Sunday, June 2, 2013

Accidents of Assimilation

I spent the past two days reading Eric Liu's collection of essays, The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker (1999).

I have very mixed feelings about this book.  I started out really liking it--and really liking a couple of the essays in particular ("Song for My Father" and "The Chinatown Idea")--but I ended up feeling very ambivalent about the book and about many of the arguments it seems to be making as a whole.

I don't know if I've entirely processed that ambivalence in a way that I can put into words, but I'll try.

Liu's work reflects on his experience as a second-generation Chinese American.  His opening essay, "Song for My Father," confronts the paradox of an Chinese American's "Chineseness" and the question of assimilation ("assimilation" refers to the process by which members of an immigrant community become integrated within their adopted culture or country).

Liu looks back at his father's life and realizes all of the many things he doesn't know about him--and will never know, since his father died of kidney failure in 1991.

The essay revolves around Liu's discovery (or rediscovery) of residual texts of his father's identity: letters he wrote, slips of paper found in jacket pockets.  Liu reflects on a memorial book written by his father's childhood friends after his death: he is unable to read it because most of the entries are in Chinese.

This is the starting point for Liu's reflection on his own life and identity--what his "Chineseness" might mean, as an assimilated Chinese American who is definitively more "American" than "Chinese," in contrast to his father who was "Chinese" but immigrated and "became" "American."  Whatever that means.

And this is Liu's purpose: to figure out what that might mean, and why it might mean different things for different individuals and different generations.

As the scare quotes indicate, tricky issues abound in such reflections.  For the most part, I think Liu does a great job of confronting the provocative questions and struggling with what they mean, both for his own personal experience and for American culture at large.

What I find... unsettling? curious? (I'm not sure of the word I want to use to describe this tendency that I think I see in his book) is Liu's discomfort with--and what I perceive as his effort to dodge--the fact of discrimination.  Liu's writing is at its best when he's grappling with the contradictions and paradoxes of assimilation and its assumptions--and there are many.

But he seems to me to have a strange need to insist that, if discrimination is out there, he never experienced it, so maybe it isn't relevant to focus on it anymore.  He situates his own experience as a Chinese American in contrast to the experience of blacks and Jews in the United States in the first five decades of the twentieth century.

The source of my skepticism is ultimately personal in nature.  Liu grew up about 20 miles away from where I did.  He and I are exactly the same age.  In my school, there was one--yes, you heard that right--ONE black student.  She was tormented constantly, and she finally switched schools.

My school was K-12.  Granted, there were only about 700 students enrolled: I graduated in a "large" class of about 60 students.  Nearby schools were much larger, of course, and I suspect Liu attended one of those much larger (and more diverse) school systems.  

In my school, there was one--yes, ONE--Chinese American student.  He was tormented more or less constantly.  But he stayed.  His parents owned the only Chinese restaurant in town, and people cut them a bit of slack because 1) "at least they're not black" and 2) "Chinese food is pretty good sometimes." (The second statement would always be followed up with the warning, "But they eat cats and dogs in China, you know, so you have to be careful what you order.")

I grew up 50 miles from New York City.  People of color lived in nearby towns, but not ours.  Looking back, my (subsequently educated) guess is that they were simply blocked from purchasing real estate there for years.

My dad's aunt died when she was in her nineties.  When we cleaned out her house, we found, hidden in the bottom of a box, a group photo that appears to have been taken in the 1930s.

We have no idea exactly who's in it, because they're Klansmen.  I still remember my mom's troubled look when she found it: we had been chatting away, going through boxes, and she suddenly became very quiet and said to my dad, "Look at this."

He also became very quiet.  He said, "Years ago, when I was growing up, people told stories about there being a chapter of the Klan around here.  No one would ever own up to it and it wasn't talked about openly.  The cowardly sons-of-bitches, hiding behind masks."

My mother told a story about pledging a sorority in the early 1950s.  She went through the entire process, and when it came time for the induction ceremony, there was an oath they all had to recite.  My mom said, "All of a sudden, there was all this ... stuff... this crap... about Jews and Blacks and who knows what all, this racist, prejudiced crap and I said, 'I'm not saying this.  What is this?  There was nothing about any of this when we pledged.  This isn't right."

They told her she had to recite the oath or she couldn't join.  She and one other girl refused: they walked out.  My mom said, "Only 2 of us refused, out of 20 or more pledges.  I don't know if that stuff is what they all really believed or if they just wanted to be in the sorority, and they were embarrassed to speak up.  It seemed to me like it was done on purpose: hide all of this stuff until the last minute and then, there it is!  And you're standing there, so... most people will just go along with it, I think, and maybe figure it doesn't mean anything.  But it wasn't right.  I didn't like it.  People shouldn't think that way."  

Several weeks ago, I read Jennifer Baszile's The Black Girl Next Door (2009).  Baszile grew up in California in the 1980's--she's also about my age.  Her memoir describes her experiences as a member of the first generation of black Americans to grow up in a post-segregated American society, during integration.  It's a fascinating--and disturbing--book.

Discrimination was everywhere in the 1980s.  It still is.  Racism is not a "Southern" phenomenon, and it isn't in our past.  It's all around us.  If we don't choose to see it, it's because we have the luxury of that choice.

And I think this is why I regard some of Liu's claims with skepticism and ambivalence. I think he simply chooses not to see discrimination or not to focus on it when he does see it.  And, as he openly acknowledges, he lived in a world of relative privilege: his parents were educated professionals from Taiwan, so their experience was not necessarily typical.

Ultimately, I think Liu's essays want to see the best in America and to believe the best about the American people as a whole, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that.  But as Liu himself acknowledges, in a conversation with the novelist Shawn Wong in which Liu finds himself advocating "race transcendence," he is "gently" warned by Wong, "not to forget history":
By which he means Asian American history: the trials of people before my time, whose estrangement from the mainstream years ago made possible my entry into the mainstream today. (153-154)
I think it is good advice.

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