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Originally published Thursday, July 17, 2014 at 6:06 AM

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‘A Chinaman’s Chance’: what makes a Chinese American

Seattle author Eric Liu’s new book “A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream” examines the complex identity of Chinese Americans in this day and age.


Special to The Seattle Times

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Book review

‘A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream’

by Eric Liu

Public Affairs, 209 pp., $25.99

There is a wonderful passage in “A Chinaman’s Chance” in which Eric Liu describes the “obsessive-compulsive liturgy” he created in his head in order to pray for his hospitalized father’s recovery:

“It was an autodidact’s hodgepodge prayer, with all the sincerity and hybrid incoherence of the self-taught. It was superstition and fear speaking a pidgin tongue of hope and devotion. It was my Chinese-American prayer.” Liu’s ability to so neatly capture the complexities of cultural identity on both deeply personal and more global levels is what makes this book shine.

The son of Chinese-born immigrants who came to the U.S. by way of Taiwan, Liu, who lives in Seattle, has a lot of very good material from which to draw. He’s built an intriguing career and life of the mind by melding his political experiences and love of teaching with the conviction that civic engagement and mentoring is vital in both the personal and global senses.

Liu served as a speechwriter and policy adviser for former President Clinton. His 1999 book, “The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker,” was a sharp look at assimilation and race and rightfully won ringing praise. He writes regularly for CNN.com and The Atlantic.

He has also authored four thoughtful books on mentoring, patriotism and the role of government; and creative innovation — two of them in collaboration with Seattleite Nick Hanauer, whose civic and entrepreneurial track record is legendary.

There are many deceptively simple lessons in “A Chinaman’s Chance.” In one wry examination of popular-culture punctuation, Liu encapsulates the complex question of self-identification. He critically ponders “Chinese-American” (“…that hyphen vexes me: It implies an interaction rather than a person.” And “(Chinese) American,” which he says works well for someone “trying hard to pass for not-at-all-Chinese.” And, finally, lands on that which he finds “powerful, a thing of beauty” — the nonpunctuated “Chinese American” in which “the only thing between the two halves is a tiny bit of white space.”

As Liu considers Chinese cultural, spiritual and linguistic history, personal lore and more than a century of American Sino-stereotyping, he guides us to see just how our everyday views of “they” and “I” are formed ... and how they change.

When people say to Liu, “I never thought of you as Chinese,” he understands it is usually meant to be affirming and inclusive. “But such words can represent a kind of empathy on the cheap,” he writes. His 12 words capture a ubiquitous fumble that says much about our society’s idea of inclusion.

Substitute “Jewish,” “middle-aged,” “Republican” or other applicable term for yourself in place of “Chinese” and “cheap empathy” seems right on the money.

I am most taken by the passages about Liu’s parents. He is incisive when he describes the peculiar sadness we feel as we run that mental video loop of “what ifs” when thinking of a departed parent: What if he hadn’t gone to war? What if she had lived long enough to see me write a good book? “But death,” writes Liu, “deprives the living of the possibility of surprise.” A cross-cultural truth if there ever was one.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.



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