Between scanning articles detailing government shutdowns, watching international tensions unfold on TV, and coming into work to hear about whatever shooting has happened that week from a coworker, I’m already feeling discouraged. But then, I read the comments. A word of advice for those of you looking to create inner peace for yourself this year: don’t read the comments. I’m talking about the comments from social media users you can find at the end of articles and tweets, but this can also apply to the comments you hear from the strangers behind you in line at the grocery store. The comments I refer to are always opinions, and they’re always strong ones, even if they lack research, which they often do. They also tend to be voiced in absolutes (“this politician has a history of lying to her constituents and being self-serving; she is an evil woman.”) These comments seem to be lacking in something essential to our humanity: empathy.
When was the last time these commenters stopped to consider the opinions of those who might disagree with them, and why they might have those opinions? When was the last time they remembered what their grade school teachers taught them and stepped into the shoes of someone else?
I’ve been thinking about empathy a lot, and I hope it shows in the curriculum I write for our programs at Kizuna, because it’s one of the most important values we can teach the next generation. After all, they’re growing up in a society that is increasingly demanding us to pick sides, and to stick to our side blindly. I feel this stubbornness too at times – after all, I’ve just advised everyone to not read the comments when in actuality, reading the comments would challenge you to consider the perspectives of others. When I notice this stubbornness creeping in, I feel terrified. How can we remember to practice empathy every day when everything around us is encouraging us to put up walls?
I’m a reader, so I read. What easier way to step into the shoes of others than by absorbing the actions and inner thoughts of a book’s narrator? I’ve been reading a lot of literature by Asian American authors, partly because I feel seen as an Asian American woman, but also because these previously unmined stories contain so much rich material I’m reminded that even within Asian America, there is diversity. Below are some books written by Asian American authors that have inspired me to step outside of myself and consider the perspectives of others, followed by some books written by non-Asian Americans – because we can all benefit from venturing outside our comfort zones.
All You Can Ever Know – Nicole Chung
This memoir by editor and writer Nicole Chung was among my favorite debuts of 2018. Born to Korean parents but adopted and raised by a white family in Oregon, Chung spent her childhood feeling different, and filled with so many questions her adoptive parents couldn’t answer. Now an adult and a mother, she attempts to answer those questions herself by searching for her birth family.
The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri
The Ganguli family must now call America their home, even though home feels oceans away in Calcutta. Beginning with a pregnancy and ending with Gogol, the Ganguli’s firstborn, as a fully-grown adult, The Namesake is an epic coming-of-age story that mercilessly details the immigrant experience and the disconnect that lies between generations. I read this in college and it remains one of my all-time favorite novels.
Severance – Ling Ma
A big reason why I love zombie stories is that they’re never really about zombies. Candace Chen is just another millennial workaholic so devoted to her job that she’s still clocking in to work when the rest of the world has succumbed to the Shen Fever and she’s the only person left in New York City. I won’t say what it’s really about because that would spoil the story – you just have to read it.
Fashion Forecasts – Yumi Sakugawa
For all the people out there who hate reading: here’s a book of drawings. I’ve been a fan of Yumi Sakugawa’s comics for years, and her latest book didn’t disappoint. In it, she imagines a whimsical future where older people can still be stylish, clothes can sprout leaves, and community is fostered under one communal cape.
The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Recipient of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Sympathizer covers the Vietnam War and its aftermath in a way I haven’t seen in all those American war movies, meaning that it gives a voice to those whom the movies never let speak: the Vietnamese people. The story is told from the perspective of a half-Vietnamese, half-French narrator, who is an undercover communist agent, and contradictions abound, which makes it both a challenging and thought-provoking read.
An American Marriage – Tayari Jones
Fruit of the Drunken Tree – Ingrid Rojas Contreras
The Golden State – Lydia Kiesling
Swing Time – Zadie Smith
About the Author
Taylor Weik is a program coordinator at Kizuna, where she writes and implements curriculum to further the education, empowerment, and engagement of the next generation of community leaders. Prior to her nonprofit involvement, she worked as a freelance writer specializing in AAPI stories, with bylines in NBC Asian America, OC Weekly, and more.