Up Identity Creek

Author Frank Chin says Chinese Americans donu2019t have identity problems. Twentysomething Eric Liu proves him wrong. Jeff Chang steps into the generation gap.

By Jeff Chang Dec 15, 1998

If overeducated Asian American men—myself included—spent the eighties whining about being portrayed in the media as effeminate geeks, and bemoaning the loss of “our women” to white dudes, we are straight hoo-banging in the nineties. Now we can watch Jet Li kicking white ass on the big screen. We win all the DJ contests. We roll in the flyest Acuras and we run Silicon Valley. Cellular phone companies want our money because we’ve come a long way, baby.

The Yellow Defender

So iconoclastic writer Frank Chin seems like a throwback. Here’s a hardy soul who has spent the last three decades defending the great unwashed masses of Asian America. Who called for a return to ancient Chinese heroism as a model for Asian American manhood. Who castigated Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan as “white racist” Christian frauds selling out Asian America. Once insanely popular with my crew, Chin has since been taken down a few notches by feminists, gays and lesbians, and post-everything critics. They have tried to slander him, Chin snorts, by calling him a “cultural nationalist” and a “literary conservative.”

Chin made his rep during the early seventies with a series of Baraka-like pieces that felt more like polemics than plays. Then, along with Lawson Inada and Shawn Wong, he recovered classic Asian American texts into the seminal anthologies Aiiieeeee!!! and The Big Aiiieeeee! with the aim of producing a liberating, anti-racist Asian American canon. He wrote the award-winning short story collection, The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R.R. Co., and the novels, Donald Duk and Gunga Din Highway. Now Amerasia Journal and University of Hawaii Press have produced an anthology of his essays entitled Bulletproof Buddhists and Other Essays.

When he writes about himself, Frank Chin is one of the greatest characters ever created in Asian American literature. His opening essay, “I Am Talking To The Strategist Sun Tzu About Life When the Subject of War Comes Up,” finds him on the road, Kerouac style, heading to post-revolution Cuba with two white liberal Ph.D.s who want to go “whoring in Juarez.” As Chin finds them, one of the men is ashamed for what he has done to a twelve-year-old virgin and decides he must save her from her horrible life. Chin punches the gringo in the solar plexus, tosses him in the truck, and steers to the border pronto, as the Ph.D.s softly weep.

In “A Chinaman In Singapore,” Chin compares the totalitarian island to Disneyland—and he’s not thinking Baudrillard. He’s thinking fake Chinese. The fifth-generation Chinese American Chin sits down to lecture a group of writers, poets, and professors on the real and the fake: “Around the world are all these Chinese in England, Australia, Canada, the United States, Singapore, Malaysia, more white than thou, more hip than thou, writing of how they gave up being Chinese to become human in poetic prose right out of Fu Manchu, and blaming it on their mothers.” As the crowd bends their ears, he compresses Sun Tzu, Confucius, and the heroic tradition into his world-view: “Life is war; all behavior is tactics and strategy …. Writing is fighting.”

Chin’s didacticism grows tedious, especially when he interrupts perfect storytelling sequences—fluid movements from Chinese fairy tales to powerful, present-tense narratives of his Oakland childhood, aging Chinatown rebels, or multilingual Chinese pioneers on the California/Mexico border—to list the myriad ways Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston have sold out. You don’t have to disagree with Chin to be nauseated by his macho, anti-missionary zeal.

Often the sermonizing seems too much too late, as if relevance passed Frank Chin up on the road. Twenty miles from the epicenter of the L.A. rebellion, he watches youths rioting on television from the comfort of his living room, then turns in a shallow piece full of third-hand impressions. When he goes in search of teen Cambodian and Vietnamese gangbangers in San Diego, he makes a white policeman the hero and allows him to narrate much of the story. It’s as if his mind is trumping his instinct, and he can’t trust his belly-fire anymore.

Perhaps if Chin had once been more ambitious and prolific, some indie filmmaker would be shooting his autobiography—Russell Wong as the lead, wind blowing back his thick mustache as he heads up I-5 in his convertible, racial fear and self-loathing on his mind. As it is, mostly well-scrubbed U.C. and Ivy-League types read Chin in their Asian American Studies classes. He, Tan, and Hong Kingston are fodder for innumerable conference panels packed with humorless, fastidiously black-on-black wearing student lit-critters pondering the question, “Who am I?” Could there have been a fate worse than to be subjected to ceaseless deconstruction by an entire generation of “fakes”? “Chinese don’t have identity problems,” he writes. “I don’t have identity problems. I know who I am.”

The Ambivalent Overachiever

By contrast, ambivalence permeates Eric Liu’s The Accidental Asian. At a tender 29, the eminently likable, former President Clinton speechwriter, and all around over-achiever has his whole life ahead of him, and has a book of memoirs out by megapublisher Random House. Without the moral certitude of Chin and the Asian American baby boomers, this son of an immigrant is up identity creek.

Unlike his peers, Eric Nakamura of Giant Robot Magazine or Jeff Yang of A. Magazine, Liu’s identity is not bound up in the consumption of UltraMan toys, Haw Flake candies, or Wong Kar-Wai flicks—which makes him at once more “serious” and more confused. “But just what is it that binds together these millions of Chinese outside China?” he asks. “Well, it’s their Chineseness. And what is Chineseness? That which binds together Chinese.” Later he adds, “I define identity, then, in the simplest way possible: according to those with whom I identify. And I identify with whoever moves me.” It is possible to get whiplash from this sort of “spin.”

Since Richard Rodriguez’ Hunger of Memory, there has been a huge market for the Race Confessional: youngish, usually male of color goes on a soul-searching mission and returns to reaffirm his faith in America. These books are inevitably steeped in loss, justification, circular reasoning. The Accidental Asian is tragic because of Liu’s self-described “moral agnosticism, self-imposed exile.” Thankfully, Liu shares neither the politics or presumptuousness of a Dinesh D’Souza or a Shelby Steele. He avoids weighing in on affirmative action. He leaves Rodriguez’ albatross, bilingual education, alone. He measures his battles carefully and when he descends into the fray, he never musses his Dockers.

The closest Liu gets to an epiphany comes in the heat of a televised debate against D’Souza. After the National Review publishes a racist cover depicting the Clintons and Gore in yellowface to illustrate their story on the Asian campaign finance scandal, he is invited to represent the Asian American progressive line. D’Souza remarks of the cover, “Normal people aren’t offended by it,” and Liu realizes “that I am outraged. I am sending a searing look into my own reflection in the camera as I argue. And I am shouting now: I have raised my voice to defend my people.” Later, removed from the heat of the studio lights, the accidental Asian reflects in his study, “I am not an Asian American activist; I just play one on TV.”

The Future of Asian American Identity

This sort of detachment is a new luxury for which Chin and the anti-missionary zealots can take some credit. Thirty years into the Asian American revolution, an aggressively macho Giant Robot feature on the “Yellow Power” activists of the sixties reaches thousands more readers than many Asian American authors ever will. Hip hoppers like the Wutang Clan introduce millions of youths to Hong Kong martial arts movies in the Chinese heroic tradition. Even Liu—who feels so insincere in letting out his “inner Asian”—can rattle off panethnicity theory and defend an Asian American agenda against the best Heritage-Foundation-trained bananas.

Liu can even rebel against Asian American classmates at Yale, although there is a price to be paid. “In working so duteously to defy stereotype, I became a slave to it,” he writes. “For to act self-consciously against Asian ‘tendencies’ is not to break loose from the cage of myth and legend; it is to turn the very key that locks you inside.” Liu thinks of his Chinese American self as a zero-sum identity—the more American he becomes, the less Chinese he becomes —and though he tries, he cannot imagine another way. He has inherited Chin’s “tactics.” If Chin and his anti-missionary zealots failed, it was in their inability to articulate an Asian American identity more complicated than “real” and “fake.”

Like Rodriguez, Tan, and Hong Kingston, Liu hopes for a future in which race is transcended. Like the others, he has made himself into a Professional Race Person in order to make his point. He writes, “To put it simply: the Asian American identity as we know it may not last another generation.” Liu may well be correct, but not in the way that he hopes. One day he might find Frank Chin telling him, “Son, Asian American identity as I knew it didn’t last another generation.”