As a second-generation Chinese-American, Eric Liu has grown up with an awkward relationship to race and ethnic identity. He can follow a conversation in Chinese, although he would have problems if he tried to take part in it; as for the written language, he is functionally illiterate. He would be the first person to question which of his personality traits are "Chinese" or "American," "Asian" or "white," or none of the above, and The Accidental Asian is, in fact, a rigorous self-examination--not merely about the costs and benefits of assimilation, but about whether assimilation should even be viewed in those terms.
Whether he's recalling his adolescent frustration with "Chinese hair" that just wouldn't permit itself to be styled, examining the history of Chinatown, or pondering the mixture of fear and fascination with which China is viewed by Americans, Liu writes with admirable personal intensity. It doesn't matter whether you consider The Accidental Asian to be a memoir or a batch of interconnected essays; once you've read it, you will be forced to consider for yourself what place, if any, race has in America today (but even more so tomorrow). --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Reviewed by Chong-Hao Fu
By all accounts Eric Liu should be a happy man. The son of two middle-class parents from Poughkeepsie, New York, he was propelled by early academic success to that escalator of power, Yale University. From Yale, Liu proceeded to work in the State department and eventually became a Clinton speechwriter, as well as a correspondent for MSNBC. To top it all off, Liu married the love of his life, a lovely and loving southern red-head named Carroll. All this by the ripe old age of twenty-nine.
Yet sometimes Liu cannot help feeling that something is missing from his life. "As if I [had] squandered an inheritance and not even realized its magnitude until I was left with only spare change," Liu writes in The Accidental Asian.
As Liu enters Harvard Law school poised to join the political elite, The Accidental Asian attempts to weigh the costs of that success and to reconcile himself with his neglected cultural past in the form of eight personally reflective but frustratingly inconclusive, essays on race. At once memoir and sociological study, Liu's work meditates on his own reservations with his cultural heritage while exploring the situation faced by Asian Americans today as a group. The essays, written individually at different time periods, tend to overlap and in some instances, even offer conflicting views; however, the contradictions are not accidental. They are the printed manifestations of Liu's personal ambivalence towards race and culture. Some might claim this represents sophistication in Liu's writing. Others might dismiss it as unenlightening. The truth probably lies in between.
Liu addresses questions of culture with intelligence, humor, and from the unique position of a political insider. Why do successive generations neglect the traditions of the first? What is the value of groups organized around race? Liu address these thorny issues, but rarely does he push the debate into new territory. Instead, Liu presents conventional wisdom as his own.
In one section, Liu tries to "explain why I married a white woman." Liu assumes that society would believe his marriage was a political statement, and he feels obligated to argue that he married Carroll for love not politics. Providing a laundry list of Carroll's endearing traits as evidence, Liu defends the purity of his affection. While the writing is sentimentally moving, the content seems prosaic. Liu writes as if he were a radical, the first man to defend marrying for love, even as he agrees with contemporary public opinion.
Liu is most stirring when he writes about his personal life without making explicit political analysis. Vignettes describing his childhood visits to his grandmother in Chinatown and his mother's awkwardness during his Southern wedding party are touching moments, where the cost of assimilation becomes a narrative rather than rhetoric.
He is most moving in his opening essay, "Song for my Father." Years after his father's painful death from kidney failure, Liu is still haunted by his father's memory. By his bed sits a small, plain paperback book adorned with his father's youthful face. The book, compiled by friends and family for his father's funeral, preserves the memory of a man who was an Air Force pilot, a Chinese classical scholar, an emigré, and a loving husband. And yet to Eric Liu, large parts of this paperback and his father remain unknown and unknowable. After emigration, Liu's father rarely spoke of his life in China, and this silence is echoed through the paperback in pages and pages of Chinese characters, whose many strokes spell only frustration for Eric Liu.
The Lius, like many second generation immigrant families—my own included—spoke both English and their native Mandarin at home. Over time, however, the children stopped speaking and lost mastery of their mother tongue, though they still understood their parents. With spoken Chinese, Liu considers himself at best "1.5 lingual," but with written Chinese characters he is lost. Liu's lost language represents the lion's share of his "squandered inheritance." From the dissatisfaction with reading a translation of The Analects by Confucius in Jonathan Spence's Chinese history course, to a conversation with his grandmother that he could not follow, Liu repeatedly voices his regrets.
The loss of language represents a double loss for Liu. Not only has he lost his father's language but he has lost his father. It is a poignant moment as Liu pieces together the scraps of his father's memory. The reader may wonder: why has Liu never bothered to improve his Chinese? Memoir writers are given an opportunity to repaint their world, and Liu, like most, cannot resist the temptation of a little air brushing. He constructs his essay so as to elicit the most pathos from his language barrier, while working simultaneously to absolve himself of the guilt of causing this barrier. He states that Chinese is too difficult a language for him to decipher his father's paperback and is quick to mention that he took two years of intensive Chinese while at Yale. And yet there are many people fluent in Chinese, who have become so without Liu's motivation or the advantage of native speaking parents. Despite his thoughtfulness, it is difficult for Liu to explore his own faults.
This difficulty becomes more dangerous as Liu begins analyzing politics from a personal perspective, and it underscores an underlying weakness in Liu's work. All memoirs are subjective, but not all memoirs claim to offer a politically objective analysis of an ethnic group. Liu's juxtaposition of the personal and the political can lead to biased results.
Liu is a self-described "banana"—white on the inside and yellow on the outside. Growing up in the mostly white suburbs of Poughkeepsie, Liu's most difficult cultural challenge was coming to grips with his prickly Asian hair. (Liu now sports a manageable buzz cut.) Throughout college Liu avoided joining Asian student organizations and jokingly called a friend who did a "born again Asian." Even now, although he is a member of many influential Asian organizations, he is still partially alienated from the Asian community. "I envy those who choose to become wholeheartedly Asian: those who believe," writes Liu. In another section he voices the ambivalence that gives its name to the book: "I...am an accidental Asian someone who has stumbled onto a sense of race; who wonders now what to do with it.''
Others in a similar situation might consider themselves out of step with "Asian Americanness," but not Liu. In what can only be described as psychological projection, Liu assumes he understands the Asian American psyche. "What I am saying is that I can identify with the Asian American identity. I understand why it does what it does, it as if this identity and I were twin siblings, separated at birth but endowed with uncanny foreknowledge of each other's motives." The cautious reader would be well served in digesting this claim with a grain of salt.
Liu is at once a person unsure of his own "Asianness" and someone who feels entitled to speak on "Asian Americans" in general. It is a precarious situation. Once on MSNBC, Liu was asked to represent the Asian American reaction to allegedly offensive media portrayals of Asians following the Clinton-China fundraising scandal. At first, Liu found himself just playing a part, but when another commentator asserted the pictures were no big deal and that "normal people" would not be offended, Liu flew into a rage to defend his race. "That's what's it's like with the Asian American identity," claims Liu. "Nothing brings it out like other people's expectations and a sense of danger."
But is that truly the core of the Asian identity? For someone as politically involved and culturally dissociated as Liu, politics may seem the essence of Asianness. But for my own apolitical parents, Asianness has far less to do with party politics than with pot-luck parties. For them, Asianness brings together people who enjoy the same foods, who share similar travel stories, who speak common languages, and who do not always feel completely in sync with Western values. Liu's representation of the Asian identity is not necessarily incorrect but is certainly incomplete. He has advertised the story of Asians but delivered only his own.
Occasionally, in attempting to cover a wide variety of topics, Liu sacrifices depth for breadth. In a chapter entitled "The New Jews" Liu argues that Asians have taken the place of Jews as the "model minority." Liu's arguments are based largely on personal anecdotes and vague notions of superior Jewish and Asian performance. In contrast, Vera Schwarcz's recent memoir, Bridge Across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory, delves into the historical traditions of Chinese and Jewish culture, linking writings and events. Schwarcz draws connections between the tragedies of the Holocaust and the Cultural Revolution, while Liu makes references to movie stars and politicians. Each writer's aim is different, but Liu, in focusing only on the events in his world, sometimes seems shallow and solipsistic.
Even with these shortcomings, The Accidental Asian remains a rewarding book for those hoping to familiarize themselves with the often neglected Asian perspective of the race debate. Although its text is occasionally overly flowery, Liu's work is highly engaging. Recalling Liu's days as a Clinton speechwriter, The Accidental Asian resembles in many ways a classic Clinton speech. It has traded some substance for style, depth in analysis for coverage of issues, and occasionally some honesty in self-criticism for image.