Asian Identity Crisis

By Chang, Yahlin | Newsweek, June 22, 1998 | Go to article overview

Asian Identity Crisis


Chang, Yahlin, Newsweek


A young Asian-American author defends his assimilation--and draws fire from activists ERIC LIU HAS SPENT MOST OF HIS LIFE climbing up the social ladder without looking back. The son of Chinese immigrants from Taiwan, he grew up learning to play down his ethnic identity in the mostly white community of Wappingers Falls, N.Y. Then he went on to amass a heap of power credentials: he graduated from Yale, at 25 he wrote speeches for President Clinton, and now he's at Harvard Law School. In his provocative, wonderfully honest new book, "The Accidental Asian" Liu, 29, finally pauses long enough to reflect on his assimilationist's guilt, on the feeling that he's left something behind without knowing exactly what it is. Half cultural commentary, half memoir, "Accidental" is a remarkable accomplishment--both a defense of assimilation and an intense recounting of personal loss. Though he's one of Asian America's biggest stars, Liu doesn't act or feel particularly Asian-American. He married a white woman--half of all Asian-Americans intermarry, he points out. He says he cannot escape the feeling that the Asian-American identity is "contrived" and "unnecessary." "Asian Americans are only as isolated as they want to be," he writes. "They--we--do not face the levels of discrimination and hatred that demand an enclave mentality ... The choice to invent and sustain a pan-Asian identity is just that: a choice, not an imperative." His book, which just hit stores, is already infuriating Asian-Americans who have a fierce sense of ethnic pride. "Liu has been totally co-opted by the white mainstream," says Bert Wang, who works on labor issues and anti-Asian violence, and christened his rock band Superchink. "But would he be where he is today if he weren't Asian? They love him because he's this novelty who's pro-assimilation." Jeff Yang, the founder of A. Magazine -- a sort of Asian Vanity Fair -- finds Liu's view misguided and a bit naive. "Race is an obsession in our society," he says. "To be out of the racial equation takes us away from the table of dialogue completely. But we're creating a culture out of our common experiences: immigration, being perceived as strangers in our own land, serving as a bridge between East and West." But even the most militant Asian-Americans admit to an identity crisis. Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos and other "Asians" have not only different cultures and languages but deep historical antagonisms toward one another. More than anything, what binds them together in America is what they look like-the exact basis for their stigmatization. The Asian-American "race" is just three decades old, born with the immigration boom in 1965. "Race is fundamentally an invention," says Liu. "And just as something can be invented, so it can be dismantled. If you believe in the identity, I can respect that. I'm just not sure it'll last another generation. …

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