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Asian Identity: To Be Or Not To Be

By HARRY MOK
Blast San Francisco Bureau

The Newsweek headline catches my eye: "Asian Identity Crisis, A young Asian American author defends his assimilation -- and draws fire from activists." Eric Liu's new book is something I will have to read, although I am not sure how much of it I will like.

In "The Accidental Asian: Notes from a Native Speaker," Liu takes readers on a journey through his life in a series of loosely connected essays. They run from remembrances about his youth and his late father, to explaining why he married a white woman, to his unabashed assimilation into the white world.

"He seems to have a naïve belief that race doesn't matter."
The Newsweek story already made me apprehensive about the book. Then, in the first few essays Liu talks about his "honorary white status." I cringe. He seems to have a na´ve belief that race doesn't matter. But I read on.

Liu is the son of immigrants from China. He grew up in the white suburbia of upstate New York. He struggles with his "Chineseness" and his experiences with girls as an adolescent. He rebels by taking refuge in his talents: playing in the orchestra, joining the wrestling team, winning science prizes and editing the school newspaper. "I thought I was defying the stereotype of the Asian American male as a one-dimensional nerd. But in the eyes of some, I suppose, I was simply another 'Asian overachiever,' he writes.

Overachieve he did. Liu fits the classic "model minority" stereotype and then some. After graduating from Yale, he becomes a speechwriter for President Clinton at 25. He can be seen regularly as a television commentator for MSNBC. Now 29, he is getting a law degree at Harvard.

Throughout the book, Liu laments about his guilt over not being able to speak Mandarin or read Chinese characters fluently -- a product of his assimilation. Many Asian Americans never learn or lose the ability to speak their parents' native tongue, particularly the second generation and beyond. In fact, many of the issues Liu tackles in the book are common among Asian Americans whom he has spent most of his life distancing himself from.

We are the same age, and I identify with a lot of what he writes about, but it seems we part ways at some point after our teen years. Liu continues his assimilation full-bore, but I seem to veer more toward the "minority militants" whom he looks at so warily.

"I subscribe to A. Magazine and think the premiere of Margaret Cho's 'All- American Girl' is a seminal moment in TV history. But the series turns out to be a dud, and we are left with all those white casts."
Liu lists reasons why he could be considered white, among them: He subscribes to Foreign Affairs and doesn't mind how white television casts are. I subscribe to A. Magazine and think the premiere of Margaret Cho's "All- American Girl" is a seminal moment in TV history. But the series turns out to be a dud, and we are left with all those white casts.

Liu's parents came to the United States as college students, and he grew up in an upper-middle-class environment. My parents came over with grade-school educations and dreams. With literally a shovel and hoe, and a small plot of rented land, they started a Chinese produce business that is still in operation today, run by my brother.

Liu went to an Ivy League college; I went to a lesser-known public university. He becomes more comfortable with the dominant culture and I become less comfortable.

On the surface, Yale is not that much different from the white suburbia that Liu grew up in. He neither had the inclination or the need to be in an "Asian clique." He had never associated with Asians or had much opportunity to in his youth so why start now? It would not help him to move among the elite, which he wants desperately. Assimilation is his path not to whiteness, but to power, Liu says.

In another section of the book, Liu talks about a "deracinated East Coast suburban ABC (American-born Chinese)" friend who moves to the West Coast for graduate school and got the Asian "religion." The friend finds himself among a large population of Asian Americans for the first time in his life. He begins reading Asian American literature, makes more Asian friends and meets his first Asian girlfriend.

"I end up taking a minor in Asian American Studies. It is not exactly a religious experience, but I do think I'm more enlightened about race than I had been before."
While I may not have become a "born-again Asian," as Liu terms it, in my college years, it is the first time I interact with so many Asians. I end up taking a minor in Asian American Studies. It is not exactly a religious experience, but I do think I'm more enlightened about race than I had been before.

It is around this point in the book that Liu's own rumblings of racial identity begin to appear. He even says he begins calling himself "Asian American" without hesitation. "Perhaps the most you could say of me is that I am an assimilist in recovery: once in denial, now halfway up the twelve-step to full, self-actualized Asian Americanness. ... I am not sure, however, how much further I should go."

For its sheer honesty, Liu's book should be applauded. It's not often that Asian Americans talk about their assimilation and the reasons behind it so candidly in the mainstream media. For Asian Americans in the second generation and beyond, however they want to be defined, it is important to understand the racial overtones that inflict society because they just can't be ignored.

It seems Liu is beginning to realize this, and I hope, becoming more enlightened.