Currently Reading Eric Liu’s The Accidental Asian

In between planning the rest of my year (going badly) and wrapping up a course (a little better), I have finally managed to finish reading Eric Liu’s The Accidental Asian. I saw this title in some list of recommended reads in Asian Studies lists and with its unique title, I was intrigued.

The author, Eric Liu, was born 1968 to immigrant parents in Poughkeepsie. He studied at Yale and then at Harvard for law. By the time he settled down to write this book of essays, he had the distinguished resume which included speechwriter for Bill Clinton and the president’s deputy domestic policy advisor. Just like I knew Terry Fallis’ The Best Laid Plans from the point-of-view of a speechwriter would be a good book, I knew Liu’s writing skills would bring something extra and memorable to the table.

Accidental Asian was published in 1998 which seems like a lifetime ago. What were you doing in 1998? I certainly was thinking back to that time as I read it and his observations still ring true today. 1998 was a symbolic time with the author and the whole idea of Asian America turning 30 that year.

In the first essay “Song for My Father”, Liu lovingly memorializes his late father describing how an immigrant from Taiwan adapted well to American life and paved the road for Eric. The the second essay, “Notes of a Native Speaker”, Eric describes growing up in a different environment from his parents. In Poughkeepsie, his friends were all white and he fortunately did not encounter a lot of racism, not the kind that he could not lash back against or scarred him. It is inevitable that the second generation, born in America, follows a different track and his parents did not impose strict traditions: when spending time at his white friends’ homes “these were the moments when I realized I was becoming something other than my parents… like an amphibian that has just breached the shore, I could not stop inhaling this wondrous new atmosphere.” For me, the most powerful part of the whole book was his explanation of following a path that might look white-washed but he can justify it: “I do not want to be white. I only want to be integrated. When I identify with white people who wield economic and political power, it is not for their whiteness but for their power. When I imagine myself among white people who influence the currents of our culture, it is not for their whiteness but their influence. When I emulate white people who are at ease with the world, it is not for their whiteness but for their ease. I don’t like it that the people I should learn from tend so often to be white, for it says something damning about how opportunity is still distributed.”

The next essay, “The Accidental Asian”, is the meatiest and deals with the Asian American identity. In 1997, Liu appeared on a news segment to comment on a yellowface animation of Bill Clinton and associates. He hadn’t been deeply offended and thought it was juvenile and racist in its effect. But the debate with a National Review staffer who didn’t think it would be controversial and even claimed, “Normal people aren’t offended by it,” made him start to boil inside and Liu started to speak on behalf of Asian Americans in the segment. Over the years he’s continued to at times be an advocate but he examines the whole phenomenon critically–although he’s been pulled in, there is a logical justification why he resisted it thus far in his life.

While there is a common cause to bind the community–that is, of self-defense–the 30-year-old (now 45 or so) community has some drastic differences from other communities similarily united. “Unlike blacks, Asians do not have a cultural idiom that arose from centuries of thinking of themselves as a race; unlike Jews, Asians haven’t a unifying spiritual and historical legacy; unlike Latinos, another recently invented community, Asians don’t have a linguistic basis for their continued apartness.” When I faced the movement for the first time when I started university, a few years before this memoir was published, “Asian America” and “Asian pride” always struck me as ringing a little false which is exactly what Liu writes about. The movement has had the interesting effect of “ethnosclerosis” (hardening of the walls between races, as if Asian American is a race) and what Liu called the quintuple melting pot: “Liquefy the differences within racial groups, solidify those among them… they have thrown the chink and the jap and the gook and the flip into the same great bubbling cauldron. Now they await the emergence of a new and superior being, the Asian American. They wish him into existence. And what’s troubling about this, frankly, is precisely what’s inspiring: that is is possible.”

By the time of writing, Liu thinks that the Asian American movement had reached a crossroads. By then, we were really starting to talk about China’s emerging power and the Asian American community was approaching acceptance. Further, he identified threats to the Asian American identity including the high rate of outmarriage, global capitalism allowing everyone access to the “culture”, continued high proportion of the community being foreign-born, and reconstitution of communities on ethnic lines by the ethnicities who feel peripheral to the Chinese- and Japanese-dominated movement. Liu did not think the movement would last another generation and that (10 years) has passed. It is certainly not the same but I’m not entirely sure how. It could be just as well–all the creativity and energy of the activists could be put to a greater purpose.

In logical fashion, the next essays, “The Chinatown Idea” and “Fear of a Yellow Planet” explore places where Chinese people live. “The Chinatown Idea tells us… that Chinatown chooses to exempt itself from America: that it is purely the product of Chinese clanishness and insularity.” He exposes the new Chinatown from the mystical one that Westerners and tourists prefer to to believe. Liu concludes that outsiders want to define a Chinatown and boundaries just as much as the residents want to stay in there. I nodded in agreement when Liu described the unique position Asian Americans feel at this point in history, “I am Chinese American in a time of Chinese ascendancy… yet the great magnet of China, pulsing insistently, offers to pull the bottom out, to reverse my polarity. I am Chinese American at the very moment in history when the only power that truly matters in the world is Chinese or American. Which can make me valuable… and vulnerable.” He and I can both name colleagues who have “returned” to the motherland and he wrote of feeling there is always that notion it is a possibility, that not going is “squandering an inheritance.” The in-betweenness that existed in 1998 seems to continue today, that is, where it is still not determined if China is friend or foe, impressive or alarming in power, passive or aggressive in temperament. Liu wrote of desiring a position like being the U.S. ambassador to China, far-fetched not just to him but to Chinese Americans in general because “maybe it’s because such a person would look to some people as if she wasn’t quite on our side”.*

The last two essays, “The New Jews” and “Blood Vows” wrap up his musings with optimism. As proud as we are of Asian Americans’ achievements, it’s been troubling when people try to pinpoint the cause and ascribe or racialize ambition and success. “Hard work and sacrifice? Deferral of gratification? Devotion to education? Today, anyone will tell  you, these are ‘Asian values.’ But remember only a few generations ago they were ‘Jewish values.’ And once upon a time, of course, they were ‘Protestant values.'” Like Jews, Asian Americans might be “graduating” to from minority status. Yay?

Liu worries a little about his future, how close he will be to his mother, how to raise his Chinese-Jewish children, what “culture” is to pass on. I love that he champions language because that is all that I feel is tangible and accurate that I also have (to pass on): “Customs alone are merely symbols, distillations, as distinct from cultural truth as water is from vapor. We need language also. We need it centrally. For it is in the sound of the language, the aspirates, the curling of the tongue, the mode of thought that the grammar demands, that this phantom I call Chineseness will truly take form–if it ever will.”

I am 100% certain that I have not learned or appreciated everything I could from this memoir and book of essays, but I have tried. After reading great memoirs of a true Asian-American life lived, I thought I would fare better writing essays–I figure you don’t have to fully develop a character. But Liu’s essays set a very high standard to achieve.

While reading the memoir, I also wondered how he would update his essays in 2011. As a tech nerd, I wondered how he would ascribe the impact of the Internet, increased accessibility, and social media on the community’s growth. I also wondered how his last ten years has transpired–where there kids?–and his additional insights with the time that has passed.

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* Of course, it is with great excitement that 13 years and 4 ambassadors later a third-generation Chinese-American, Gary Locke, was named the newest ambassador in July this year.

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