Wesley Yang’s The Souls Of Yellow Folk

I have been an avid reader of Wesley Yang’s for some time now. I can’t recall which of his many essays first caught my attention, but the rare combination of original insight and lyrical flair that characterizes his writing was an instant draw, and his Twitter account – criminally unsubscribed to –dispenses daily examples of those qualities in condensed form. The Souls Of Yellow Folk, his first published collection of writing, takes its title from W.E.B. Du Bois’ famous The Souls of Black Folk, suggesting that what’s on offer is a probing of the Asian-American identity. We get that, certainly, but also much more: profiles of Tony Judt, Francis Fukuyama and Reddit wunderkind Aaron Swartz, meditations on the role that the internet has played in recruiting terrorists or changing the way we date and interact, and two concluding essays – “Is It Ok To Be White?” and “What Is White Supremacy?” – that deftly demonstrate the nightmarish status of the so-called “race debate” in our culture, which resembles a kind of feedback loop energizing the most polarizing factions and shouting down more moderate voices.

Let’s focus, however, on Yang’s treatment of the Asian-American identity, as very few people or publications have found this a subject worthy of study. When we speak of “race” in America, we invariably think of black-white relations, or perhaps, in more recent years, white-Latino relations; rarely do we consider the Asian-American experience, except as a foil for describing the experience of others. I should allow Yang to speak for himself on this topic:

My interest has always been in the place where sex and race are both obscenely conspicuous and yet consciously suppressed, largely because of the liminal place that the Asian man occupies in the midst of it: an “honorary white” person who will always be denied the full perquisites of whiteness; an entitled man who will never quite be regarded or treated as a man; a nominal minority whose claim to be a “person of color” deserving of the special regard reserved for victims is taken seriously by no one. In an age characterized by the politics of resentment, the Asian man knows something of the resentment of the embattled white man, besieged on all sides by grievances and demands for reparation, and something of the resentments of the rising social justice warrior, who feels with every fiber of their being that all that stands in the way of the attainment of their thwarted ambitions is nothing so much as a white man. Tasting of the frustrations of both, he is denied the entitlements of either.

Asian-American men out-earn white men in America, by a substantial margin; they attend universities at a higher rate, and are disproportionately represented in the workforces of America’s most advanced industries, most notably in Silicon Valley. And yet their cultural representation in America has been almost non-existent: there are no high-profile Asian-American actors, singers or athletes, and no calls for television shows and movies to showcase the Asian experience. We hear constantly of white privilege and black oppression, but what do our theories do in the face of the outsize success of Asian-Americans, who continue to ascend America’s educational and career ladders with dizzying rapidity?

Paradoxically, this very liminal position offers Asian men an opportunity in our culture to act as brokers in the larger cultural conversation around race, ambassadors for the privileged and the oppressed alike. Consider the remarkable rise in popularity of American presidential hopeful Andrew Yang (no relation), and his success in courting not only disaffected white liberals but outspoken black celebrities like Dave Chappelle and Donald Glover. As I write this, there is a legal challenge, brought forth by a group representing Asian-Americans, against some of America’s most prestigious universities, charging that they racially discriminate against Asian applicants. The evidence, even before the fact-finding assessments made possible by this accusation, seems damning: the average Asian admitted to Harvard has both a higher GPA and SAT score than his non-Asian peers, and when discovery was completed and the arcane admissions process of institutions like Harvard were more thoroughly vetted, it was discovered that, on objective measures like standardized tests and grades, Asian applicants were standouts, trouncing the competition, but on the more subjective assessment of “personality,” conducted via interviews, they were systematically scored lower than their white and black competition. Another example of Asian discrimination now comes from New York’s vaunted “elite” public schools, whose admissions process has been entirely meritocratic, based on a series of written exams. The result, however, has been a glaring mismatch between who scores well enough to merit admission (overwhelmingly New York’s Asian minority), and who does not (New York’s majority black and Hispanic student population). Rather than accept that these outcomes are the result of hard work and studiousness, or renew commitments to improving the educational outcomes of black and Hispanic students, New York mayor and former presidential contender Bill de Blasio has threatened to abolish the selective school system entirely. Yang, again:

Entrance to Stuyvesant, one of the most competitive public high schools in the country, is determined solely by performance on a test: The top 3.7 percent of all New York City students who take the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test hoping to go to Stuyvesant are accepted. There are no set-asides for the underprivileged or, conversely, for alumni or other privileged groups. There is no formula to encourage “diversity” or any nebulous concept of “well-roundedness” or “character.” Here we have something like pure meritocracy. This is what it looks like: Asian-Americans, who make up 12.6 percent of New York City, make up 72 percent of the high school.

The disparity here is nothing short of embarrassing, for all involved, but it makes the wider American society all the more flummoxed by what, exactly, to do with the Asian-American. Too successful to be a victim, too visible a minority to be easily embraced by the white majority, Asian-Americans, Yang argues, find themselves caught in a kind of limbo.

Yang, it should be stressed, also writes about the topic of gender: he does not claim to be representing the experience of Asian-American women, but specifically Asian-American men, and this volume’s standout essay, “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho” (the Korean-American who perpetrated the Virginia Tech shooting, killing 32 people), lights up the male experience like few modern writers are capable of doing. Cho, it turns out, was romantically frustrated: in one horrific experience, long before his transformation into a mass murderer, his inept attempts to flirt with women resulted in campus security being called. “They did not want him arrested, and they did not press charges. They just had to make clear that while Cho thought he was having one kind of encounter (a potentially romantic one), he was in fact having another kind of encounter (a potentially criminal one), and to show him that the state would intervene on their behalf if he couldn’t come to terms with this reality.” Was his romantic failure due to his Asian-American identity? Yang cites all kind of data, long familiar to me, showing the uniquely difficult position faced by Asian men in Western countries: they are the least likely to get spontaneous messages on dating websites, the least likely to have their overtures responded to, and are stereotyped, in subjective assessments, as being less masculine than their white and black peers. “Seung-Hui Cho’s is the kind of face for which the appropriate response to an expression of longing or need involves armed guards,” Yang tells us, and it’s difficult – for him and for us – to know how unfair that statement is.

Because, as Korean-Americans, Seung-Hui Cho and Wesley Yang share facial features, “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho” becomes a kind of springboard for Yang to explore his own romantic failures, and from there, the romantic failures of men and women more broadly. And in our age of sexual liberation and online dating, those failures are more widespread and more spectacular than ever before.

You wake to find yourself one of the disadvantaged of the fully liberated sexual marketplace. If you are a woman, maybe you notice that men have a habit of using and discarding you, pleading their own inconstancy and premature emotional debauchery as a sop to your wounded feelings. If you are a man, maybe you notice that the women who have been used and discarded by other, more highly valued men are happy to restore (for a while) their own broken self-esteem by stepping on you while you are prone, and reminding you that even a society of outcasts has its hierarchies. Indeed, those hierarchies are policed all the more ruthlessly the closer to the bottom you go.

There you have it: the single best one-paragraph summary of the modern dating world I have yet to read, perfectly encapsulating the complaints so many young men and women now make about their experiences of the “freedom” and “liberation” promised to them by their parents’ generation. And Yang follows it up with still more insight, still more brilliance:

For these people, we have nothing but options. Therapy, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, alcoholism, drug addiction, pornography, training in mixed martial arts, mail-order brides from former Soviet republics, sex tours in Southeast Asia, prostitution, video-game consoles, protein shakes and weightlifting regimens, New Age medicine, obsession with pets or home furnishings, the recovery movement – all of which are modes of survival as opposed to forms of life. Each of these options compensates for a thing, love, that no person can flourish without, and each, in a different way, offers an endlessly deferred resolution to a conundrum that is effectively irresolvable. You could even say that our culture feeds off the plight of the poor in spirit in order to create new dependencies. You might even dare to say that an undernourished human soul – desperate and flailing, prone to seeking voluntary slavery in the midst of freedom and prosperity – is so conducive to the creation of new markets that it is itself the indispensable product of our culture and our time, at once its precondition and its goal.

There you have it, the best one-paragraph summary of our modern dating world followed, immediately, by the best one-paragraph summary of our modern culture, feeding “off the plight of the poor in spirit in order to create new dependencies.”

This is but a small sample of Yang’s writing, and this collection, though beautifully written and gripping to read, still represents a first effort in what I hope will be a long and fruitful career. At one point, Yang cites James Baldwin’s writing goal – “a power which outlasts kingdoms” – as his own. If he can continue to make the kinds of observations referenced above, and continue to display the rare courage necessary to explore those insights, that power will surely be his. He is already, by my lights, one of our most talented living essayists, and desperately in need of a wider audience.