The Accidental Asian

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The unifying motif connecting all of Eric Liu’s essays collected in THE ACCIDENTAL ASIAN: NOTES OF A NATIVE SPEAKER is the author’s painstaking search for his cultural, as well as personal, identity. A successful young American, who once wrote speeches for President Bill Clinton after graduating from Yale University, Liu nevertheless wonders to what degree his Chinese heritage has shaped his status and personality in contemporary American society.

A few years after the death of his beloved father, Liu still muses over the degree of assimilation shown by this successful mathematician. While his father moved at ease in the workplace and shared his social life with caucasian friends and colleagues, he nevertheless hid his lingering kidney disease from all of them. To what degree, Liu asks himself, is this a reflection of the values of a different culture, traces of which he is discovering in himself?

Taking issue with contemporary American policies and beliefs on race and ethnicity, Liu challenges the very term of Asian American, which he perceives as a typical American invention. Confronted with the fact that he married a white woman and will have children of mixed heritages, Eric Liu encourages the reader to move beyond a narrow understanding of race in America.

Yet for all the passion THE ACCIDENTAL ASIAN invests in the dream that race should become obsolete as a means for categorizing people, Liu also feels nostalgic for that part of a person’s identity that would be lost if all ties to one’s ancestors should be severed. To find a balance between these conflicting goals appears to be the great aspiration of this author.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, May 15, 1998, p. 1571.

Far Eastern Economic Review. CLXI, August 6, 1998, p. 57.

Kirkus Reviews. LXVI, April 1, 1998, p. 471.

Library Journal. CXXIII, May 1, 1998, p. 124.

Los Angeles Times. July 9, 1998, p. E5.

National Review. L, August 3, 1998, p. 50.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, May 24, 1998, p. 19.

Newsweek. CXXXI, June 22, 1998, p. 68.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, April 6, 1998, p. 67.

Time. CLI, June 22, 1998, p. 76.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, July 19, 1998, p. 8.

The Accidental Asian

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Despite the fact that its subject matter of assimilation and identity relates to the concerns of many people, Eric Liu’s The Accidental Asian is at its heart a deeply personal book. Perhaps fittingly for an author who, in closing, expresses his desire that race may one day become an irrelevant category for all members of American society, the focus of Liu’s interrelated essays is never very far from the personal experience of their narrator.

A goal-driven, well-assimilated, successful young second- generation Chinese American, Eric Liu nevertheless questions the degree to which his personality, and his young life’s decisions, are also shaped by his family’s heritage and his reaction to society’s perception of himself. Thus, at the core of The Accidental Asian emerges the conflict between the claims of the individual for autonomy and self-actualization and the haunting perception that a person’s identity may also be influenced by cultural legacy and societal categorization. The fascinating tension of Liu’s work thus arises from the author’s consistent juxtaposition of his persistent claim for a freely shaped individual identity and his uneasy reflections on the true meaning of his historical and biological legacy. Thus, moving beyond the personal and cultural-specific, The Accidental Asian asks questions of far wider relevancy.

Eric Liu begins his intellectual journey to the core of his self with a beautifully written examination of his relationship to his father, the late Chao Liu. Born to a pilot in Chiang Kai- shek’s Chinese Nationalist air force in Nanjing in 1936, Chao was just a boy when his family fled to Taiwan shortly before the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949. Moving farther away from his birthplace, Chao comes to the United States to study in Illinois. There he falls in love and marries Eric’s mother Julia, another student from Taiwan.

As so often throughout The Accidental Asian, Liu’s personal experience strikes a common chord. When Eric glances at an old photograph from his father’s college days in 1962, his father’s pose and style uncannily remind him of that of a young American student at Yale in a picture he has seen elsewhere. The striking difference is that the Yale daguerreotype picture was taken sometime in the 1890’s. Thus, the idea that newcomers to American culture take with themselves older, already outdated pictures of style, fashion, and societal rules and attitudes of the new host country is brought home on a deeply personal yet also somewhat common level. Many new immigrants seem to remind America of its own cultural past.

It is to the author’s credit that he offers these insights in a very quiet manner, leaving readers to arrive at conclusions themselves. Throughout his essays, Eric Liu asks more questions than he answers directly. This tendency is reinforced in his reflections on the fact that while his father had a fulfilling career with a blue-chip American company and led a socially integrated life, he nevertheless decided to hide his kidney disease from all Caucasian colleagues and friends. The family literally hid the home dialysis machine in the parents’ bedroom closet, and his father’s ailment was never disclosed. For Liu, this poses the question of how far his father’s assimilation into American culture really went, considering how freely many native- born Americans tend to discuss their medical problems.

Almost inevitably, The Accidental Asian turns to three central elements often associated with cultural and racial identity: physiology, language, and food. Here, Eric Liu thoughtfully reflects on his Chinese body, which visually sets him apart from Caucasian Americans. He recoils when his features make him an immediate recruiting prospect for an Asian American college club. When he joins the Marine Officer Candidate School instead, Liu remarks that he “derived satisfaction from being . . . the only Chinese face” there, defying racial stereotypes. Yet with typical honesty, Liu questions his motivations for his acts. Was he really following his personal instincts, or was he merely out to disprove common assumptions?

When discussing language, Liu laments that his command of Chinese is minimal. He struggles with Chinese poetry and worries that he cannot even read a Chinese menu. Again, he wonders what price he may have paid for becoming so assimilated that his English surpasses that of many of his friends with American parents. Yet while he may not have mastered a menu in Cantonese, Eric tells of his triumph in eventually mastering the art of Chinese cooking. For him, the moment of reclaiming this part of his...

(The entire section is 1924 words.)