The Familiar Defiance of Wesley Yang 


Wesley Yang has made his name as one of the preeminent Asian-American essayists in the country. In 2008, the literary journal n+1 published the piece that helped launch his career, “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho,” a soul-baring essay in which Yang explored his identification with the Korean-American man who shot and killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. It cemented Yang’s status as a writer, built on his proficiency in pointing out the grievances—emasculation, loneliness, ugliness, erasure—of Asian-American men.

The essay serves as the opening of Yang’s recent book, The Souls of Yellow Folk, a collection of 13 previously published essays. Despite its provocative title, there is no cohesive theme to be found within the book, which consists of a handful of profiles, some essays on political correctness, and Yang’s two most celebrated pieces on Asian-American identity. Lacking a clear frame, The Souls of Yellow Folk seems more a reflection on Yang’s career. What stands out from that last decade of writing included in the collection is how Yang often expresses genuine feelings of racist oppression only to utilize them to buy into white patriarchal norms. That perspective is also what’s made him so successful.

“I gazed into the sad blank mug of Seung-Hui Cho staring out at the world on… Those lugubrious eyes, that elongated face behind wire-frame glasses. He looks like me, I thought,” Yang writes in “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho.” His essay was unique in a media landscape where such perspectives were, and still are, few and far between.

Yang explores how in Cho’s face and isolation, he is reminded of his own resentful position as a yellow man in this country. As Yang puts it in the introduction to his book, it’s the “peculiar burden of nonrecognition, of invisibility, that is a condition of being an Asian man in America.” Yang’s skill, Frank Guan wrote in a review for Bookforum, was an eloquent but “radical, desperate self-exposure.” Yang uses his eloquence to express a kind of racial grievance—that of the “unlovable” East Asian male, often left unseen and unspoken. When it was first published, The New York Times called it a “remarkable essay.” The Atlantic’s Matthew Yglesias described it as the “best thing I’ve read in a good long while,” while conservative commentator Reihan Salam termed Yang a “mad genius.”

But reading his piece over a decade later, it’s hard to come away with anything but the creeping feeling that Yang’s main interest is sexual frustration, and consequently, the women who reject East Asian men, are to blame for both his and Cho’s plight. Take, for example how Yang writes about an incident that Cho had with two women students at Virginia Tech.

Both women called campus police in the Fall of 2005 to report Cho, who was making unwanted contact in person, through phone calls and instant messages, for stalking them. While Yang carefully notes, “I am not questioning the choices that these girls made; I am affirming those choices,” he also argues that Cho’s face, which “has nothing to do with the desires of women in this country,” is the reason why if you were a “normal, happy, healthy American girl” you would consider reporting him to security. He reiterates the contrast throughout the essay, describing Cho “a pimply friendless suburban teenager whom no woman would want to have sex with” and “the sort of person that no woman would ever want to touch.” As Dana Goldstein wrote in the American Prospect at the time, “you can’t help but take away from the essay that, if only one kind girl had taken the trouble to love Cho, to relieve him of his virginity, 32 people would be alive today.”

After emphasizing Cho’s rejection (and skimming over his issues with mental illness), Yang writes that in a creative writing class, Cho “began snapping pictures of female classmates with his cell-phone camera from underneath his desk.” Cho’s behavior wasn’t just uncomfortable, it was menacing—more so given how tightly mass shootings are related to domestic abuse or family violence. Yang’s failure isn’t his identification with Cho’s sexual frustration, or the specter of societal rejection, both subjects worthy of dissection. But his essay was so bound to the personal, so invested in reframing Cho as an “aggrieved Asian man, instead of an aggrieved man who happened to be Asian,” that it’s ultimately unwilling to explore the possibility that most women would likely find a more relevant experience in the threat of sexual violence.

This unquestioning male-first worldview has always been present in Yang’s writing, even when he weaves reporting into his personal essays. Take his 2011 New York Magazine cover story, “Paper Tigers,” in which Yang pushed back against stereotypical Asian-American values and interviewed a number of people about how to break the “Bamboo Ceiling,” the invisible discriminatory barrier that keeps Asians out of the top ranks of the managerial class. Again, Yang tackles a legitimate racial grievance, but doesn’t root out its solutions or its causes. His subjects, like the leadership trainer who teaches his Asian clients to be more outspoken in the workplace, or Tiger Mom author Amy Chua who wrote a controversial book about her child-rearing philosophy, are arbiters of individual change, when the problem is ultimately a collective one.

“We will need more people with the same kind of defiance,” Yang writes, rather than advocating for overturning the racist system as a whole. This limited aperture is most obvious in Yang’s decision to include Asian pick up artist J.T. Tran among his list of people to emulate. Here’s the passage in which Yang described Tran, who has built a business in specifically teaching Asian men how to pick up women:

The story he tells is one of Asian-American disadvantage in the sexual marketplace, a disadvantage that he has devoted his life to overturning. Yes, it is about picking up women. Yes, it is about picking up white women. Yes, it is about attracting those women whose hair is the color of the midday sun and eyes are the color of the ocean, and it is about having sex with them. He is not going to apologize for the images of blonde women plastered all over his website. This is what he prefers, what he stands for, and what he is selling: the courage to pursue anyone you want, and the skills to make the person you desire desire you back. White guys do what they want; he is going to do the same.

Tran, like Yang, describes a racist trope—that American culture has been conditioned to see Asian-American men as unattractive—but turns it around and uses it to oppress women, both amplifying and obscuring the existing racist framework. During one of his lessons, Tran yells at his students “What is good in life?” to which they must reply: “To crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and to hear the lamentation of their women—in my bed!”

These mythologies are not harmless. Only three years after Yang published “Paper Tigers,” Elliot Rodger, whose father was white and mother was Malaysian of Chinese descent, would go on to shoot and kill six people near a college campus, eventually becoming a martyr within the incel community. What Rodger wrote in his manifesto is not too far from what pick up artists like Tran have championed:

“I’d be able to have my beautiful blonde girlfriend,” Rodger wrote, fantasizing about what could happen if he became a millionaire. “I’d be able to live above everyone who has wronged me, and rub it all in their faces as a form of gratifying vengeance.”

Rather than treat Tran’s tactics critically, Yang sees him only as part of a cohort of Asian-Americans who “dare to be interesting” and “have figured out some useful things.” (So, apparently, did the greater literary community—the essay won Yang a National Magazine award.) By doing so, Yang makes an implicit assumption—that sexism is an acceptable (and perhaps even necessary) cost of dismantling racism. This, of course, is an untenable position: As Amia Srinivasan argued in an essay last year for the London Review of Books, one can acknowledge both that desire is political and that no one has a right to sex. But, as Srinivasan writes about men like Rodger and his incel supporters, “the moment their unhappiness is transmuted into a rage at the women ‘denying’ them sex, rather than at the systems that shape desire (their own and others’), they have crossed a line into something morally ugly and confused.”

Since the publication of his book, Yang has made clear that any reader who takes its title seriously—which plays off of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk—is simply not in the know. “When I came up with the title, I knew there was a risk that the book would be straw-manned by its critics and had to think about whether that risk was worth taking,” Yang told New York Magazine in a 2018 interview. “And it has been straw-manned in the most grotesquely literal and pedestrian ways.” Yang pressed that of course he wasn’t trying to be the “W.E.B. Du Bois for Asians of the 21st century.”

It’s true that Asian-American identity is not the main subject of Yang’s collection. Only the first three essays focus on the issue at all, while the rest are a somewhat haphazard collection of profiles and articles on identity politics, sex, and political correctness. The vulnerable, albeit flawed, edge that brought Yang acclaim in “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho” doesn’t resonate in other aspects of his work.

If there’s any throughline to be found at all, it’s in how Yang so often seems compelled by the country’s patriarchy. Take, for example, something as simple as the very subject matters that Yang chooses to cover. Every single profile included in the collection—Eddie Huang, Tony Judt, Francis Fukuyama, Aaron Swartz, Evan Kohlmann—is of a man. One essay, “Game Theory,” is devoted entirely to pick up artists. Another is dedicated to picking apart campus political correctness culture.

Outside of the book, Yang has written a sympathetic profile of Jordan Peterson, the Canadian thought leader hawking a return to patriarchal values, who has flourished by milking a new generation of big disaffected man energy. Yang talks about how he was one of those men, who, despite his cynical nature, found himself drawn to Peterson’s principles of self-help. Vilification of Peterson, Yang wrote, has been blown out of proportion: “Many of Peterson’s seemingly grandiose pronouncements are, in fact, quite modest.” Less than a month later, Peterson told The New York Times that Alek Minassian, the self-identified incel who killed ten people with his van in Toronto, wouldn’t have done so if society had “enforced monogamy.”

For Yang, women are incidental to his view of the world, so much so that his political and racial analyses are often rendered meaningless. Even after all the time he spends dissecting how Asian-American men are at the bottom of the sexual totem pole, Yang writes, “I have never dated a Korean woman,” without blinking an eye. While he grumbles that the Asian-American man is besieged by erasure, he does the same to Asian women and non-binary Asians. As Houria Bouteldja’s writes in her essay, “We, Indigenous Women”: “Male castration, a consequence of racism, is a humiliation for which men make us pay a steep price.”

Yang argues that he never claimed to speak for yellow folk as a people. But the issue was never that it seemed like he was casting his net too widely. It was that he never bothered to throw it at all.

How does someone like Yang become one of the country’s most begrudgingly successful Asian-American public intellectuals? The first answer is probably as simple as the fact that the media’s gatekeepers are extremely male. When Yang published his piece in n+1, the three top editors of the relatively small literary magazine’s masthead were all men. When Yang won his national magazine award in 2012, the American Society of Magazine Editors was criticized because all 25 of the nominations for the long-form categories went to 25 male writers. Yang belongs to a sexist literary tradition, one that, as it slowly gets a little less so, threatens to revisit the lionization of its revered intellectuals.

And then there’s the fact that Asian-American history as a whole has been plagued by erasure. Yang’s success was in part predicated on the truth that he did bring a perspective that has been little-voiced. But an essay like “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho” could have only shaken the magazine world like it did in a country where a history of Asian-American activism and feminism has been consistently hidden from view. It’s not that defiant Asian-American revolutionaries never existed (or continue to exist today), but that, to the benefit of white supremacist hierarchies, we rarely hear or learn about them.

Yang’s success stems in part from a media ecosystem that was (and still is), too white and too male to sniff out oppressive patriarchal norms clothed in the language of racial grievances. Or maybe that was the point all along. But Asian-American men who, like Yang, feel annulled from American society, would do well to take advice from the women they so often ignore. As Yvonne Wong Nishio wrote in 1971 in a women’s issue of Gidra, a radical Asian-American newspaper, “There are no personal solutions for a social disease.”

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