By Minal Singh
Northwest Asian Weekly
On Jan. 14, University of Washington School of Law held a question and answer session with Eric Liu, founder of Citizen University, interviewed by Robert Chang, director of the Korematsu Center. The interview between these two law professors engaged on the topic of race, immigration, and citizenship.
Author of “The Accidental Asian” (1999), Liu was asked about his new book, “A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream,” and the story behind the title.
“Chinaman’s chance is one of those phrases that for a long time was an insult or a negative phrase. Its origins are as old as Chinese migration to the United States. Chinese laborers started coming here and were shunted off to often the most dangerous tasks, such as building railroads or mining mountains. The figure of speech simply arose. If you had a low chance of surviving or thriving, you had a Chinaman’s chance. Fast forward a hundred years, when my father arrived to the United States in the 1950s, the phrase was still in usage,” said Liu.
“Somewhere along the way, my father picked up this phrase so that when I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, my dad had a mischievous, ironic sense of humor. He would like to kind of take that phrase and essentially re-appropriate it. He would apply it in the most mundane, prosaic situations. If we were driving to the store and it was 10 minutes to closing time, but we were 20 minutes away from the store, he’d just look at me and say, ‘Oh, Eric, we have a Chinaman’s chance of getting there on time,’” said Liu.
“When I look back on it, it was a very American act, to take the thing being used against you, grab it, and redirect it so to claim the phrase, the identity for oneself.”
“SHAME ON AMERICA”
Asian Americans are the fastest growing immigrant group.
“American life is ever more globalized. Current immigrants can stay connected to their homeland in ways not possible before,” said Liu.
Robert Chang wanted to know why Liu chose to tell so many intimate stories about his immigrant experience.
“Stories are markers for representing race,” Liu said. “These books are intensely personal because the personal narrative invites the reader to remember.”
“My father is one of six brothers. All six brothers were born in China, went to Taiwan, when the Nationalists fled the mainland, then came to the United States for higher education. All of them for a few decades tried to make American lives. They worked at places like Bell Labs, IBM, or University of Illinois. They lived on streets like Old English Way and French Hill Road. They embodied the great American integration story. Then, in the 1980s, all of them, one by one, felt they were hitting a glass ceiling. Several of my uncles got frustrated to the point where they saw Taiwan was thriving economically and decided to return,” said Liu.
“Shame on America,” said Liu, “for having talent such as that of my uncles and not making it possible for them to fully realize their talents in the United States.”
Immigrants today are still hitting glass ceilings and Liu warns of the problem of reverse brain drain. As well, many immigrants who earn degrees in the United States cannot remain because a pathway to citizenship is not available.
THE MODEL MINORITY?
“The fight that all of us have, whatever our backgrounds may be, is to actually deliver on this American promise of a fair shot and equal opportunity,” said Liu.
After providing a brief history of Ferguson’s racial integration in the schools, Robert Chang asked Liu about liberty as responsibility. “What is our obligation, not just as Chinese American, but as Asian American, as American, in general … What is our obligation and what are we going to do?”
Dean of University of Washington School of Law, Kellye Y. Tsetse, championed the possibility of hope.
“The idea of Asian Americans being conferred honorary whiteness is very connected to the idea of the model minority. Because so many Asian Americans have achieved in academia or otherwise professionally, they have been deemed a model minority. This is not a label that Asian Americans ever asked for. It was applied to them,” said Liu. Liu rejects the label.
“First, it obscures the fact that Asian American overachievers came already as my family did, as my uncles did, with a great pile of capital. Intellectual, institutional, relationship, capital,” he said.
“Second, when you call a group a model minority, it implies that there are other groups that are not so model,” he said.
In response to recent race-based police incidents and changes in federal immigration policy, Liu urges the importance of “feeling a sense of ownership” when it comes to issues of civil rights.
“As Asian Americans, as people of color, we are subject to the same kinds of dangers of second-class treatment. It takes a multicultural coalition to refute the idea that whiteness is the aspirational norm,” Liu said.
As a former Clinton speechwriter, Liu advocates using the rights of one’s citizenship, “For a lot of Asian Americans who are in law or politics—it is important to get yourself in circulation,” he said.
In the next few years, Liu says China’s GDP will surpass that of the United States. Liu believes, fundamentally, that despite this advantage, America retains a competitive edge because “America makes Chinese Americans. China doesn’t make America Chinese.” The melting pot idea is unique to the story of America.
“My life has been shaped by a community with strong Asian identity … and it’s made me more in tuned to the importance of building such coalitions,” Liu said.
“Seattle is very unique in the sense that Pan-ethnic cooperation can result in a great deal of political clout,” Liu said. (end)
Minal Singh can be reached at email@example.com.