May 24, 1998
Do Not Hyphenate
The son of Taiwanese parents, the author outlines an impassioned case for assimilation.

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  • First Chapter: 'The Accidental Asian'

    Notes of a Native Speaker.
    By Eric Liu.
    206 pp. New York:
    Random House. $23.

    The time has come, Eric Liu contends, ''to conceive of assimilation as more than a series of losses -- and to recognize that what is lost is not necessarily sacred. . . . I often resolve to do more to preserve, to conserve, my inheritance. But have my acts of neglect thus far, my many omissions, been inherently wrong?''

    Liu, the son of successful immigrants from Taiwan, faces a conundrum familiar to many Asian-Americans. Raised in a typically American middle-class suburb, he feels a guilt-ridden ambivalence toward the Chinese heritage he is expected to keep alive. His personality, after all, owes more to the East Coast than to the Far East, and while he esteems the traditions of his parentage, he rejects what he considers sentimental espousals of ''Chineseness'' promoted by novelists like Amy Tan. A Yale graduate, former Clinton speechwriter and television commentator on MSNBC (all by the age of 29!), he is a fervent advocate of success in the mainstream, and he's not prepared to jeopardize his future by clinging to an ethnic past that was never really his own. As a result, he tends to be regarded by whites as an ''honorary white'' and by Asians as a ''banana'' (yellow on the outside, white on the inside).

    Part memoir, part essay collection, ''The Accidental Asian'' is remarkable for its adamant refusal to buy into the party line of identity politics. Resisting those he calls ''Professional Asian Americans,'' Liu bridles at the idea of engineering a pan-Asian coalition with uniform interests. ''Unlike blacks,'' he writes, ''Asians do not have a cultural idiom that arose from centuries of thinking of themselves as a race; unlike Jews, Asians haven't a unifying spiritual and historical legacy; unlike Latinos, another recently invented community, Asians don't have a linguistic basis for their continued apartness.'' As an avowed ''identity libertarian,'' he believes that efforts to forge a separatist, monolithic community -- in a country where most Asian-Americans under 34 are married to non-Asians -- go against the grain of logic and demography.

    It's a controversial point that Liu makes here, but it emerges from a series of arguments so conscientiously evenhanded that it might appear less provocative than it really is. Anything but a shrill partisan, Liu is fair to all sides of any issue he discusses. He's especially persuasive when he maintains that the African-American style of minority politics in this country, ''set in the heavy type of protest and opposition,'' may not be an appropriate model for the very different Asian-American community. But I, at least, was uncomfortable with a few of his assumptions, among them his apparent equation of assimilation with establishment career advancement. And I wondered if his distaste for the crutch of comprehensive ethnic labels would be quite so intense if his own path to achievement had been a little bumpier. Other second-generation Asians, whose parents came to this country penniless, without English skills, as laborers rather than college students, might find the galvanizing mythology of ''Asian Americanism'' more useful than Liu himself has.

    Of course, one can quibble with any argument, and this diverse grab bag of a book is enriched by elements beyond polemics, including a short but enlightening history of New York City's Chinatown and a few wonderfully spirited sketches of his father and grandmother. Liu covers a lot of territory without succumbing to glibness. And I suspect that history will be on his side when he predicts that the forces of ethnic synthesis will prevail in this country. ''The end product of American life,'' he writes, ''is neither monoculturalism nor multiculturalism; it is omniculturalism.'' In a population increasingly defined by hyphenated bloodlines (Liu's own children will be Chinese-Scottish-Irish-Jewish), the task of distinguishing between ''Asian'' and ''American'' may be academic sooner than we think.

    Gary Krist's most recent book is a novel, ''Bad Chemistry.''

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