Minor Feelings: read the opening

14 March 2020

‘Formidable …  [this] book bled a dormant discomfort out of me with surgical precision.’ Jia Tolentino, author of Trick Mirror

What happens when an immigrant believes the lies they’re told about their own racial identity?

For Cathy Park Hong, they experience the shame and difficulty of “minor feelings”.
The daughter of Korean immigrants, Cathy Park Hong grew up in America steeped in shame, suspicion, and melancholy. She would later understand that these “minor feelings” occur when American optimism contradicts your own reality. With sly humour and a poet’s searching mind, Hong uses her own story as a portal into a deeper examination of racial consciousness. This intimate and devastating book traces her relationship to the English language, to shame and depression, to poetry and artmaking, and to family and female friendship. A radically honest work of art, Minor Feelings forms a portrait of one Asian American psyche – and of a writer’s search to both uncover and speak the truth.

Read the opening below

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My depression began with an imaginary tic.

For an hour, I stared at the mirror, waiting for my eyelid to flutter or the corner of my mouth to tingle.

“Do you see my tic?” I asked my husband.


“Do you see my tic now?” I asked my husband.

“No.” “Do you see my tic now?” I asked my husband.


In my early twenties, I used to have an actual tic in my right eyelid that spread so that my right facial muscles contracted my eye into an occasional Popeye squint. I found out I had a rare neuromuscular condition called hemifacial spasm, triggered by two cranial nerves behind my ear that became twisted. In 2004, when I was twenty-six years old, a doctor in Pittsburgh corrected my spasms by inserting a tiny sponge to separate the two entwined nerves.

Now, seven years later, I was convinced my spasms had returned—that somehow the sponge had slipped and my nerves had knotted themselves up again. My face was no longer my face but a mask of trembling nerves threatening to mutiny. There was a glitch in the machine. Any second, a nerve could misfire and spasm like a snaking hose hissing water. I thought about my face so much I could feel my nerves, and my nerves felt ticklish. The face is the most naked part of ourselves, but we don’t realize it until the face is somehow injured, and then all we think of is its naked con­dition.

My self-conscious habits returned. I found elaborate ruses to hide my face in public, cradling my cheek against my hand as if I were in constant dismay, or looking away to quietly ponder a question about the weather when all I could think of was my ticklish nerves that could, any second, seize my face into a tic.

There was no tic.

It was my mind threatening mutiny. I was turning para­noid, obsessive. I wanted someone to unscrew my head and screw on a less neurotic head.

“Stinking thinking,” my husband called my thinking.

To try to fall asleep, I ingested whiskey, then whiskey with Ambien, then whiskey with Ambien, Xanax, and weed, but nothing could make me sleep. When I could not sleep, I could not think. When I could not think, I could not write nor could I socialize and carry on a conversation. I was the child again. The child who could not speak English.

I lived in a beautiful rent-stabilized loft on an unremark­able corridor of Lower Broadway known for its retail jeans stores that pumped out a wallpaper of Hot 97 hits. I was fi­nally living the New York life I wanted. I was recently mar­ried and had just finished writing a book. There was no reason for me to be depressed. But anytime I was happy, the fear of an awful catastrophe would follow, so I made myself feel awful to preempt the catastrophe’s hitting. Overtaxed by this anxiety, I sank into deep depression. A friend said that when she was depressed, she felt like a “sloth that fell from its tree.” An apt description. I was dull, depleted, until I had to go out and interface with the public, and then I felt flayed.


I decided to see a therapist to treat my depression. I wanted a Korean American therapist because I wouldn’t have to ex­plain myself as much. She’d look at me and just know where I was coming from. Out of the hundreds of New York thera­pists available on the Aetna database of mental health care providers, I found exactly one therapist with a Korean sur­name. I left a message for her and she called me back. We set up a consultation.

Her small, dimly lit waiting room had a framed Diego Rivera poster of a kneeling woman holding a giant basket of calla lilies. The whole room was furnished in Rivera’s tran­quilizing palette: the brown vase of cattails, the caramel leather armchair, a rug the color of dying coral.

The therapist opened her door. The first thing I noticed was the size of her face. The therapist had an enormous face. I wondered if this was a problem for her, since Korean women are so self-conscious about the size of their faces that they will go under the knife to shave their jawlines down (a common Korean compliment: “Your face is so small it’s the size of a fist!”).


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