The Accidental Asian: Race, Assimilation and Miscegenation
Analyzing Eric Liu’s The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker within postcolonial discourses is not an easy task. We are presented here with personal essays that, albeit written candidly and intelligently, elude any systematic categorizing according to postcolonial critical theories. Liu’s memoirs relate more to the experience of the immigrant’s process of assimilation, whereas colonial or postcolonial theories and discourses deal more with the relationship between the dominant colonizing power and the weak colonized people. There is, however, a similarity with the immigrant’s experience and the colonized people, for both must contend with the dominant power that seeks to subjugate them and they should try to assimilate the language and culture that are imposed on them.
In colonialist-colonized context, the principal agent of this process of assimilation is the colonizer. The assimilation of a new language, culture, beliefs or customs, may be forcibly introduced by the colonialists to the people of the newly discovered land, as historical documents attest. However, in the case of the immigrant’s experience, it is rather the immigrant who is the protagonist in the process of assimilation. He [the immigrant] must seek to identify with the dominant language, culture, etc., on his own volition because only by aligning himself with the dominant power of his newly adopted country can he possibly survive. Liu’s compilation of essays describes how this process of assimilation happens, and in doing so, he also has remarkably given us some insights into the problems of race and assimilation in America.
The focus of this paper will therefore be on how Liu perceives race in America, his own process of assimilation, and his aspiration of a new breed of integrated, multicolored, raceless American people. Although Liu’s analyses are very personal—for he cannot speak in behalf of other immigrants—nevertheless, I truly concur with his observations and comments.
The Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language defines assimilation as follows: (1) to take in and incorporate as one’s own; (2) to bring into conformity with the customs, attitudes, etc. of a group, nation, or the like (126). There are no better words to describe Liu’s personal assimilation into the American society than what I have just quoted from the dictionary. Liu struggled to become completely identified with what he perceived was essential to become a real American. He sought to incorporate as his own the customs, attitudes, language, and idiosyncrasies of American lifestyle. However, his assimilation was only a link in the chain that his father [and mother] had forged years before. The opening chapter of his novel [memoir] dedicated to his late father says it all:
When Chao-hua Liu came to the United States in1955, at the age of eighteen, he was Chinese. When he died thirty-six years later, he was, I’d say, something other than Chinese. And he helped raise a son who was Chinese in perhaps only a nominal sense. (6-7)
Baba’s [Liu’s father] assimilation into American society started with language. This is parallel to the control of the means of communication by the imperialists in the colonial context.1 However, in Baba’s case, it was a deliberate decision to assimilate the dominant language in order to gain access to power. Baba’s English was not entirely flawless, yet he completed this process of language appropriation in his son, as Liu lamentably comments:
When I contrast my father’s possession of English with forfeiture of Chinese, I feel like something of a fool: as I had squandered an inheritance and not even realized its magnitude until I was left with only spare change. Yet I know that in a fundamental way it was my father’s possession of English that had made possible my forfeiture of Chinese. . . . I merely completed his assimilation.
I cannot say whether Liu had squandered or forfeited the language of his father [Chinese], for he never was given that opportunity even in family life. They used English as their means of communication, even in writing letters (16-18).
Based on my own personal experience, the language you use in school becomes the dominant language where you are most articulate. For example, I speak a Philippine dialect (Cebuano) different from my parents (Waray), yet we normally write letters to each other in English. I would speak to my parents in Cebuano and they would respond only in Waray. We understand each other completely, but a Northerner bystander (e.g., a Tagalog speaker) would have no idea how we are able to understand each other. However, in written communications, we only write in English because we are accustomed to it since English is the medium of instruction in the Philippine educational system. What I am driving at is that even though Eric’s parents spoke Mandarin Chinese at home, it would still be unlikely for him to write fluently in Chinese even if he were to dictate the Chinese words. [Obviously, he cannot possibly write Chinese calligraphy without formal training.]
Liu’s chopstick metaphor about his father’s “selective kind of assimilation” is a wonderful representation of an assimilist’s ambivalent attitude toward conformity or non-conformity of another:
He did not want to be a square peg in a round hole. But he realized at a certain point that, like a chopstick, he had both a square end and a round end; that he could find ways to fit in without whittling down his integrity. (21)
It is not easy to judge whether Baba’s process of assimilation was successful, yet definitely he had acquired habits that were both Chinese and American at the same time. Liu’s father defies the “archetype of the immigrant experience” where “the first generation remains wedded to the ways of the Old Country and the second generation forsakes them” (14), because, in a way, while remaining a Chinese, Baba nevertheless metamorphosed into “something other than Chinese” (7).
Let us now pass on to this process of assimilation that Liu himself inherited from his parents, particularly from his father. It was during his adolescent years that the consciousness of race dawned upon him. It was an awakening that would set him on the uphill road toward liberation of this socially-constructed complex phenomenon called race.
Scholars have constantly debated on the problem of the concept of race. Smedley purports that
Race was folk concept that was elevated to the ranks of scholarly discourse when scientists began developing rationalizations and justifications for existing social realities. . . . Race reflected a set of attitudes toward human differences generated out of the special circumstances of the rise of some European states to world commercial and political dominance. (303)
Biologists, anthropologists, social scientists, as well as politicians argue endlessly on this very tricky business of race. The election fever that’s sweeping America right now has included this controversial issue with Al Gore choosing an orthodox Jew, Joe Lieberman, to be his running mate for the Presidential Elections this Fall. In one of Gore’s speeches, he declares: “We shall begin a new era of unity, by putting an end to division [referring to race] in America.”2 Race matters in America because of the diversity of peoples that comprise its communities.
Liu considers race the product of self-love—tantamount to sin (75). For it emphasizes the differences of peoples rather than the common universal traits of a single human species. Race looks only on the covering, ignoring the inner features of what is essential in peoples. He lambasts this myopic vision of labeling man in the final chapter of his memoir:
Race, you see, is a fiction. As a matter of biology it has no meaningful basis. Genetic variations within any race far exceed the variations between the races, and genetic similarities among the races swamp both. The power of race, however, derives not from its pseudoscientific markings but from its social trappings. It is an ideology that race matters . . . The hope is that the emergence of a mixed-race community will help obliterate our antiquated notions of racial difference. (191-92)
Liu relates the frustrating struggle against race in his adolescent years in the second chapter. In combating the perceived stereotypes of what he thought was an Asian trait, he exaggerated himself by becoming its opposite. He actually was trapped in a litany of absurdities that he imagined were atypically Asian:
If Asians were reputed to be math and science geeks, I would be a student of history and politics. If Asians were supposed to be feeble subalterns, I’d lift weights and go to Marine officer candidate school. If Asians were shy and retiring, I’d try to be exuberant and jocular. If they were narrow-minded specialists, I’d be a well-rounded generalist. If they were perpetual outsiders, I’d join every establishment outfit I could and show that I, too, could run with the swift. (50-51)
Later on Liu realized that race was nothing but a power struggle. It was not inherent in the color of one’s skin but in the power that one wields to dominate others. His obsession to become “white” was only an obsession to gain control over himself and others. Thus, Liu later on declared that “Race, in the guise of whiteness, has always been about power. Now, in the masks of color, it is also about countervailing power” (72). He soon realized that it was within his reach to brandish this power.
Some scholars believe that the superiority of being white was contrived by some colonialist theorists to justify their domination over the colonized. Loombia’s critical analysis about the emergence of racial discrimination by colonialists is a startling fact that we in the twenty-first century find difficult to swallow:
Perceived or constructed racial differences were transformed into very real inequalities by colonialists and/or racist regimes and ideologies. Accordingly, the analysis of races must take cognizance of both the reality of racial discriminations and oppressions, as well as call attention to the constructedness of the concept itself. . . . Racial constructions are shaped within particular historical contexts and alongside other social hierarchies. (123)
Whiteness became synonymous to power, to purity, to goodness. It had become the property of the elite and was even supposedly supported by organized religion. Blackness was considered an abomination, a punishment for sin, the property of the underprivileged class. In some instances, blacks were even regarded as sub-humans, fit only to serve their white masters. In an article by Cheryl I. Harris, she stresses the appalling revelation of white domination in America:
Becoming white meant gaining access to a whole set of public and private privileges that materially and permanently guaranteed basic subsistence needs and, therefore, survival. Becoming white increased the possibility of controlling critical aspects of one’s life rather than being the object of others’ domination. (277)
Liu gives us yet another twist to the discourse of race, presenting to us how the Jews had steadily risen from their oppressed position a few decades ago to become a power block in American society today. In Liu’s chapter entitled “New Jew,” he summarizes the potentiality of “non-whites” to become “white” which the Jews in America have ingeniously achieved:
There was a time, only a few decades ago, when every WASP and every Negro knew that the Jew was something else, a third thing. At that moment, Jews were in transition: partly accepted, partly stigmatized; half in, half out. Then, with the war and the suburbs and the fifties and the sixties, something happened: the Jews became white. Today, many Asian Americans seem to be in a similar position. (161-62)
It had not been easy for the Jews. They used all sorts of influence, particularly through media, in order to change public opinion about their plight. The Jews’ reversal from being an oppressed minority to becoming one of the most influential powers in America today is what Liu hopes for in the future generation of Asian American or its mixed-race scions. Indeed, several Asian Americans in the United States are getting out of their closets to get involved in sports, show business, the academe, and in politics. Liu gives us the glaring example of Tiger Woods, the golf celebrity that soared higher than basketball superstar Michael “Air” Jordan, as the paradigm of mixed-race superiority that will invade the future:
Everyone knows that Tiger is multiracial. Not everyone knows he is more Asian than anything else. His father is half African American, one quarter Native American, and one quarter Chinese; his mother is half Thai, one quarter Chinese, and one quarter white. When Tiger-mania first began to swell, I fully expected Woods to be marketed as The Great Black Hope. For a while he was. But then, remarkably, the media machinery switched gears. They figured it out: his is the face of intermingled future. (189-90)
We finally come to the end of Liu’s analysis of race: “Race is falling apart. Collapsing into complexity” (90). He dreams of a world dominated by a mixed-race populace. Liu declares, “The mixed shall inherit the earth,” (75) paraphrasing one of the eight Christian Beatitudes (Matt. 5.4) The era of racial purity has passed. The new millennium ushers in the birth of a new amalgamated generation of a miscegenated breed.
More than a century ago, the prophets of miscegenation were hardly noticed, but their voice continues to linger well into our time. An anonymous pamphlet was published in London and New York in 1864 that challenged the racist pseudoscientific investigations of the leading anthropologists of the time:
Whatever of power and vitality there is in the American race is derived, not from its Anglo-Saxon progenitors, but from all the different nationalities which go to make up this people. All that is needed to make it the finest race on earth is to engraft upon our stock the negro element which Providence has placed by our side on this continent. . . . We must become yellow-skinned, black-haired people — in fine we must become Miscegens — if we would attain the fullest result of civilization. (Young 144)
So Liu’s prognosis of race issue in America already had its precedents in the champions of miscegenation in the last century. He envisages a future race that will dominate the earth—a world where race hardly matters. Skin color will become superfluous, for there will be only one color: the mixed blood. It is hoped that America as well as the entire globe will rise beyond East and West to embrace a multicolored variety of peoples. It shall be the new force in the twenty-first millennium.
The “white” shall be replaced by the “mixed.” Racial purity will be a disgrace, for it will be a sign of shortsightedness and failure to accommodate multiplicity. The multiracial, integrated generation of the future will communicate in several languages and will be multi-cultured by definition. They are the inheritors of the accumulated wealth of culture from the Occident as well as Orient. This is what Liu envisions America and his children to be, but I think that what defines America in terms of mixed races will spread throughout the world including the immense Asian Continent.
I would like to end this paper by narrating an amusing anecdote that happened to me several years ago on a flight from Hong Kong to Taipei. I was seated beside a gentleman in his mid-sixties who reacted emphatically when I told him I was not Chinese but Filipino. The elderly passenger stared at me and said, “You are Chinese no matter what passport you hold, nor whatever country you happen to live.” The middle-aged gentleman was actually from Hong Kong, but had business in Taiwan, and lives in Los Angeles. It may have been within the context of the Hong Kong – Taipei flight why he mistakenly and adamantly labeled me Chinese, in the same way that Liu’s American identity was highly pronounced in the snapshot photo in Beijing (117); or when his Chinese features became brazenly apparent during the Asian money crisis of the 1996 Presidential Elections (118-20). The elderly patriot passenger spoke straight from the heart. I did not know how to answer him then, but after reading Eric Liu’s The Accidental Asian, I believe I now know what the answer is.
Ashcroft, Bill, et al. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Postcolonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.
Harris, Cheryl I. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement. Ed. Kimberle Crenshaw, et al. New York: The New Press, 1995.
Liu, Eric. The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.
Loombia, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 1998
Smedley, Audrey. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.
The Holy Bible. New York: Douay Bible House, 1938.
Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Gramercy Books, 1996.
Young, Robert J. C. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. London: Routledge, 1995.