The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker – Book Review
As a first (or second, however you may define it) Asian American, I have often pondered about race, heritage and what it means to be an Asian Born in America. I’m an ABC. Eric Liu’s The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker is a collection of essays about the Asian American condition on a number of subjects and contexts.
Eric Liu and I share a few things in common. We’re “Asians” living in America who have been well-assimilated into society. I found Eric’s experiences as he describes them to be very similar to my own: his parents learned English well enough so that he could learn it as his primary language. His parents encouraged him to be studious but didn’t push in any particular direction. He had to learn how to fit into American society, but it seems he had a head start. He feels that he has lost a lot of his ancestral culture, and possibly made up for it by absorbing the local culture. In many ways, I feel like I can relate with him.
Liu’s essays range from the state of the Asian American as the “new Jews” to the idea of Chinatown as a place/symbol to how he himself assimilated into American culture. While some are very relevant today, I felt as though he used a few too many dated references, especially to the Clinton Administration “Chinagate” scandal. I was 13 at the time, for crying out loud! The interesting ideas were about old Asian ways versus Asian American ways and the American perception of Asian Americans. Since Asians were good at math, Liu studied English. Liu seemed to do things to fight the stereotype, but in doing so he reinforced that the stereotypes actually mattered.
I personally feel as though I am an American, first and foremost. I am obviously Chinese (though my name is Vietnamese), but that doesn’t define everything I am. This is especially true because I was born in the United States. While I have Asian friends, I also have many White friends, and those are the people who I had identified with when I was a kid. I don’t think I even had a grasp of what being Asian versus White was as a young kid. In high school I remember seeing cliques of Asian kids, the ones who were either ESL or less proficient in English than in their parent’s language. On one hand I felt that it was nice that they had their groups to feel a part of (better than being alone), yet on the other hand I felt bad that they were pretty much segregated from the rest of the school and the other students. I guess on some level, though, all cliques had the same properties. I sometimes felt strange walking past the Asian kid cliques. “Do they feel like I’m a traitor?” I used to think. So goes the life of an assimilated Asian.
In one essay, Liu points out that while Asian Americans are thought of as the “model minority” today, it wasn’t always so. There’s the whole Chinese being kicked out of Seattle thing, and the Japanese being forced into internment camps. He pondered something that I also pondered directly after 9/11. If an Asian country were to go to war with the United States, what would it mean to Asian Americans living here? I would like to think that everything would be fine, but Liu points out that we’re still not quite as assimilated in American culture as, say, Jewish people. Liu calls Asian Americans the “new Jew” because apparently we are described in the same way as Jewish people were 50 years ago: studious, unimaginative, etc. Maybe that explains why I have so many Jewish friends. Even so, I tend to disagree with Liu a bit on this point since another of his main points brings this link down: Asian Americans are really an amalgamation of a demographic.
Within Asian Americans you have Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Taiwanese Americans, Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans etc. Are we all expected to act as one sub-minority? Does that really make sense? Isn’t it bad enough that most White people can’t tell us apart? One of more interesting points that Liu brings up is that is is yet to be seen how the “Asian American” will organize and identify as a national group, or if it even will.
I think I started reading The Accidental Asian because I wanted to gain a little more perspective on the Asian American condition. It’s something that I usually just ignore. Of course I acknowledge that I’m Asian, but I also realize that among being an Asian American, I am many things. I am a Computer Scientist. I am a Information Scientist. I am an engineer. I am a tinkerer. Maybe I’m too young to really concern myself with race issues. Or maybe it’s the fact that being Asian American has never gotten in my way when I wanted to achieve something. Perhaps it’s even helped. Without conflict, I think people tend to focus on other aspects of their lives. This may be why Eric Liu’s observations all seem a bit trivial. He grew up fairly privileged, attended school at Yale and then went on to be a speechwriter for Clinton. There was no real mention of adversity in his essays. Out of the book, I think the worst thing to happen to him was his Asian hair (I can relate).
Overall, I think The Accidental Asian is a good read for anyone interested in Asian American issues. Though it is a bit dated, I feel there are enough universal themes for it to still be relevant. I would have preferred a bit more analysis on things like gender issues (Asian male stereotypes and Asian female stereotypes) and how they play into how we see our roles as Asian Americans. As a final note, Eric Liu married a White woman, but his book actually contains less tips on dating white women than this book. Unfortunately, I will need to seek another guide to get more information on the topic.