Author Explores Irony And Identity In 'A Chinaman's Chance'

Aug 12, 2014
Originally published on August 12, 2014 1:40 pm

The phrase "a Chinaman's chance" may include a racial slur, but Eric Liu's father would use it in a sort of "devilish, ironic way" to describe the most prosaic events, Liu says.

"If the Yankees were down by five in the ninth inning, 'Oh, they've got a Chinaman's chance of winning this game,' " he recounts. Or if they were hurrying to make it to a store before closing time and cutting it close, his father would say, "Ahh, you got a Chinaman's chance of getting there on time."

It was a phrase that Liu traces back to an episode in history when there was an influx of Chinese immigrants to America. A lot of them would do dangerous, brutal jobs like laying the tracks of the transcontinental railroad. Somehow, the figure of speech cropped up to signify the idea that one had a slim chance of making it — or surviving, Liu explains.

He doesn't know where his father heard the phrase, or in what context — perhaps someone used it for him or just in passing — but he sponged it up. Liu says his father often deployed it to prod his sensibilities.

"What he taught me was wit can neuter malice," Liu says. "That's the bigger lesson of just how any American can take words, language ... meant to be used to hurt them and claim them in ways that change their meaning and context."

The centrality of language to culture — specifically Chinese culture — is one of the themes in Liu's book. In an interview with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep, Liu addresses other ideas key to the Chinese-American experience.

(Note: Although NPR's style is to hyphenate "Chinese-American" — as well as African-American, Asian-American and other ethnic designations — Liu has written about his preference to omit the hyphen.)


Interview Highlights

On identity and cultural legacy

My father's father, his name in Chinese is Liu Kuo-yun. Kuo-yun translates roughly as "deliverance of the nation." So, you know, a low-pressure name.

Growing up I would think to myself, as a Liu and as an American, what does it mean for me to "deliver a nation"? And which nation? It didn't take very long for me to realize that was this nation — the United States.

This is where I've grown up, this is the place I know, and my sense of American-ness is complete. But the meaning of "American-ness" is completely infused by my Chinese-ness. This is where — for my father and my mother as well — their notions of what it meant to claim this country had to do with just this question of how much do you hold on to — how much do you try to pass on?

My daughter right now is finding and defining her own identity — in part, recognizing what's been passed on, and in part pushing against what's been passed on. Raising Olivia to understand and appreciate some of this Chinese cultural inheritance boils down — in some ways — to language. From the time she was little, I started taking her to a Chinese school on weekends. I have a line in my book that says ... "those who ignore Chinese school are doomed to repeat it."

On language

Our household was this real hybrid mix where my parents would speak about 80 percent Chinese and 20 percent English to me and I would respond in reverse ratio.

This awareness of the web of obligations that we are woven into — which you find in Chinese language, you find in Chinese values, you find in Chinese ways of raising families — is something the United States could use a giant, corrective dose of right now. Paying attention a bit less to rugged individualism, and a bit more to context and mutual obligation is something that I think Chinese-Americans can bring to the table.

On Chinese-American contributions to America

There are 4 million-plus Chinese-Americans today. Chinese-Americans have been shaping and changing this culture from minute one. There are the obvious, literal monuments to that — the transcontinental railroad. ... When you have shows like Fresh Off the Boat on network TV, when you have people like my friend and mentor Gary Locke, our former ambassador to [China], who literally represent the United States and the rest of the world — our picture of "who is us" begins to change.

It no longer becomes as often the case that Chinese-Americans, or Asian-Americans in general, are to be presumed foreign until proven otherwise. My goal and the point of this book is to say we should be presumed American — and our job is to prove it.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, we have the story of a man with a foot in two worlds. His name is Eric Liu. He is a former presidential speechwriter who served President Bill Clinton. He is American born to parents who were Chinese immigrants. And now he's a father himself. He's been thinking a lot about what it means to be Chinese American, what it means to receive that legacy, what it means to pass it on. He calls his new book "A Chinaman's Chance." With that title, Eric Liu takes control of an old and prejudiced saying. His Chinese father used it all the time.

ERIC LIU: By the time I came along as a kid, it became practice in our household for him just to use this phrase in this sort of devilish, ironic way. If the Yankees were down by five in the ninth inning - oh, they've got a Chinaman's chance of winning this game.

(LAUGHTER)

LIU: Or, you know, if we were trying to get to ShopRite before closing time but we were still 10 minutes away - oh, you've got a Chinaman's chance of getting there on time. But what he taught me was wit can neuter malice, right?

INSKEEP: When you grab that phrase, you own it, and then it can't hurt you the same way.

LIU: Exactly. And I think that's the bigger lesson of just how any American can take words, language that are meant to be used to hurt them and claim them in ways that change their meaning and context.

INSKEEP: Now let's make sure people know your family history. Your father was an immigrant for China, is that right?

LIU: That's right.

INSKEEP: And your mother also?

LIU: My mother as well, yeah.

INSKEEP: OK, and you were born in the United States?

LIU: I was born in the U.S.

INSKEEP: And you now have a teenage daughter.

LIU: I do.

INSKEEP: So you've had an opportunity to think about what it meant to be an American for your father, what it means to be an American for you and for your daughter. How does that change as you go from one generation to another?

LIU: Well, I would actually even extend it one generation further. My father's father - his name in Chinese is Liu Kuo-yun. Liu is my family name and Kuo-yun translates roughly as deliverance of the nation - so, you know, a low-pressure name.

INSKEEP: Yeah, sure.

LIU: And he grew up the son of a farmer in rural China and came of age at a time when dynastic rule was ending and the Republic of China was forming. And he felt in earnest that he did have to live up to that name. And so...

INSKEEP: We're talking about before the communist era, before World War II, before all of that.

LIU: Exactly. My grandfather joined the military. He worked with Americans to launch the Flying Tigers Program.

INSKEEP: Wow.

LIU: And so I heard all of these legends of my grandfather. Growing up, I would think to myself - as a Liu, and as an American - what does it mean for me to deliver a nation, and which nation? It didn't take very long for me to realize this nation - the United States.

INSKEEP: The United States.

LIU: This is where I have grown up. This is the place I know and my sense of Americanness is complete. But the meaning of Americanness is completely infused by my Chineseness, right? And this is where from my father and my mother as well - they're notions of what it meant to claim this country had to do with just this question of how much do you hold on to? How much do you try to pass on? And our household was this real hybrid mix where my parents would speak about 80 percent Chinese and 20 percent English to me, and I would respond in reverse ratio.

INSKEEP: I've noticed that in a lot of cultures. I mean, the word Spanglish is popularly known. You're talking about something a little different though, aren't you? You're in Chinese for little a while, you're in English for a little while, you surf back to Chinese again.

LIU: Well, and that's right. And one of the ways in which Chineseness was passed on to me is just an appreciation for rhythm and the flow and the structure of language.

INSKEEP: Right.

LIU: And so much is understood by context. This awareness of the web of obligations that we are woven into, which you find in Chinese language, which you find in Chinese values, you find in Chinese ways of raising families is I think actually something that the United States could use a giant corrective dose of right now. We are flying apart centrifugally in this age of radical inequality. We have less than ever to hold us together in a time of rapid demographic change. Paying attention a bit less to rugged individualism and a bit more to context and mutual obligation is something that I think Chinese-Americans can bring to the table right now.

INSKEEP: I like that you say a bit less and a bit more because of course we have the stereotype of Americans as individualists and the stereotype of Chinese as being more collective. But of course, each stereotype could be true of the other as well.

LIU: You're right. Stereotypes can only take you so far. But at the same time, the United States for, you know, our provenance is we were born out of a big bang against tyranny. And so everything in our language, everything in our politics proceeds from this sense of don't tread on me. And I think the way that that reverberates can be taken to extremes and can be unhealthy for any community, any society, just the same way that in China an emphasis on relationship, obligation, the collective so forth - that can be taken to an extreme as well.

But here's the difference - the United States in theory retains this deep, enduring competitive advantage. America makes Chinese-Americans. China does not make American-Chinese. Here in the United States, it is the very point of our cultural operating system to take your forebears and my forbears and have us meld and mesh in ways that create diverse complicated new hybrids and be the test-bed for the rest of the planet.

INSKEEP: I want to use your delightful phrase - making Chinese-Americans because you went out and became a dad. You made a Chinese-American. What's that been like?

LIU: (Laughter) You know, it's been great in so many ways. The keyword that you used earlier in terms of her identity and our relationship is not so much Chinese-American but teenager. As with any teenager, this sense that Olivia, my daughter, right now is finding and defining her own identity, in part recognizing wisdom passed on and in part pushing against what's been passed on.

INSKEEP: Sure.

LIU: And raising Olivia to understand and appreciate some of this Chinese cultural inheritance boils down in some ways to language. From the time she was little I started taking her to a Chinese school on weekends. And, you know, I have a line in my book that says you know those who ignore Chinese school are doomed to repeat it.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: There are at this point, I don't know how many million Chinese-Americans in the United States. How do you think Chinese Americans have already changed this country?

LIU: Chinese-Americans have been shaping and changing this culture from minute one. There are the obvious literal monuments to that - the transcontinental railroad.

INSKEEP: Sure.

LIU: But if you just fast forward to our contemporary moment, we are a few months away from a new sitcom that will be airing on ABC called "Fresh Off The Boat" based on the memoir by Eddie Huang, the restaurateur and celebrity chef in New York City. He wrote this memoir a few years back that described his very iconoclastic upbringing defying all stereotypes. And to me, the larger point is that Chinese-Americans are changing our picture of who an American is. And when you have shows like "Fresh Off The Boat" on network TV, when you have people like my friend and mentor Gary Locke, our former ambassador to the United States, who literally represent the United States and the rest of the world, our picture of who is us begins to change and it no longer comes as often the case that Chinese-Americans or Asian-Americans in general are to be presumed foreign until proven otherwise. My goal and the point of this book is to say, we should be presumed American - and then our job is to prove it. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, Eric Liu refers to Gary Locke as former ambassador to the United States. Locke was ambassador to China.]

INSKEEP: Eric Liu is the author of "A Chinaman's Chance."

Thanks for coming by.

LIU: Thank you so much, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.