The Sense of Being Invisible: Wesley Yang and “The Souls of Yellow Folk”

If, this year, I were given free license by society to ascend to the top of my over-priced, under-maintained Berkeley apartment, unlock the service door, climb to the rooftop, and shout from the rafters a single book recommendation to the confused onlookers below, Wesley Yang’s The Souls of Yellow Folk would be my unequivocal pick.

It’s deeply necessary, provocative, electric, and all those other book-reviewer adjectives that seem at once flat and hyperbolic with two weeks’ hindsight. But, having let the book sit, the initial bite of the essays percolate and cool (or is it warm?) in the bloodstream, and revisited it with fresh eyes, I have to say that as descriptors they’re accurate.

Before gushing further, a disclaimer. Contra title, the book is not about Yellow Folk. As Sophia Nguyen’s review for Slate notes, only two of the essays are substantively about East Asian Americans, and both of these are exclusively concerned with the experience of straight Asian men. The misleading title is perhaps forgivable as a marketing misstep; Yang’s fairly typical problems of male gaze, less so.

But in a culture where the most visible Asian man is a squat foreign dictator so ridiculous that you almost don’t notice the racially coded way he’s mocked, and the most-assigned book by an Asian man Chang-Rae Lee’s yawn-inducing Native Speaker, Asian men are perhaps entitled to one decent book about their experience.

Yang begins, modestly enough, by addressing a subject most writers would deem untouchable. In “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho”, he broaches the horrible possibility that, by wearing the same yellow Asian face, deemed “unlovable” even by friends, he may know something of the experience of the man who murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech.

What if, Yang asks, Cho had been born with a face that was not “beady-eyed [and] brown-toned… a face that has nothing to do with the desires of women in this country?” What if the Cho who had not yet shot 49 innocents had, by some miracle, found a friend to alleviate some of his obvious loneliness, or received a little acknowledgement for the twisted stories he wrote, if not for their dubious literary merit, then for the sense of alienation that they contained?

Yang is careful to not engage in victim blaming. Even before he was a mass murderer, Cho was by all accounts a creep, and the women who he stalked and sent lewd messages to were right to turn him into the police. If you started receiving unwanted messages from someone with “beady lugubrious eyes, in a forlorn, brown-tinted face,” you’d be justified in shutting him out.

But lurking beneath all of this is an unanswerable question. Grant for a moment that we live in a hierarchy, one where a white man making six figures can get 6,000 responses on in a single night, while certain races — the South American migrants who bus your tables, and, yes, slit-eyed, sallow-faced Asian men — are dismissed as undesirable out of hand. Then “what if it’s not you shutting out the losers? What if you’re the loser who everyone is shutting out?… What if, as far as you know, you’re the lowest person at the low end of this hierarchy?” How would you react?

Yang has since deemed parts of the essay “indefensible”. There are points where the line between mental illness and legitimate grievance are dangerously blurred. But to pretend that our most monstrous killers exist apart from the conditions of society, floating outside the laws of cause and effect, also seems wrong. The easy thing would be to dismiss Cho as inhuman, a different category from the rest of us. Yang confronts us with the frightening possibility that Cho was like us, once — and that, as an Asian man, he might know something of the alienation that drove him over the edge.

This got real heavy. Let’s all take a deep breath. Yang’s essays can be quite difficult to digest, and the first one is a doozy. Later ones tackle more quotidian concerns. “Paper Tigers”, the second essay in the collection, is ostensibly about Amy Chua’s controversial book on Tiger Parenting. But the choice of Chua as subject is a facade, a cheap way to capitalize on her notoriety, and really an excuse for Yang to tackle what is perhaps his great theme: the frustrating, pervasive, undeniable, but ever-so slippery sense of invisibility being an Asian man in the West.

I won’t spoil the punchline, as I did with the last essay. But I will say that reading Yang, I felt that thrill of recognition, that rush of serotonin that we got when the first Internet memes told us we weren’t alone in our neurotic solipsism, or when we bared our hearts to our teenage crushes and found, to our surprise, that we shared the same yearnings, the same idiotic vulnerabilities. This was an Asian man, telling me what being me is like, in a book. That alone was a surprise. Perhaps it took someone with the audacity to empathize with the truly monstrous to say what for so long has been passed over in silence. With this set of essays, Yang has carved out the space for Asian men to talk about our experience, and pose the uncomfortable questions that only those who have lived it can ask.

So here are the facts. In large swathes of this country, the Asian man is a perpetual foreigner. In the classroom and then the boardroom, he is seen as rote, dependable, like a good sprocket wrench, but hardly leadership or creative material. It is okay to joke about his SATs, since a bamboo ceiling caps his earnings. It is socially acceptable (without even a glance over the shoulder) to joke about his endowment, because on the dating market he is a nonentity. He swipes right and right and right, and knows the quiet disappointment of being unwanted.

From the popular“subtle asian dating” Facebook group. I’m getting real tired of this shit, and we’re doing it to ourselves.

And then there are the little things, which Yang captures so well. In his words, an Asian face is the face of an “invisible person”, part of “a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter socially or culturally.” If a white person brushes him off when striking up a conversation, he is not sure if it is because he as an individual is boring, or if the collective force of every token Chinese nerd from the movies and Asians-sleeping-in-the-library meme has created the unconscious assumption that he is not a person at all, but another sallow-faced Excel monkey without feelings and opinions and indeed an inner life, except perhaps if his Starcraft base is Zerg rushed in the first three minutes.

But, if the case of racism is so clear, then why the silence? Why as good, well-meaning liberals don’t we ever talk about any of this?

The answer, I think, is that there is an unstated awkwardness to the problem of the Asian male. Almost certainly he benefits from sexism in the world, both out in society and (crucially) within the traditional family unit. Outside of a few unfortunate groups, he prospers economically. But he is also subject to a host of small indignities that cut against our received wisdom about how men are the great beneficiaries of Masculinity. And a thousand insignificances, to sidestep a tired Oriental metaphor, may add up to something quite large.

The Internet has supplied us with a term for this, Intersectionality, but with more immediate crises of racial justice at hand, sorting out the precise status of Asian men, and how exactly his specific problems are to be addressed, is not a high priority. The result, in my experience, is silence. Not a silence founded in malice, I believe, but the simple fact that Asian men are just one group in a long line of rightfully aggrieved parties in America.

Couple this with the suspicion that the category many Asian men secretly aspire to — to be taken seriously as a Man: a valid object of desire and an independent, assertive actor in the world — may not in fact be a legitimate category at all, but one based on entitlement and illegitimate power, and the result is total confusion.

Yang has no answers to the questions he provokes. I’ve got none either. But for the first time, I feel free to ask them, and refreshed in the knowledge that, no, I’m not crazy, the status quo is unacceptable, and naming these truths is more invigorating than pretending they don’t exist. “The Souls of Yellow Folk” is messy and incomplete and, occasionally, downright disagreeable. But even as a half-baked project, a stapling-together of pieces that have been published elsewhere, I found it superior to almost everything I read last year. Wesley Yang deserves your royalty dollar. Go buy it.