The Accidental Asian
Eric Liu 1998
I have Asian-American friends and business partners and classmates. Color me clueless, but until I reached Berkeley I was unaware that native-born "Asian American" was a category like "African American" - in my simple world, people in the United States came from Eurasia voluntarily and Africa mostly involuntarily, and we were still remediating the latter. I was aware of "Chinatowns" but those seemed like performance art - my friends whose parents or grandparents came from Asia were pretty much the same suburbanites as those from Europe. Epithets against Chinese or Japanese or Philipinos were of the same class as epithets against Irish or Italian or German or Jewish - trailer trash stupidity, that wasn't condoned in the suburbs. Most of the bigotry I paid attention to was that directed (sometimes violently) against me - nerd, geek, queer (general epithet, not sexual behavior), etc. - or against my sister - cripple, hopalong, etc. Anti-Asian prejudice wasn't obvious in my high school, at Oregon State, or at Berkeley. The most obvious anti-asian prejudice in the culture around me was the bullets and bombs directed at Vietnam and its neighbors.
So, from the outside, it was a strange to see Asian student activism at Berkeley - it did not make much sense, and it seemed like people working themselves into a lather that I avoided. Asian students? Students from Asia (the place, not the category) were a high percentage of the EE department at Berkeley, most of my graduate student group, and as noteworthy as calculus, Ohm's law, or the walls and air.
Later - I've had plenty of Asian-American colleagues and business partners, and became more aware and appreciative of the cultural differences. I read "The Accidental Asian" so I can be a better friend.
Eric Liu's parents came to the United States in the 1950s, had kids, and raised them in suburbia. Eric's father was an executive at IBM. The surprising thing about the book was the wall his parents kept around a core of "Chineseness", while creating mostly conforming outer lives. Eric straddled the wall between. With both the outer and inner experience changing over time, his definition of self changed too. The physical things - stature, hair that didn't style - set him apart in ways that mattered to him. Culturally, he learned "white american" ways from the families of his schoolmates, sometimes in embarassing ways. But then, so did many of us; physical challenges are difficult for many of us, regardless of cultural and ethnic ancestry. His parents had the resources to send him to Yale, where he learned the ways of the powerful, and to fit into social tiers that most of us don't aspire to.
Eric's parents taught him some written and spoken Chinese - most of which he has forgotten. He learned to "cook chinese" - but so do many of us, done right it is a healthy way to eat.
I know more Chinese and Japanese and Thai words than I know Swedish or Finnish - and I know more Spanish and German and French than any ancestral or Asian language. My smatterings help me get around foreign cities, but are mostly to help me decrypt technical papers - few are written in Asian languages. I expect Eric's Chinese to disappear as his older relatives do.
What have I learned from the book that will help me with my friends and colleagues? Not a lot of specifics, mostly a sense of the effort needed to balance the Asian and the American, the old and the new; and the expectation that when my friends are tired or overwhelmed, balance will be harder, leading to unusual behavior. During those times, I should be more thoughtful and accomodating, and expect less consistency and accomodation of my own peculiarities. Just like every other friend undergoing abnormal stresses. I hope the book will help me notice and adapt more quickly.