The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker

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Overview

Beyond black and white, native and alien, lies a vast and fertile field of human experience. It is here that Eric Liu, former speechwriter for President Clinton and noted political commentator, invites us to explore.

In these compellingly candid essays, Liu reflects on his life as a second-generation Chinese American and reveals the shifting frames of ethnic identity. Finding himself unable to read a Chinese memorial book about his father's life, he looks critically at the cost ...

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Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker

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Overview

Beyond black and white, native and alien, lies a vast and fertile field of human experience. It is here that Eric Liu, former speechwriter for President Clinton and noted political commentator, invites us to explore.

In these compellingly candid essays, Liu reflects on his life as a second-generation Chinese American and reveals the shifting frames of ethnic identity. Finding himself unable to read a Chinese memorial book about his father's life, he looks critically at the cost of his own assimilation. But he casts an equally questioning eye on the effort to sustain vast racial categories like “Asian American.” And as he surveys the rising anxiety about China's influence, Liu illuminates the space that Asians have always occupied in the American imagination. Reminiscent of the work of James Baldwin and its unwavering honesty, The Accidental Asian introduces a powerful and elegant voice into the discussion of what it means to be an American.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Eric Liu has written a powerful memoir, a memoir that renders the Asian American experience with a depth and a passion reminiscent of Richard Wright's Black Boy. It is a major contribution to the literature that defines what it means to be an American.”
—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

“A unique-and uniquely American-memoir, suffused with smarts, elegance, and warmth.”
Time

“More than a reminiscence of growing up Asian in America, it is an homage to Liu's Chineseness, and to America.”
Los Angeles Times

“Wonderfully spirited. . . . Remarkable in its adamant refusal to buy into the party line of identity politics . . . Liu is fair to all sides of any issues he discusses.”
The New York Times Book Review

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this candid, well-crafted memoir, Liu, a former speechwriter for President Clinton, explores his identity as a second-generation Chinese American. Although he was raised to assimilate, Liu recalls that his discomfort as an adolescent when trying to fit in was problematical because his hair and skin tone marked him as different from those around him. He also shares haunting memories of traveling to China and visiting his grandmother in Manhattan's Chinatown, events that engendered ambivalent emotions both of alienation from and attraction to his heritage. Liu's concerns about the concept of "Asian American," which he regards as based on physical characteristics rather than shared ethnicity, are rendered thoughtfully, as are his positive feelings about intermarriage. His wife is a white Southerner with a Jewish grandmother. He is impassioned, however, about the fallout from a scandal surrounding the activities of democratic fund-raiser John Huang. When Liu calls New York Times columnist William Safire "a Jew and defender of Jews" for unfairly stereotyping Asian Americans because of Huang's questionable actions, this strikes a discordant note.
Library Journal
Part memoir, part treatise, this slim book will sound familiar at first to any Chinese: being called banana, nerd, yellow, slant-eyed, buck-toothed. And Liu describes typical clashes between Chinese parents and their Americanized offspring. But Liu, a political commentator and speechwriter for Clinton, at present attending Harvard Law School, cogently discusses such topics as Chinese being called the "New Jews," the meaning of Chinatown, fear of the "yellow planet," and problems of assimilation. In particular, Liu offers insightful and original comments about being Asian American, a construct that is totally false but one he has learned to use because of the many positive consequences. Liu has researched his topic well, citing Peter Kwong's and Ronald Takaki's works, among others.
Library Journal
Part memoir, part treatise, this slim book will sound familiar at first to any Chinese: being called banana, nerd, yellow, slant-eyed, buck-toothed. And Liu describes typical clashes between Chinese parents and their Americanized offspring. But Liu, a political commentator and speechwriter for Clinton, at present attending Harvard Law School, cogently discusses such topics as Chinese being called the "New Jews," the meaning of Chinatown, fear of the "yellow planet," and problems of assimilation. In particular, Liu offers insightful and original comments about being Asian American, a construct that is totally false but one he has learned to use because of the many positive consequences. Liu has researched his topic well, citing Peter Kwong's and Ronald Takaki's works, among others.
Kirkus Reviews
Provocative musings on the subjects of race and identity from the perspective of a second-generation Chinese professional. Liu, a former speechwriter for President Clinton, recounts his past and present struggles with his Chinese identity in a society into which he has easily assimilated. Caught between two cultures, Liu finds himself at home in neither. In trying to define something uniquely Chinese about his upbringing as the son of two educated upper-middle-class professionals, Liu recalls his father's "honorable" struggle to hide from friends and family members his years on dialysis after his kidneys failed. "As a Chinese boy in an American world, I was accustomed to facades," he states. But in retrospect he wonders if this concern with image and normalcy is particularly Chinese or simply human. Now, as a Harvard Law student married to a white woman, Liu is conscious of his race primarily when racism rears its head, as it did in the recent scandal over whether the Chinese government attempted to influence the 1996 presidential election. Otherwise, Liu's sense of himself as an Asian-American is purely "accidental," an invented identity thrust upon him and other Asians who have almost nothing in common. They do not, for instance, share a common religious faith or heritage, which makes it even harder for them to identify as a distinct group. Ambivalent throughout as to the values of particularism versus universalism, Liu finally emerges as a universalist who chooses not to incorporate Chinese ritual into his wedding. "I certainly won't want to infect my Chinese-Scotch-Irish-Jewish children with bloodline fever. I won't force them to choose among ill-fitting racial uniforms," he writes. Incisive, balanced, and frank, The Accidental Asian deals persuasively with the often-overlooked struggles Asian-Americans face in defining their identity in the turbulent American landscape. (Author tour)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375704864
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/28/1999
  • Series: Vintage
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 326,515
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 7.94 (h) x 0.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Liu is a fellow at the New America Foundation and a contributor to Slate and MSNBC. A former speechwriter for President Clinton, he founded The Next Progressive, an acclaimed journal of opinion, and edited the anthology Next: Young American Writers on the New Generation.
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Read an Excerpt

The Accidental Asian

Notes of a Native Speaker
By Eric Liu

Vintage Books USA

Copyright © 1999 Eric Liu
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0375704868


Chapter One

Song
for
My Father

1.

By my bed, gathering a little dust now, I'm afraid, is a small paperback book. I've kept it there ever since it was published four or five years ago, and it's become one of those things in my apartment that I see every day without seeing anymore. On top of the paperback book is a thin pamphlet, The Healing of Mind and Soul in the Twenty-third Psalm, given to me by a friend of the family, Pastor Wan. Beneath the paperback is a study Bible, New International Version, also given to me by the pastor, and a Dover edition of the Book of Psalms.

I'm not a religious person; or, rather, I wasn't raised to be a religious person: never belonged to a church, never became acquainted with the grammar and word of the Good Book. But over the years, there have been more than a few occasions when I've read that pamphlet, that Bible, and those psalms in earnest, finding in their allegories and metaphors something short of grace, perhaps, but something greater than mere solace.

So it's no accident that in this stack of salves I've included this slender paperback. It is unlike any other book I own. On the cover, set against a faded backdrop of his own handwriting, is a color photograph of my father. In the photograph, taken sometime in the 1960s, my father's head is turned to his left, his mouth slightly open in a relaxed smile. Even behind heavy-framed glasses, his eyes appear to be seeing something clearly. It seems he might be saying something soon, something thoughtful, or maybe playful. A lock of his black hair, bunched like wet grass, has fallen out of place, sweeping across his forehead. His skin, still smooth and full, tells me he was a young man not that many years before the picture was taken. But his visage--knowing, kind, self-aware--tells me he has already become the man I knew as Baba. That picture is why I keep the paperback at my bedside. It keeps my father close, sets his gaze upon me as I sleep.

The book was compiled by several of my father's childhood friends after he died in 1991. This wasn't, as far as I know, some sort of Chinese tradition, publishing a memorial book for a departed chum. It was just an act of loyalty; of love, if I may say that. In part, the book is a record of grief, containing the obituary from the Poughkeepsie Journal, my eulogy, an elegiac essay by my mother. But for most of its 198 pages, it is actually a prose reunion, a memoir of the idyllic adolescence of a band of boys in postwar Taiwan.

There are pieces in the book, written by my father and his brothers and his classmates, about high school life, about a favorite teacher, about camping and fishing trips, about picaresque adventures where nary an adult appears. There are photographs too; in many of them, Dad and his friends are wearing their school uniforms, baggy and vaguely military. One snapshot I remember vividly. Eight or nine of them are walking up a dirt road, jesting and smiling. And there's my father at the end of this happy phalanx--khaki hat a bit too big, arm pumping jauntily and foot raised in mid-march, singing a song. The face is my father's, but the stance, so utterly carefree, is hardly recognizable. I stared at that picture for a long time when I first got the book.

It's through these photographs that I'll read the book every so often, searching the scenes for new revelations. That's partly because the photographs are so wonderful, soft black-and-white images of an innocence beyond articulation. But it's also, frankly, because I do not understand the text. Almost all the entries, you see, are written in Chinese--a language that I once could read and write with middling proficiency but have since let slip into disuse. Though I know enough to read from top to bottom, right to left, and "back" to "front," I recognize so few of the characters now that perusing the text yields little more than frustration, and shame. I know what the book contains only because Mom has told me. And she's had to tell me several times.

On one or two occasions I've sat down with my pocket Chinese-English dictionary, determined to decipher at least the essays that my father wrote. This was painstaking work and I never got very far. For each Chinese character, I first had to determine the ideographic root, then count the brush strokes, then turn to an index ordered by root and by number of strokes, then match the character, then figure out its romanized spelling, then look up its definition. By the time I solved one word, I'd already forgotten the previous one. Meaning was hard enough to determine; context was even more elusive.

So it is, I sometimes think, with my father's life. On the one hand, it's easy to locate my father and my family in the grand narrative of "the Chinese American experience." On the other hand, it doesn't take long for this narrative to seem more like a riddle than a fable. Leafing through the pages of the memorial book, staring dumbly at their blur of ideographs, I realize just how little I know about those years of Baba's life before he arrived in America, and before I arrived in the world. I sense how difficult it is to be literate in another man's life, how opaque an inheritance one's identity truly is. I begin to perceive my own ignorance of self.

When Chao-hua Liu came to the United States in 1955, at the age of eighteen, he was Chinese. When he died thirty-six years later, he was, I'd say, something other than Chinese. And he had helped raise a son who was Chinese in perhaps only a nominal sense. But what, ultimately, does all this mean? Where does this Chineseness reside? In the word? In the deed? In what is learned--or what is already known? And how is it passed from one generation to the next? Some of the answers lie, I know, in a book I am still unable to read. But there are other answers, I suspect, in a book I must now begin to write.

2.

If I could render as a painting the image I have of my father as a young man, it would be a post-impressionist work, late Cezanne, rather than a work of realist precision. Actually, it would be more like an unfinished Cezanne: blocks of color; indistinct shapes; and then, suddenly, great swaths of blank canvas. The scraps of knowledge I have of my father's pre-American life come from letters he wrote, from my mother's secondhand memories, from family lore. They aren't random fragments, exactly. But they aren't full-fledged stories either. They're more like scenes, symbolic images that can be arranged in rough sequence yet still resist narration.

Here is some of what I know about my Chinese father: That he was the second of six brothers, born in Nanjing in 1936. That his father was a pilot and a general whose given name, Goo Yun, translates roughly as Deliverance of the Nation. That he fled in the night with his family to Taiwan when Communist forces had advanced too close. That when he was a boy, he raised pigeons in a cage on the roof of his house and then one day set them all free. That he was ill for a lengthy period as a child, but took the opportunity of being bedridden to read the Chinese classics over and over again. That the medication he took would prove, years later, to have damaged his kidneys. That his father's driver taught him how to drive a jeep at age twelve, or maybe thirteen. That his family's cook taught him how to make dumplings. That he was an outstanding student and mischievous, though mischievous in the safe, authority-affirming way of an outstanding student. That he left his home and his country after high school.

It is typical, I suppose, that the second generation forgets to ask the first generation why it became the first. But is it typical, as well, to accept without comment what few recollections the first generation offers? Or was it simply my own lack of curiosity? I never knew, for instance, that Baba was born in Nanjing until I was applying to college and needed to fill in the space for "Father's Birthplace." I never knew whether he, the son of a general, felt pressure to join the military. I never knew why he set those pigeons free. I never knew how Confucius and Mencius had influenced him, although he told my mother that they had. I never knew whether he was bitter about the bad medicine. I never knew where he drove once he learned to drive. I never knew what ambitions he packed with him when he sailed across the Pacific. I never knew whether he was homesick when he cooked his first meal in America.

My knowledge of Baba's years in China and Taiwan is like a collection of souvenirs, but of souvenirs that don't belong to me. They evoke a milieu; they signify something. But sifting through them, I cannot be sure whether the story they tell is simply the story I've chosen to imagine. If I were a fiction writer, I could manipulate these scenes a hundred different ways. I could tell you a tale and pass it off as emblematic of Baba's childhood, of wartime China, of the Chinese condition. Even as an essayist, I impute significance to the scenes in a way that reveals as much about my own yearnings as it does about my father's. It is the Heisenberg principle of remembrance: the mere act of observing a memory changes that memory's meaning.

This truth, that we unwittingly mold other people's pasts to our own ends, is easy to grasp on an individual level--especially when the individual is a son searching sentimentally for his father. On a collective level, though, it becomes rather less obvious. Nation, race, diaspora--all these are communities of collective memory, and the greater the community, the more occluded are its motives for remembering. For people who think of themselves as "a people," the hard facts of history tend to melt into folklore, which dissolves into aesthetic, which evaporates like mist into race-consciousness. What matters, after a while, is not the memory of shared experience so much as the shared experience of memory.

Consider the mythology of the Overseas Chinese, which is how people in China and Taiwan refer to the thirty million or so ethnic Chinese who live elsewhere. The idea is simple: there is China, which is filled with Chinese; and there is the rest of the world, which, to varying degrees, is sprinkled with Chinese. The ethnocentrism is manifest, the essentialism unapologetic: "You can take a Chinese out of China, but you can't take the China out of a Chinese."

But just what is it that binds together these millions of Chinese outside China? Well, it's their Chineseness. And what is Chineseness? That which binds together the Chinese. Entire conferences and scholarly tomes have been devoted to this catechism, with roughly the same results. Granted, there exists, in the form of a rich culture and history, what political scientist Samuel Huntington would call a "core Sinic civilization." That civilization, however, isn't intrinsic to people of Chinese genotype; it is transmitted--or not. And whether it is transmitted to the Overseas Chinese depends, ultimately, on consent rather than descent. Chineseness isn't a mystical, more authentic way of being; it's just a decision to act Chinese.

Which, of course, only raises more questions. Though my father, in the first eighteen years of his life, was Chinese and nothing but Chinese; though his were the actions of a Chinese person, it is difficult to isolate which aspects of his values and behavior you would specifically call "Chinese." True, he believed in the importance of family and the value of education. He was respectful toward his elders. He was self-disciplined and intellectually rigorous. He was even-tempered, not a rebellious spirit. He appreciated the beauty of Chinese painting and the wisdom of Chinese poetry. He loved reading and writing Chinese. He enjoyed eating Chinese food.

This is beginning to sound, though, like a piece of inductive reasoning: working in reverse from a general notion of what it means to "act Chinese" in order to identify a particular personality as Chinese. One problem with such backward reasoning is that it views colorless attributes through a tinted lens, turning a trait like even-temperedness into a sure sign of Chineseness. Another is that it filters out evidence that contradicts the conclusion: there was plenty about Dad, after all, that didn't fit anybody's stereotype of "Chinese character." That may be hard to tell when my indistinct image of him is set against a faded Chinese backdrop. It becomes more apparent in the context I knew him in: the context of America.

3.

Another photograph, this one dated April 1962. It's a black-and-white shot, slightly out of focus, set in a spare apartment. There is no art on the walls, not even a calendar. The curtains are thin, a diaphanous membrane that can't quite contain the light outside. In the center of the picture is my father, sitting at a desk with stacks of papers and books. He is leaning back slightly in a stiff wooden chair, his left leg crossed, and he is reading a book that rests easily on his knee. He is wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with ILLINOIS and a Stars and Stripes shield. He is smoking a pipe, which he holds to his mouth absently with his right hand.

When I first saw this picture, it put me in mind of a daguerreotype image I'd once seen of an 1890s Yale student sitting in his room. The settings, of course, couldn't have been more different. That Yale room, with its dark wood paneling and clubby leather chairs, walls adorned with undergraduate paraphernalia, was the domain of a Gilded Age heir. My father's room was the kind of place one rightly calls a flat. Yet for all the obvious differences in scene, there was, in both my father and that long-ago Yalie, the same self-conscious manner. We are Serious Young Men, their contemplative poses announce, and we are preparing for the Future.

Maybe it's just the pipe and the college sweatshirt, or the posture. Still, I can't help thinking that my father in this photograph looks--what? Not quite so Chinese, I suppose. When this shot was taken, he'd already been in the United States for over seven years. He'd worked odd jobs to save money. One of them, my personal favorite, was painting the yellow line down the middle of a South Dakota highway. He had become, during this period, a devotee of Hank Williams and Muhammad Ali. He'd earned a degree in philosophy--Western philosophy--from the University of Illinois, and had become fascinated with Camus and existentialism. He had finished a master's in mathematics. He had been dating my mother, whom he'd met at a picnic with other students from Taiwan, for three years. They would be married a year later.

Their wedding, from what my mother has told me, was a fairly accurate measure of where they were in life then: not quite in the mainstream, but so happy to have each other's company, so much in a world of their own, that little else mattered. The ceremony took place in a church, because that was where weddings took place in America. Except for the officiant and a few others, almost everyone there was Chinese. Still, there were no traditional Chinese rituals; no ancestor worship or kowtowing or burning of incense. They spoke their vows in English. The bride wore white, the groom a rented black tuxedo. The reception was in the church basement. The honeymoon, in rural Michigan. It was the end of November.

I wonder how people regarded them, these young newlyweds. To your average citizen of rural Michigan, this slight, black-haired couple probably looked like exchange students or tourists: like foreigners. To me, they look heartbreakingly American. Indeed, this hopeful phase--this period of composing a life to the rhythms of a new country--is far easier for me to conjure up than their years in China and Taiwan. There are more photographs, for one thing, more anecdotes to help sharpen my impressions. There are familiar names and places too, like Ann Arbor, Millbrook, Bennett College. But more than all that, there is the familiar idiom of progress--the steady sense of climbing, and climbing higher; of forgetting, and forgetting more.

In our archetype of the immigrant experience, it is the first generation that remains wedded to the ways of the Old Country and the second generation that forsakes them. This, we learn, is the tragedy of assimilation: the inevitable estrangement between the immigrant father who imagines himself still in exile and the American son who strains to prove his belonging. There is, I'll admit, a certain dramatic appeal to this account. There is also, unfortunately, a good deal of contrivance. In search of narrative tension, we let ourselves forget that the father, too, is transformed. We let ourselves think of the first generation's life as a mere chrysalis, an interlude between the larval existence of the homeland and the fully formed Americanness of the second generation. But the truth is that the father can sometimes become his own form of butterfly.

In Baba's case, the metamorphosis found its most vivid expression in language. Even as a teenager in Taiwan he had excelled in his English classes. Once he came to the States he picked up jargon, slang, and idiom with a collector's enthusiasm. IBM, which he joined after grad school and where he worked for twenty-seven years, was both a great source and a constant testing ground for his American vernacular. It gave him, for instance, his favorite acronym--SNAFU--which, he loved to remind us, stood for Situation Normal: All Fucked Up.

I think Baba's facility with English is part of what gave me such a powerful sense when I was growing up that he wasn't quite like other Chinese immigrants. Other Chinese immigrants, it seemed, spoke English as if it was Chinese, using he and she interchangeably, ignoring the conjugation of verbs, not bothering to make nouns plural. My father's English was several tiers better than that; more important, he spoke the language with relish, as if he owned it.

He did have an accent, although for the life of me now, I can't describe it or reproduce it. In fact, I remember being surprised once when a friend said something about the Chinese inflection of my father's English: the same sense of surprise I'd had as a boy when I saw myself and my friends in a mirror and realized how much shorter I was than they were. I simply didn't hear his accent.

What I heard was the way he was fluent in American small talk, the way he got a kick out of backhanded compliments and cornball humor. What I heard was the way he would fixate delightedly on phrases that he'd pick up here and there. "What a joke" was a refrain he learned from my friend George. "I mean business!" he got from an auto-repair ad on television. "I yield to the congresswoman from Old English Way" was how, after watching the parliamentary theater of the Iran-contra hearings, he would pass the phone to Mom when I called home. What I heard too was how well he could argue in English, angrily, when a repairman tried to rip him off.

His command of written English was also surprisingly good. When I was in high school Baba would edit my writing assignments for clarity and logic. When my sister Andrea was in high school, and was editor of the newspaper, he would actually write short unsigned columns just to help her fill up ink space. He would opine for 300 words about the death penalty or student apathy or some such pressing topic with sincerity and just a touch of goofiness.

That same combination marked the handful of letters that Baba ever wrote to me. The letters are markedly different from the formal and correct business memos he would produce for work; they are relaxed, sprinkled with grammatical slips, as if he were just talking to me at home. One of these letters he wrote during my first months after college, when I had moved to Washington, and it may be the clearest recording of his voice that I have. I imagine him at the kitchen table, pipe in hand perhaps, writing to me:

10/28/90

Dear Eric,
Enclosed are your recent mails. You probably should change mailing address for Yale Alumni Magazine and Columbia House CD Club. Otherwise, you may run the risk of receiving history by the time we get around to forwarding it to you. (We are so behind in handling our mails) Today is the day the clock "Falls Back" by one hour. It's one O'Clock A.M. But actually it's only 12:00. Both Mom and I are so fortunate to have this extra hour to do our mails. The rest of the evening was all used up in reading the Chinese newspaper.--the most time consuming thing in the Liu's family! We may have to, for the second time, stop our subscription of the World Journal so we can have a little breathing room to straighten out our daily life around the house. What do you say?
Suddenly it turned into winter in the last two days. Yesterday I worked in the City. I walked from Grand Central to 590 Madison Ave (20 min walk). It was cold. We had freeze warning. What a joke. Half of the leaves are still on the trees in green color in our back yard. They could be frozen there for the rest of their lifes. And that's not a bad idea. Imagine I don't have to sweep the leaves!
Everything is OK at home. Mom & I are eating more hot Chinese food, since we now don't have to worry about one member of the Liu's family who cannot handle the hot stuff at the dinner table. Mom feels strongly that I should dress more impressively as I start my new assignment in the City. Today we went to Galaria to buy a new pair of black shoes (Like yours) and a new briefcase. It looks classy. I mean business!
Our hiking trip got delayed two weekends in a roll. Now it feels like winter. It's probably good-bye hiking trip this year. Last Sunday was a real nice day. Mom and I had our own hiking trip walking from Old English Way to the Village & back.
Is everything OK with you? Be careful with the cold weather that's approaching fast. Dress warm in the morning when you go out to the subway station. Alternatively, put on some body fat.
All for now. Take care. Mom say Hi.

Love, Dad

4.

My mother says that Baba's Chinese, actually, was first-rate, as good as that of any Confucian gentleman-scholar. This doesn't surprise me, considering his linguistic aptitude and all the time he spent as a boy reading classic Chinese texts. Even to my untrained eye, the quick and elegant strokes of his calligraphy reveal just how supple a material this language was in his hands. I imagine Baba took great pride in his talent. I wonder, then, why he never insisted that I be able to read the Chinese canon--alas, that I be able to read even a Chinese menu.

Over the years, my knowledge of Chinese has ebbed and flowed; at its highest tides, it has never been more than shallow. At home, my parents communicated with each other almost entirely in Chinese, but they spoke to me in an amalgam that was maybe two-thirds Chinese, and I replied almost entirely in English. From second to seventh grade, I went to Chinese school every Sunday afternoon. But the program ended after seventh grade, and I made little effort to keep up my studies. When I got to college, I took two years of intensive Chinese to replenish my knowledge from grade school. But then I graduated, and I haven't studied Chinese since.

Not once during the ebb periods did my father ever pressure me to become more fluent. There was one time he sent me a letter in Chinese, and I thought it might be a solemn message about the importance of preserving my heritage. It turned out to be a gag, a string of silly Chinese puns. This, it seemed, was his attitude toward my dissipating Chineseness: studied nonchalance. Whenever my grandmother called us from Taiwan, I'd stumble through a few pleasantries in fractured Mandarin, and Baba would feel obliged to offer a half-serious apology for my pitiful performance. After hanging up, though, he'd never say a word to me about it.

I wish he had. Today, I am far from bilingual. In written Chinese, I am functionally illiterate; in spoken Chinese, I am 1.5-lingual at best, more suited to following conversations than joining them. True, some of the things that come hardest to non-native Mandarin speakers--an ear for the four different tones, the ability to form certain sounds--come easily to me, because I've heard the language all my life. I also, as a result, have an instinctive feel for the proper construction of Chinese sentences. What I don't have, alas, is much of a vocabulary, I can sense that thinking in Chinese yields a unique, ineffable way of perceiving the world. I can sense how useful Chinese is for filling the interstitial spaces of English. But I sense these things and express them only as a child might, since I have, really, only a child's mastery of Chinese.

When I contrast my father's possession of English with my forfeiture of Chinese, I feel like something of a fool; as if I had squandered an inheritance and not even realized its magnitude until I was left with only spare change. Yet I know that in a fundamental way it was my father's possession of English that had made possible my forfeiture of Chinese. You could say, indeed, that I merely completed his assimilation. He might have preferred deep down that I be literate in his first language. But he preferred above all that I have unimpeded access to every avenue of American life. So long as I appeared to have that, any Chinese I might have was just a bonus.

I understand this attitude, even if I regret some of its consequences now. I recognize, as well, what a luxury it is to express such regret. As he made his way in this country, my father piled up more misgivings than I may ever know. Yet he could only file them away: there was no time for such indulgences; no reason to do an honest accounting of his losses and gains. Now I attempt such an accounting. And I find myself perhaps too willing to extend the lines of the ledger: to count the first quarter of my own life as the fifth quarter of his.

Baba would not have expected, or even wanted, such a grace period. If there was one dominant theme in his life, it was that he didn't want to be treated differently--better or worse--just because he was different. This principle, and the pride that upheld it, made for a selective kind of assimilationHe did not want to be a square peg in a round hole. But he realized at a certain point that, like a chopstick, he had both a square end and a round end; that he could find ways to fit in without whittling down his integrity.

What he did with his name is a good example. Unlike some of his Chinese immigrant peers, my father never took on an "American" first name like Charlie or Chet. His concession to convention was to shorten "Chao-hua" to "Chao" and to pronounce his surname as loo instead of leeoo--so that to the white world, he was, phonetically, chow loo. I suppose that still sounds pretty foreign to many people (including his own mother). But by carrying himself as if the name "Chao Liu" was as American as "Chuck Lewis," he managed, in effect, to make it so.

How did he carry himself? My father had several roles when he was in public, by which I mean, in mostly white environments. One was the savvy manager. As he climbed the ranks of middle management at IBM, Dad became ever more adept at the intangibles of corporate life--the ability to read people and play internecine politics; to conform and yet distinguish himself. He knew how the system worked: knew it well enough to become one of the few Chinese faces in the upper tiers of IBM's Poughkeepsie operation; knew it well enough also to sense the leveling of his trajectory during his last years. At dinner, he and Mom would spend what seemed like hours deconstructing the latest office maneuverings, mixing gossipy news of intrigue with bits of bureaucratese. As Andrea and I sat there, bored by the grown-up talk, Dad would suddenly break out of Chinese and toss an observation our way: "'A' students end up working for 'C' students." And then back to Chinese.

Another role he took on, probably not unrelated, was that of the pushy underdog. Dad didn't have a chip on his shoulder; he was god-natured, didn't play the victim. But in the many small transactions of our daily lives--with mechanics, teachers, salesmen, doctors, repairmen, and any other figures who might hold momentary leverage over us--Dad was not going to be taken advantage of. He wasn't shy about asking for documentation, explanation, and the fine print. He had no qualms about being assertive in defense of household interests. Sometimes his willingness to get in people's faces would embarrass me. Other times, I'll admit, it delighted me.

I remember being awed by Baba whenever he and Mom hosted parties for our neighbors. On those occasions he was the social dynamo: outgoing, loud, backslapping, playful. In conversation, he had a bantam energy and a penchant for running jokes that simultaneously charmed his guests and kept them from getting too personal. Every few minutes, it seemed, his high-pitched laugh would rip through the house, followed, like a wave, by the louder, more resonant guffaws of Jim, Gil, Jack, and the other big white guys he was leaning into. What were they talking about? Sports? Neighborhood scuttlebutt? Off-color jokes? I didn't know; I knew only how exciting it was to see Dad in action.

To be sure, my father was just as energetic and jocular at all-Chinese parties. That was simply his personality. But I'd never seen a Chinese immigrant of his generation behave so exuberantly with white folks. In the presence of yangren ("foreigners"), most of my parents' Chinese friends, whether or not they were naturally gregarious, became more reserved and formal. As they switched to English, their guard went up. Baba's expressiveness, his bouncy self-assurance, was quite a contrast.

Of course, in the quarters of his private self, there was more to my father, more than even his own son knew. There was the same geniality and humor that he showed in public. But there was also subtlety, in the thoughtful way he gave me advice. There was gentleness, in the way he would come into my room after I'd fallen asleep to close the window and kiss me by the ear. There was an agility of spirit, in the way he happily dropped the work he was doing when Mom called him to the porch one summer evening: "Come see the moon!" They sat there, smiling and talking, while my sister and I rode our bikes past. There was grace, in the way he and Mom danced to "Hooked on Classics" on the linoleum kitchen floor. There was an omnivorous intellect that won him the family sobriquet of Walking Encyclopedia. There was ambition, impatience: he'd started a doctorate, then abandoned it. There was also, in my father, an inner turmoil that revealed itself only in his fitful, twitchy naps. There was a pensiveness that would bring him into the study on Sunday afternoons just to sit by the window, rub his eyes, and smoke a cigarette. There was sadness, I now realize, a deep and silent current of existential sadness.

About a year after his death, I tried on one of the casual blazers Baba had owned, a tan Haggar herringbone. It didn't quite fit me, which I knew would be the case, but which disappointed me nonetheless. As I took it off, I found two sheets of paper folded in the interior pocket that made me think suddenly, and sharply, about my father's interior life. Scribbled on one sheet, in his distinctive hand, were the lyrics from a mournful Hank Williams ballad he used to listen to: "I'm so lonesome I could cry," On the other sheet were some notes to himself, meditations in a dense Chinese scrawl. I wondered: What do those Chinese notes say? Why did he carry this song with him? Why, to the end, did he hold it so close?

Continues...


Excerpted from The Accidental Asian by Eric Liu Copyright © 1999 by Eric Liu.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Song for My Father...................................................3
Notes of a Native Speaker...........................................33
The Accidental Asian................................................57
The Chinatown Idea..................................................85
Fear of a Yellow Planet............................................115
New Jews...........................................................145
Blood Vows.........................................................175
Acknowledgments....................................................205
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2000

    Embrace me.....

    I came across this book because a current situation. I was faced with racism. As African-American, I was shooked to learn that my new brother and best friend who is Chinese, his mother is racist. The pain that wombed me drew me more closer to him and curious of his culture. I walked into the African American section of Barnes and Nobles and then I stopped and said to myself, 'You know it starts with me'. I located the Asian American section which was small and I grabbed this book to satisify my curiousity about my brother's culture. As I read the book, I realize that he (Eric Liu) is not different from me or from my culture but his struggle and his purpose is different. 'The Accidental Asian' and my experience made me realize that we as a people don't embrace each other's culture enough. Anna Deaver Smith says' There's so much you can read, write, talk, and learn about your own culture. It gets to a point to where you say: ok what's next?' We need to embrace each other. Eric embraces his culture and he clearly embraces other cultures himself. He's not limiting himself. This is more to my asian brothers and sisters...embrace another culture other than your own. After reading his book, then you will see what I'm talking about.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2014

    Wolf Claw & Eclipse Wing

    A wide river great for fishing is here.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2000

    What a great book!

    I was visiting an Asian art exhibit in Washington D.C. last fall and saw this book in the bookstore. I picked it up on a whim because the cover intrigued me. As the middle child of an Asian mother and a Caucasian father, reared in the middle class South, I immediately identified with the sort of irony that it held. On the flight back home, I read the entire book without taking a break. It's wonderful! A must read for not only Asian Americans, but really for anyone who is trying to reconcile his past with his present. It's a very poignant look at the roles that family and culture play in our lives. Several sections moved me to tears and made me laugh out loud. Buy this book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 13, 1999

    Chinaman on a Fence trying to make a dollar out of ten cents

    As a UC Berkely Graduate/retired U.S. Naval Officer/first generation Chinese from the West Coast, I want to commend Eric Liu for bringing to light some unpleasnt truths that the Asian community needs to face. For Asian parents and their children who are concerned about cultural purity, inter-racial marriage, and the meaning of being caught between two worlds, Mr. Liu's essays should be required reading. The old paradigm using the race card for acquiring political points does not fit the Asian community. Instead, a better choice as implied by Mr. Liu would be to evolve into whatever random cultural personality that one falls into. An accidental happening. Just like the inter-racial relationships between female African American and male Chinese laundry workers before World War II in the San Diego area of California. Long before Tiger Woods, Children were produced from these relationships---they were 'Accidental African/Asian/Americans'. Yes, as stated in his book, the ratio of Asian men to Asian women was extremely out of balance, but this did not mean Asians, Chinese in particular, just sat on the lawn and watched sprinklers wet the grass. Even non-Asians will find food for thought and a frame of reference for practicing cultural diversity. Too bad some of my military drill instructors did not have an opportunity to read Mr. Liu's essay on Chinese hair. I would have passed more haircut inspections. Get this book!!

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