Eric Liu

The Accidental Asian

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The Accidental Asian Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Accidental Asian by Eric Liu.

Published in 1998, The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker is an essay collection by Eric Liu. In the book, Liu explores what it means to be a second-generation Chinese American, including the costs of assimilation and the downsides of maintaining racial divisions such as “Asian American.” Born in New York in 1968, Liu served as both speechwriter and deputy assistant to President Clinton. Currently, he works as a Senior Law Lecturer at the University of Washington. His TED talk on the topic of “powerful citizenship” has been viewed over one million times.

In The Accidental Asian, Liu writes with a heavy dose of humor and irony as he explores themes of race and identity. The first essay is titled “Song for My Father.” After Liu’s father, Chao-hua Liu or “Baba,” died in 1991, several of Baba’s friends compiled a book in his honor: a collection of photos and essays detailing Baba’s life and their friendship. However, the book is written in Chinese, so Liu cannot read it. He only knows what the book says due to the times his mother has read it to him. This brings Liu to reflect on his heritage (his “Chineseness”) and what it means to be unable to read the language of his ancestral land.

Liu opens the essay “Notes of a Native Speaker” with a list of “some of the ways you could say I am ‘white,'” including that he speaks flawless, unaccented English and that he does not mind how white television casts are. Despite this, Liu is, of course, not white, though he has been called an “honorary white” by whites and a “banana” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) by other Asians. He reflects, particularly within the context of the experiences of his adolescent years, on how assimilation into American culture usually means assimilation into white culture.

In “The Accidental Asian – Variations on a Theme,” Liu explores the Asian American identity as a renunciation of whiteness and of the fear of the past. Liu explains how he identifies with this concept “as if this identity and I were twin siblings, separated at birth,” yet he is also frustrated by it. He describes it as a role he and others must play, where people of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. descent set aside their differences to come together against the greater evils of white America. He explores the idea that maintaining the Asian American identity “defers the greater task of confronting American life.”

In “The Chinatown Idea,” Liu describes the living situation of Po-Po, a Chinese immigrant living in a low-income housing project in Chinatown. He explores the idea that new places are first experienced by outsiders as a place on a map, and so white America views Chinatown as just another exotic locale, a sort of tourist trap. They see it as a place of “firecrackers sputtering like cheap ammunition. The buzz of an alien tongue.  Red-and-Gold lanterns, swinging wild neon lettering,” but Liu asserts that there are racial issues and class issues that affect real people living real lives in Chinatown.

In “Fear of a Yellow Planet,” Liu explores America’s “in-between” relationship with the rising global power of China, which is neither America’s friend nor foe, and how this relates to America’s long history of xenophobia and fear of Communism in the context of the “Asian money” scandal of 1996 (in which the People’s Republic of China was accused of trying to influence American politics via campaign funding). He writes, “I am Chinese American at the very moment in history when the only power that truly matters in the world is Chinese or American.”

In “New Jews,” Liu writes that Asian Americans are often called “the new Jews” to parallel the commonalities that are believed about the two groups (both started as outsiders from ancient civilizations, both dedicate themselves to education, etc.). However, Liu asserts that the subtext of this conveys the idea that “‘the Jew’ now stands for assimilation,” while Asian Americans remain outside, and he reflects again on his own Chineseness. He also writes that another thing both he and his Jewish friends had in common as children was being forced to attend ethnic schools, which they hated.

In “Blood Vows,” Liu begins by explaining that he and his Caucasian wife did not include Chinese rituals in their wedding. Baba had once wished for him to marry a Chinese woman, but he died before Liu met his wife, Carroll. He explores the reasons why he married the person he did and what the effects of having biracial children will be on his ability to pass down his Chinese heritage to them. “I struggle to articulate just what Chineseness means,” he writes. “Customs alone are mere symbols, distillations, as distinct from cultural truth as water is from vapor.” In the end, he says he cannot fathom forcing his children to be “all or none” with their Chinese heritage, but will instead let them make their own choice.