wesley Yang’s 2011 New York cover story about the personal and professional lives of Asian-Americans, the author wonders what kind of advice he would give to a younger version of himself. The essay has ranged from “boot camps” for Asian-American men who need help talking to women in bars, to corporate empowerment retreats where Asian middle managers hope to break through the “bamboo ceiling” by learning to conform their facial expressions to white expectations, to the streets of Lower Manhattan, where the rising chef Eddie Huang buys American recognition on his own terms—by selling irresistible pork buns. At the center of the essay, though, is a Stuyvesant High School senior named Jefferson Mao. Mao, a first-generation Chinese immigrant from Flushing, is sick of being one of the “nameless, faceless Asian kids” in the Stuyvesant hallways, but he is also confused by the disorienting social norms of his white classmates, who tend to be more assertive. He has written Yang for guidance on how to become “an Asian writer.”
Yang, raised in New Jersey by Korean immigrant parents, was at the time writing some of the ambitious profiles that form the core of his stylish and frequently revelatory new collection, The Souls of Yellow Folk. He goes back and forth about what he should tell Mao. Like Mao, as a high schooler he had resisted the credential-mill mentality of some of his Asian-American peers, as well as the “manipulative cheeriness” of his white ones. But his choice to “live beyond both poles” has not been without costs. In his twenties, Yang had “turned away from one institution of American life after another”—academia, a steady job—and the result had been poor living conditions, no health care, and “three years in the prime of my adulthood without touching a woman.” Was it worth it? Yang considers the appeal of “getting with the program.” He could learn how to grin in bars and boardrooms, but demurs. He tells Mao:
I care, in the end, about expressing my obdurate singularity at any cost. I love this hard and unyielding part of myself more than any other reward the world has to offer a newly brightened and ingratiating demeanor, and I will bear any costs associated with it.
The first step toward self-reform is to admit your deficiencies. Though my early adulthood has been a protracted education in them, I do not admit mine. I’m fine. It’s the rest of you who have a problem. Fuck all y’all.
The passage is juvenile, ridiculous, and improbably exhilarating. After spending thousands of words explicating the plight of Asians attempting to make it in New York, Yang spells out his contempt for the entire enterprise. Asians ought to have as…
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