The year is 2014. Akai Gurley, a black man, has been fatally shot by an Asian American NYPD officer, Peter Liang. The world finds itself divided: On one side are the Asian Americans pleading for Liang’s innocence, arguing that he’s a scapegoat for white officers who abuse their privilege in cases of police brutality against the Black community. On the other side are the Black Lives Matter activists demanding Liang be held accountable for his actions as yet another instance of rampant police violence. This real-life tragedy is placed at the center of Which Side Are You On, as the catalyst for the novel’s narrative, which follows a young Asian American man as he contends with his privilege, power, and position in the longer arc of his ancestry on the path to political activism.
Reed is twenty-one. He studies at Columbia; his tuition is paid by his grandparents. He’s privileged, and he knows it. In fact, he feels guilty about it, angry over his participation in the “great American ladder climb” that contributes to the hoarding of resources that benefit only the privileged few. What was once a dream for Reed—the very college system he’d once held in high regard—is now a reality he’s desperate to escape. He realizes his classmates are “privileged dummies” and that he learns more about things that matter (racial capitalism, for instance) from Twitter than from his classes. College is “a machine designed to perpetuate inequity” and white supremacy, a sick game he wants no part of.
On a visit to his parents in LA, Reed decides to break the news to them: He’s dropping out of Columbia. He would rather be out in the real world, outside of the bubble of academia, where he can make a difference in ways that actually serve the marginalized communities who are denied access to the resources he’s privileged to possess. The moment is right. In the aftermath of Akai Gurley’s death, the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining momentum. Reed, who is half Korean, half Chinese, feels an immense responsibility to contribute to the movement, to counter the many Asian Americans who are blinded in the name of community as they stand up for Liang’s innocence. There’s a pressing need for organizing, protesting, and working toward cross-racial solidarity. How can Reed go to college and be a part of the problem? He implores his parents to see what he sees: A revolution is around the corner.
Now, let me reiterate: Reed is only twenty-one. With barely any exposure to the world beyond academia, alight with grand notions of a life spent working for the masses, Reed believes he can be part of something great and historic if he could just drop out of college and be involved in an on-the-ground, getting-your-hands-dirty way. But when his mom asks what a revolution means to him, Reed is tongue-tied. He thinks about where to start: “health care for all; an end to racial hierarchy and capitalism; queer liberation.” But in the end, he doesn’t really know how to articulate how he might actually dismantle the systemic issues that stand in the way of revolution. In this and Reed’s other ideas of rejecting the system—for example, “experimenting with noncapitalist hangouts,” where he helps his friend hang a shelf and they give him a haircut as a way to spend time together, instead of going somewhere to buy something—we see an idealist with tunnel vision. A young man hoping against all odds for a future that is unlikely to happen. A young man who spends way too much time on Twitter and gets swayed by whatever discourse and theories he reads about without giving much thought to their practicality. In this, the novel offers a beautiful rendition of the idealism of youth.
At times, Reed’s naivete is frustrating. And yet I found myself compelled to stay with Reed. I wanted to give him a hug or a warm cup of tea—anything to get him to relax, take a breather. Because in Reed I also found my younger self, who once bubbled with angst to change the world and vehemently believed that it was possible.
Even beyond feeling for Reed, I found myself in awe at the way Wong brings complexity to this protagonist. Reed isn’t just hyper-focused on the flaws of the system he wants to tear down. He’s also aware of his own shortcomings. He knows when he’s being narcissistic and holier-than-thou, especially in conversations around racial politics with his friend CJ. And with some help, mostly from his mother, Reed becomes open to viewing the world outside of the vision he’s built.
This is most evident as we follow Reed through his days in LA and witness his conversations, arguments and debates with his parents, primarily his mother. She is more opposed to Reed dropping out of college, and advocates that Reed prioritize himself and his mental wellbeing. Destroying yourself for a revolution that isn’t going to happen, she tells him, is “just not worth it.” She takes him, sometimes by tricking him and other times by persuasion, to different prime spots for exercising self-care: a yoga class, a Korean spa, a hair salon, among other locations—her way of practicing what she’s preaching. Their conversations continue in these settings, circling around racial injustice and cross-racial solidarity as Reed probes his mom to share snippets from her time as a leader of the Black-Korean Coalition in LA during the 1980s, when tensions between the two racial groups were high and solidarity-building was difficult but all the more crucial.
Reed struggles to understand why his mom, who herself dropped out of college to become an activist, is so opposed to him taking the same path. In their ensuing discussion, the novel exhibits the importance of intimate, sustained dialogue. Reed learns that before his mom co-founded the Black-Korean Coalition, she and his dad were members of an organization that asked them to give up “bourgeois education” as a test of their loyalty. They followed orders and moved to LA, where her task was to “politically educate the Korean community.” But a life without college degrees was difficult. They “hustled part time jobs” to get by, justifying the struggle as “part of being a good cadre.” But in the end, they gave up so much for a dream that didn’t manifest. “There are times to fight,” she tells him, “and there are times to get home.”
Through the continued exchange with his mom, Reed also realizes that solidarity-building and activism itself has changed. Historical movements are rooted in contexts and time, and being able to bring systemic change requires not throwing away your privilege but instead using it for the greater good.
Most importantly, Reed comes to understand that there are no sides. Like Twitter, where Reed acquires most of his education and language about social justice, the idea that there is a side to pick is a double-edged sword. By having Reed question his own community, Asian Americans, for standing up for Liang, Wong brings into the question the extent of our affinity with our own communities in the face of racial injustice, and the morality of such partiality. Ultimately, both Reed and the reader learn that the notion of “sides” is more nuanced than social media, rampant with instant, heated discourse, presents it, and that social responsibility and empathy must dictate our actions above all.
The novel offers a covert lesson in empathy as an avenue for understanding our position in the long arc of our family histories and, ultimately, understanding who we are. For Reed, empathy is the key to holding space for the pain he’s inherited from his ancestors’ generations, instead of letting that pain be the catalyst for his anger over racial injustice and allowing that anger to consume him. Empathy allows Reed to finally see that the Chinese Americans who support Peter Liang are coming from a place of having been misunderstood all their lives—that really, there are no sides. As a reader, this conversation around empathy, about viewing pain and anger in its right context between a mother and son who are finally beginning to bridge the gap between them, made me tear up. I felt like I had been given language to understand the truth about human connection and what it means to show up for someone else—something I already knew in my heart.
In this and other myriad ways, Ryan Lee Wong’s debut is a treasure chest of ideas and issues that sit at the tip of our tongues but are never articulated in a way that’s as nuanced as we would like. Intense, thought-provoking and satirical, Which Side Are You On is a novel both of the heart and the mind: one that makes you think and question your perception of the world and your place in it, and feel deeply and fervently about what matters to you.