The Accidental Asian
by Eric Liu
Malcolm Muggeridge had a story about his days as a newspaper correspondent in Moscow during the time of the Stalin famines. He went with a Russian colleague to see a Chekhov play. Afterwards he asked her what she thought of it. "I can't see what they were all so unhappy about," replied the woman. "They had enough to eat, didn't they?"
I am afraid my gut reaction to these autobiographical essays was somewhat similar. Eric Liu is the offspring of two immigrants from Taiwan. His father was a manager at IBM. His childhood seems to have been cloudless. He grew up in a quiet suburb and went to Yale. His twenty-nine years have been spent in a cocoon of comfort and security, disturbed only by his father's death from kidney disease when Eric was twenty-two. He was a speechwriter for the Clintons. Now he is attending law school — three years' immersion (to borrow an image from George Orwell) in a lukewarm bath of political correctness. What on earth can this person have to tell us? And what, for goodness' sake, does he have to complain about?
The answers are, in order: not much, and — of course! — "racism." Mr Liu, you see, wants an "identity," and the "identity" he wants is "Asian-American." And what in God's name is "Asian-American"-ness? Why, it's a "lifestyle" — which is to say, an assemblage of mannerisms and attitudes cultivated in order to make oneself feel kind of special. Where does "racism" come in? This I could not fathom, since Mr Liu flatly denies that "Asian-American" is a racial category. The offspring of Polynesians or Pakistanis (the latter a branch of the white race speaking an Indo-European language) are "Asian-American" in his calculus. On the other hand, he reserves the right to whine about "racism" — to spit venom at Bill Safire for his comments on the Chinese funny-money scandal, to raise the sad specter of Vincent Chin, killed by laid-off auto workers who thought he was Japanese, to imply that the nomination of Bill Lann Lee as an Assistant Attorney General was foiled by "racists," to display his righteous indignation at the NR cover of 3/24/97 showing the Clintons in yellow-face.
Look. From time to time people will be murdered by others who don't like their color. This proves nothing larger than the occasional vileness of human nature. The fuss about Chinese campaign contributions is entirely justified. China is the most corrupt country in the world, and we should strive mightily to keep their way of doing things out of the U.S.A. That is not "racism," it is just prudence. Likewise, the opposition to the nomination of Lee was nothing to do with his being of Chinese ancestry, and everything to do with his being a business-hating regulation-crazy Clintonoid lefty dork. And that NR cover was funny — could we have some more like it, please?
In common with, I think, most white people, I have no race consciousness, and regard the whole "race" business as, at best, indoor relief for unemployable intellectuals, and at worst as a money racket run by shake-down artists. I have, as it happens, been living among Chinese people for most of my life. I feel quite at home in a roomful of Chinese and can read the classic poetry with pleasure. Yet the maunderings of these "Asian-Americans" are more alien to me than the cargo cults of New Guinea (to which, come to think of it, they bear more than a passing resemblance). Sample: "College is supposed to be where Americans of Asian descent become Asian Americans, where the consciousness is awakened." Oh, that's what college is supposed to be? And here was me thinking it had something to do with education!
This is the second autobiography I have read recently. The other was Crossing the Line, by Alvin Kernan, an account of the author's service in the U.S. Navy during WW2, after growing up on a remote ranch in Wyoming. His book and Eric Liu's have some things in common. They are both decently well written (though Mr Liu has a regrettable tendency to lapse into Creative Writing: "I am bathed in yellow light …" yada yada). Both stop in the author's twenties: Kernan's because that is the end of the part of his life that he judges other people might find interesting, Mr Liu because that is as far as he's got — no doubt he will have much, much more to tell us as soon as he has finished law school. Yet two books more different in spirit could hardly be imagined. Kernan endured much and saw great horrors. Liu has endured little out of the ordinary, and seen less.
That is not his fault, and in fact he seems to me a likeable guy, with whom I should not mind spending some time — half an hour, perhaps. It is just that we live in an age when the sterner virtues are not much called for, and hedonism and narcissism, and the stirring up of rancor over imagined grievances, and the parading of manufactured emotions and try-it-out "lifestyles," and all the vapid babble of fashion and celebrity and "cool" and "identity" are what fill the marketplace. This is depressing for those of us who think that life is a serious business, that words have meanings and ideas matter, but it is bonanza time for people like Eric Liu. He will be a very successful lawyer.