A noted journalist and educator’s reflections on his Chinese heritage and on “the chance America still has to be something greater than the sum of its many tinted parts.”
As a young man, Atlantic correspondent Liu (Guiding Lights: The People Who Lead Us Toward Our Purpose in Life, 2004, etc.) believed that his choices determined who he was. Life experience later led him to conclude that he was “less the calligrapher than the parchment, absorbing the ink and scripts of others,” including—and especially—his Chinese-born parents. In this vigorous, sharp book, the author examines his identity against the backdrop of both Chinese and American cultures. Steeped as he was in Western democratic values, Liu realized that his parents had also imbued him with a strong sense of the “rite, propriety, social context and obligation” that defined Chinese society. Even his home exposure to Chinese language, with its “implied meanings [and] freighted terseness,” had influenced his writing and his way of thinking/being. While Liu’s love for America was beyond question, he also recognized that it was shaped more by a Chinese-inflected desire to belong to a whole rather than by some abstract idea of America. His appearance made him subject to cultural classification that subsumed the specificity of his Chinese heritage into a homogenizing Asian one. Such categorization transformed him into the unseen “model minority,” a stereotype that emerged in part as a cultural response to such Sinophobic historical developments as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For Liu, Chinese-American identity remains problematic. Yet in a world where the U.S. now competes with an aggressively modernizing China, America still retains the cultural edge. The key is not for the U.S. to become more like China, which Liu sees as unable to synthesize cultural differences. Rather, it is to become even more open to combining “new genes and memes” and in so doing, demonstrate its global indispensability.
An eloquent, thought-provoking and timely memoir.