Two new books by Asian Americans wrestle with the costs of their families’ immigrations following the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which dramatically opened up the country to Asians for the first time. Both books wonder whether their families’ quests for a better life for their children in America were worth the racism and marginalization they had to deal with.
“Maybe we would have been better off in Paris, or in Beirut, where my dad and his family lived in an elegant compound,” writes Albert Samaha in “Concepcion: An Immigrant Family’s Fortunes,” a sprawling and impressive work that makes the compelling argument that his family’s immigration was caused by America’s imperialist activity in the Philippines. In “The Loneliest Americans,” a book that also combines reportage and family history in an attempt to characterize the Asian American experience, author Jay Caspian Kang asks of his Korean family: “Did they give up on Korea too early?” By the end of the book, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, Kang is looking for real estate in Seoul, pondering whether South Korea will be a better place to raise his mixed-race daughter.
The heart of “Concepcion” is the story of Samaha’s mother (Concepcion is the family’s surname on his maternal side), who came to the U.S. and raised the author in relative middle-class privilege in Vallejo, only to have the financial meltdown of 2008 trigger an economic backslide from which she hasn’t recovered. By 2020, she’s pawning off her jewelry and drifting from one itinerant job to the next. But her faith in the American dream never wavers, nor does her support for Trump and her belief in the assorted right-wing conspiracies associated with him.
Starting with how Spanish colonialism knocked Samaha’s ancestors out of royalty, the book’s historical retellings span hundreds of years and ultimately result in a scathing indictment of America’s role in shaping the modern history of the Philippines. America’s foreign aid and President Ronald Reagan’s steadfast support of dictator Ferdinand Marcos enabled the Phillipines’ 22-year decline into further poverty. Tens of thousands of Filipinos who opposed Marcos were tortured and killed, and Samaha’s family lands on the wrong side of the regime, leading them to turn to America for hope.
Samaha, an investigative journalist, unearths a wealth of documentation that runs counter to the kinder, gentler version of American history we’re taught in school. While we’re often told that America was forced to engage in unsavory deeds overseas to prevent the spread of Soviet communism, Samaha points out that these geopolitical decisions were also unmistakably driven by racism. President William McKinley’s Secretary of State William Day, who served during the 1898 Spanish-American War, after which the Americans supplanted the Spanish as the colonials in the Philippines, called Filipinos “eight or nine millions of absolutely ignorant and many degraded people.” U.S. Maj. Gen. William Rufus Shafter, who oversaw supply lines for American forces in the Philippines, wonders whether the U.S. should “kill half of the Filipinos” to improve the “semi-barbarous” state.
In “The Loneliest Americans,” Kang tries to argue that there is no “ ‘Asian American’ self” that lies “beneath the cicatrix,” while arguing that Hart-Celler immigrants share a “loneliness” that “comes from attempts to assimilate.” The book calls out that there are huge swaths of Asian Americans who are not upwardly mobile, well-educated members of a “multicultural elite,” but unfortunately, mostly tells the stories of the high achievers. Consequently, his broad proclamations about Asian Americans, like the following, feel vague:
“We, the upwardly mobile Hart-Celler immigrants, still have no idea what side we’re on … as much as we want to be the Asians in the TWLF (Third World Liberation Front), we are no longer those Asians. We are something else.”
“The Loneliest Americans” is most successful when it doesn’t presume to speak for some imagined Asian American community to fulfill the book’s stated purpose of trying to explain the “loneliness that comes from attempts to assimilate.” Kang, perhaps best known for his reportage on unusual mutations of Asian American masculinity for the New York Times and the New Yorker, notes an Asian American fraternity’s hazing ritual that ends in tragedy, as well as his interactions with an Asian American incel (involuntary celibate) group. The introduction and chapters where these appear, along with a fascinating chapter on the rise of Flushing, Queens, N.Y., as an immigrant enclave, feel the most fully baked, and will be edifying to both white and nonwhite readers.
Questioning the oft-quoted saying by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Kang wisely observes: “Thanks to Hart-Celler, there are now many more groups with indeterminate arcs, none of which seems to be arcing in the same direction.” With America’s immigration crisis raging on with or without the Trump administration, “Concepcion” and “The Loneliest Americans” are especially timely, reminding us of the promises America fails to keep.
Concepcion: An Immigrant Family’s Fortunes
By Albert Samaha
(Riverhead Books; 400 pages; $28)
The Loneliest Americans
By Jay Caspian Kang
(Crown; 272 pages; $27)
Litquake and Philippine American Writers and Artists present Albert Samaha in conversation with Jason Bayani: In-person event. 7-8:30 p.m. Oct. 20. Free, $5-$10 donation suggested. Preregistration required. Mask and proof of vaccination required. American Bookbinders Museum, 355 Clementina St., S.F. www.litquake.org