The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker

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9780375704864: The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker

Beyond black and white, native and alien, lies a vast and fertile field of human experience. It is here that Eric Liu, former speechwriter for President Clinton and noted political commentator, invites us to explore.

In these compellingly candid essays, Liu reflects on his life as a second-generation Chinese American and reveals the shifting frames of ethnic identity. Finding himself unable to read a Chinese memorial book about his father's life, he looks critically at the cost of his own assimilation. But he casts an equally questioning eye on the effort to sustain vast racial categories like “Asian American.” And as he surveys the rising anxiety about China's influence, Liu illuminates the space that Asians have always occupied in the American imagination. Reminiscent of the work of James Baldwin and its unwavering honesty, The Accidental Asian introduces a powerful and elegant voice into the discussion of what it means to be an American.

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Review:

As a second-generation Chinese-American, Eric Liu has grown up with an awkward relationship to race and ethnic identity. He can follow a conversation in Chinese, although he would have problems if he tried to take part in it; as for the written language, he is functionally illiterate. He would be the first person to question which of his personality traits are "Chinese" or "American," "Asian" or "white," or none of the above, and The Accidental Asian is, in fact, a rigorous self-examination--not merely about the costs and benefits of assimilation, but about whether assimilation should even be viewed in those terms.

Whether he's recalling his adolescent frustration with "Chinese hair" that just wouldn't permit itself to be styled, examining the history of Chinatown, or pondering the mixture of fear and fascination with which China is viewed by Americans, Liu writes with admirable personal intensity. It doesn't matter whether you consider The Accidental Asian to be a memoir or a batch of interconnected essays; once you've read it, you will be forced to consider for yourself what place, if any, race has in America today (but even more so tomorrow).

From the Publisher:

Random House editor Jon Karp: In THE ACCIDENTAL ASIAN, Eric Liu has written a personal and a political exploration of race very much in the tradition of books by Henry Louis Gates, Shelby Steele, and Richard Rodriguez. The difference, of course, is Eric's vantage point. While there have been many political memoirs by blacks and Latinos, fewer Asian-American voices have been heard. In Eric Liu, we have one of the most dynamic and intelligent young writers in the country. He is only 28 years old and he has already been featured on the cover of Newsweek as a leading voice of Generation X. He started a national magazine as a student at Yale University, after which he was hired by Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Ultimately, he moved to the White House, where he became the youngest speechwriter on President Clinton's staff. Recently, he has been a weekly commentator on MSNBC and a regular speaker on college campuses, while studying law at Harvard and writing for Slate. As you may have surmised, Eric is a bit of an overachiever.


His book is at turns piercing in its insights into the politics of race and poignant in its depiction of the lives of assimilated Asian-Americans. Here's one example: Eric tries to read a journal about his father's early life in China, but he can't make any sense of it because the journal is written in Chinese, a language he barely knows. That is just one example of the distance between one generation and another, and it serves as a dramatic starting point for a fascinating intellectual journey.

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