What It Feels Like to Inhabit an Asian Body in America

In her new book of essays, ‘Minor Feelings,’ Cathy Park Hong confronts an identity that ‘takes up apologetic space’

Madeline Leung Coleman
GEN
Published in
10 min readFeb 24, 2020

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Illustration: Rose Wong

InIn the spring of 2017, David Dao, a doctor and passenger on United’s sold-out Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville, refused to give up his seat to accommodate airline staff. Security officers dragged him into the aisle, slamming Dao’s face into the opposite row. His body went limp. The officers dragged him toward the cockpit with his arms above his head, glasses askew, his sweater riding up to expose his stomach. Dao ran back onto the plane, blood dripping down his face. He clung to a divider curtain and muttered over and over: “Kill me… just kill me now.” Before his removal, another passenger swore he’d heard Dao say something like, “I’m being selected because I’m Chinese.”

Videos made by fellow passengers went viral, turning the incident into a fiasco for United. Dao’s lawyer said the 69-year-old doctor suffered a concussion, a broken nose, and broken teeth. For a minute, it was the biggest story in America. The commentariat agreed what the airline had done was wrong — they could just never quite decide whether it had happened because Dao was Asian. It was three months into the Trump administration. White supremacists were emboldened, and travel felt especially fraught: there’d just been protests at American airports over the Muslim travel ban. Dao’s lawyer seized on the moment, claiming some were calling his client “the Asian version of Rosa Parks.” Some Asian American writers said Dao’s treatment was not racist at all; others petitioned the White House for a federal investigation into the incident, using the hashtag #ChineseLivesMatter. (A misnomer — Dao is a Vietnamese immigrant.)

“Asian American” was shorthand for a status that had never been properly named before. It proved too weak to contain its many scattered traumas.

Years of police brutality had shown that many American cops saw black people’s bodies as a threat — that they registered blackness and acted on their worst instincts. But what happened when an enforcer saw an Asian person’s body? What happened…

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Madeline Leung Coleman
GEN
Writer for

I’m a writer and editor based in New York City.