Posted: March 18th, 2023
Eric Liu- the Accidental Asian
The Accidental Asian by Eric Liu is a collection of autobiographical essays describing the author’s experience as an Asian-American, and his views regarding cultural identity. The book is full of insight and questions regarding the connections existing between racial or cultural belonging and individual identity. The episodes and the characters described in the book help the author’s outlining the author’s construction of identity notions like that of Chineseness or Americanness. Both the hints to political issues and the vivid portraits of his family members, like his father or his grandmother are musings on the theme of identity and its exact nature. Whether Liu speaks about such scandals as the “Asian Money” scandal involving president Bill Clinton, for whom Liu had written many speeches, or the Chinatown in which he and his family accidentally encounter his grandmother among other Chinese people, or about his father’s life and character, all the scenes that make up the book revolve around the same idea- Liu’s feeling that race and identity are almost impossible to define.
Although Liu’s book ranges among all the other books on the same subject of Asian-Americanism, it can be easily set apart from the rest because the author doesn’t merely speak about the confusion that his double identity creates for him. The point that the collection of essays is trying to make is that identity in general is something accidental:
I…am an accidental Asian, someone who has stumbled onto a sense of race; who wonders now what to do with it.”(Liu, 33)
Liu emphasizes the fact that he does not feel like a Chinese who has to adapt to the American lifestyle and culture and neither like an American in search of his Chinese roots. He is neither, and thus concludes that the question of race is simply an accident for the individual. Liu advocates diversity, believing that there is no such thing as a “unitary voice” for a certain people or race:
It would take an act of selective deafness to hear, in this cacophony, a unitary voice.”(Liu, 56)
The author also opposes individuality and individual memory to the collective memory of the people, believing that racial and cultural belonging can be subsumed as “the shared experience of memory,” overriding the much more important “memory of shared experience”:
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.” (Liu, 6)
The play upon words that Liu uses, of “shared experience” versus “shared memory,” suggests that race or cultural identity are overemphasized, and that the sense of cultural belonging only appears in fact when there one is threatened in one way or another:
That’s how it is with Asian-American identity, nothing brings it out like other people’s expectations and a sense of danger.” (Liu, 23)
Therefore, Liu demonstrates in his book that the problem about race and cultural identity does not reside in ethnicity as such, but in the cultural stereotypes that are woven around a certain race:
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’. (Liu, 7)
As he proposes, the fact that his father liked reading and speaking Chinese or the fact that he liked eating Chinese food are both colorless attribute, which do not accurately define identity or cultural belonging. According to him, there is no Chinese essence as such inherited among either the Chinese living in China or those living elsewhere in the world.
When Liu speaks about his own feeling of being racially different from the others or about his frustrations as a child and adolescent about his Chinese hair or about his problems with the white girls, he refers to all these issues as instances of the same cultural stereotypes, like “the stereotype of the Asian-American male as a nerdy, one-dimensional weakling.” He thus observes that the frustration came not out of the racial difference itself, but out of the many stereotypes that are created around Chineseness.
In fact, another frustration, the fact that he only know Chinese at a beginner’s level, is symbolic for the idea that he cannot bridge his own ways to his Asian roots, which remain like a riddle to him:
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.” (Liu, 4)
Liu thus compares the identity riddle with the iconographic difficult Chinese writing, hinting that the Asian-American story does not have any message to deliver, but stays as a riddle without answer.
Given the context of his own life and successful career, which was devoid of race issues as such, Liu can consider himself as having been assimilated into the mainstream white culture. Nevertheless, this assimilation does not help solving the problem of identity:
never asked to be white, I am not literally white. That is, I do not have white skin or white ancestors. I have yellow skin and yellow ancestors, hundreds of generations of them. But like so many other Asian-Americans of the second generation, I find myself the bearer of a strange new status: white by acclamation.” (Liu, 77)
Thus, it is obvious that for Liu the problem of identity is not that of belonging to one culture and being able to fit in another, but actually the fact that he does not feel himself belonging to either the Chinese or the American cultures.
For the very reason that Liu rejects the idea that he should consider himself as a hybrid Asian-American, the book has been many times criticized for putting forth only a shallow view of the struggle for identity. Still, the view that The Accidental Asian takes up is a very interesting one among the books on the same subject.
Although Eric Liu’s analysis of the Asian America identity problem does not cover very poignant and perhaps more serious issues, it remains an interesting commentary through the idea of accidental race or accidental identity. The book does indeed seem to be on the outside of the real problems connected to racial discrimination, but Liu makes a good point by unveiling the estrangement that an Asian-American might feel from his background or cultural roots. In the Chinatown episode describing the accidental encounter of Liu’s family with Po-Po, his grandmother, he give another instance of this estrangement from Chineseness, and the feeling of it being an accidental identity:
Apart from that kind of social discomfort there was the other kind of larger knowledge that we were coming to this neighborhood as tourists and my grandmother was coming to this neighborhood as somebody who lived there. After a little while, we parted ways and my grandmother went home and we got in our car and drove back up to Poughkeepsie.” (Liu, 90)
As the author notes, his feeling of coming to Chinatown was that of a merely curious tourist, not that of a native who links himself to his past or origins. Like other writers on the subject of Asian-Americans, Liu also noted that they seem to be a special case, the “new Jews,” that is a minority that is neither black nor white. Racism is usually seen as bipolar, and this is why the Asian-Americans seem even excluded from this categorization:
The question is multilayered. Is yellow black or white? is a question of Asian-American identity. Is yellow black or white? is a question of Third World identity, or the relationships among people of color. Is yellow black or white? is a question of American identity, or the nature of America’s racial formation. Implicit within the question is a construct of American society that defines race relations as bipolar — between black and white — and that locates Asians (and American Indians and Latinos) somewhere along the divide between black and white. Asians, thus, are “nearwhites” or ‘just like blacks.'(Okihiro, 33)
The way in which Liu describes Asian-American experience offers thus a particular view on cultural identity, as something neither well defined nor defining. Although cultural identity does exist, the connection between race or cultural belonging and the individual is not altogether definite. Although Liu looks Chinese and shares a cultural background with his people, he does not feel that this makes him any less American. The problem with identity therefore is that it is constructed on the basis of cultural stereotypes, that most of the time, only reflect reality in a distorted way.
Liu, Eric. The Accidental Asian. New York: Vintage Books, 1999
Okihiro, Gary Y. Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture. Washington: University of Washington Press, 1994
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