Jay Caspian Kang explores Pan-Asian themes in President and Provosts Lecture

Jay Caspian King holding a cell phone

Jay Caspian Kang explores Pan-Asian themes in President and Provost’s Lecture

By Aaron Marshall

Reflecting on the origins, inherent contradictions, and limits of the term “Asian American” in our contemporary society, writer Jay Caspian Kang spoke to an online audience gathered for the 24th Annual President and Provost's Lecture Series on March 29, 2022.

The author of a new book — The Loneliest Americans — that explores these themes of Pan-Asian identity while tracing the history of Asian immigration to the United States, Kang said this interest in the topic was sparked by reporting he did for the New York Times Magazine in 2017 on an Asian American fraternity involved in a tragic hazing death of a pledge.

“The book came out of the question: Why do people create an identity, and how do they create an identity?” Kang told the audience. “How do you create something when there isn't a history that you know?”

Kang traced the term Asian American to the radical politics of Cal-Berkley in the late 1960s when students of Asian descent coined the term as they sought to align with the Black Panther Party, the Chicano Movement and other Bay Area leftists. But when the 1965 Immigration Act opened the door for millions of Asians to come to this country, the resulting wave of immigrants were far different than the largely working class Asians who had come here previously.

“The reason why the term Asian American is so fraught is because the people who are Asian American now are not political in the same way,” Kang explained. “With Asian American, its chaos, there are no people, like you would say ‘the Korean people'. Everything is so fractured. Saying there are Asian American people has never made sense to me.”

The son of Korean immigrants, Kang said he never considered himself to be Asian American growing up in Chapel Hill, N.C. “Has there ever been a day when Jay Kang thought of himself as Asian American? I think the answer is no. I've felt Korean, I've felt American, but never Asian American,” he said. “If the identity doesn't exist in a person, or in history, then what are we talking about here?”

In a callback to origins of the term in the 1960s, Kang said he hoped that an immigrant solidarity could emerge that cuts across class and racial lines in support of greater racial justice and equity. “Immigrants have come to this country to work. How we build solidarity is through a conversation about labor,” he said.

Participating in her first lecture of the flagship series sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Provost Melissa Gilliam introduced Kang, calling the writer “a thought leader in the diversity and inclusion space” who “bobs and weaves over considerable terrain.”