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BOOKS / SPEED READ

A Witness to the Clash, Commingling of Cultures

July 09, 1998|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a child, Eric Liu figured out that his skin color and unmanageably straight hair were symbols of a difference that went well below the surface.

At home, his family spoke Chinglish (a fractured Chinese English). They taught him manners impeccable for someone living in Nanjing, where his father was born. But in the mostly white suburb of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where his immigrant Asian parents settled in the 1960s, it was not considered polite to shovel rice directly into one's mouth from a hand-held bowl.

Liu's new book, "The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker" (Random House, 203 pages, $23), is more than a reminiscence of growing up Asian in America. It is an homage to Liu's Chinese-ness, and to America, where he was born, and where he became President Clinton's youngest speech writer and a TV pundit well before the age of 30.

In grade school, he learned American language and manners. In high school, he joined the orchestra, the wrestling team, the science club, the school paper. "I thought I was defying the stereotype of the Asian-American male as a one-dimensional nerd," he writes. "But in the eyes of some, I suppose, I was simply another Asian overachiever."

By the time he went to Yale, he had left his fears of racial prejudice behind him and began to imagine himself "beyond race." But of course he wasn't. Unflattering stereotypes popped up again: "that we are math and science geeks . . . unknowable and potentially treacherous." He again tried to chip away at the myths by being the extreme opposite. "The irony was that in working so hard to defy stereotype I became a slave to it."

Through all his growing-up years, he embraced both the warmth and security of his Asian family and the exhilaration of the almost totally non-Asian world in which he traveled. He pondered the tough questions that neither priest nor parent can easily answer: What does it mean to be Chinese? "Where does Chinese-ness reside?" His ruminations on identity and racial memory pepper this book, along with thoughts on how America transforms the people who come here, and how it is transformed by them.

Somewhere along the way, Liu realized he no longer could claim to be Chinese at his core. Neither could he claim to be--nor did he desire to be--white. America has had its way with him. He has assimilated. And he doesn't define that as something bad.

Now 29, attending Harvard Law School, he calls assimilation "an act of creation." He mentally leapfrogs to a post-ethnic America where the races are blended, yet racial identity is revered. It is an optimist's vision: "Something new is emerging in America . . . [It is] no longer white, nor will it ever be white again." And it can be the strongest, most successful nation in the world precisely because it is forged of racial amalgams.

None of this will make the bigots happy. But it is happening without them. Liu notes that close to 50% of Asian Americans under 35 now marry non-Asians--"which promises rather quickly to change the meaning of race."

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