Read A Chinaman's Chance Online
Authors: Eric Liu
He didn't, of course. More than a decade would pass before he would consider it. By then, his children were Americans. Of course, that was technically true of all the cousins who'd grown up here. Uncle 4 had also stayed in America, working his entire career at the University of Illinois and becoming a beloved member of the community there. He was the only one of the brothers who gave himself a non-Chinese name: Jack. He raised daughters who would end up working for the Illinois State Police and Disney.
American. But it's safe to say none of the cousins had become more ardently attached to this nation and its meaning. As I approached adulthood, I had zero interest in moving to Taiwan. If my father was torn about whether to stay or to make the leap, my self-centered preferences trumped his ambivalence; my certitude, his doubt. He stayed. And the current of life carried us all in the direction it had already been carrying us: deeper into America.
When Uncles 4, 5, and 6 were teenagers, they became well known in Taiwan for writing a series of martial arts novels. Uncle 5, sixteen at the time, was the driving force behind them. He knew the conventions of such picaresque books, but he also knew his Chinese history, had been steeped in tales of bandits and heroes and warlords and emperors. The books tapped into all of that. They were best sellers, and the newspapers loved telling this story of three young sons of a leading family embarking on a creative adventure together. The books also made the brothers some money, enough for Uncle 5 to help pay for college.
Recently, after decades of service in politics and higher education in Taiwan, Uncle 5 returned to storytelling. He published a new series of martial arts novels set during a Ming Dynasty civil war. This series, too, got a lot of press coverage in Taiwan, but whereas the media narrative the first time was about precocious teenage authors writing under a pseudonym, the narrative this time was about an esteemed former prime minister returning, under his own well-known name, to his literary and civilizational roots. It is an arc as complete and fulfilling as can be imagined. It makes me imagine what my father's own arc could have been.
I wonder sometimes why Dad was so captive to his preconceptions. Why did he convince himself that without a doctorate he could be nothing in Taiwan? That was a box he built. Why was he so intent on masking illness or weakness? This too was costly. Sometimes I think a real American would have said, “Who needs a PhD? I can make it anywhere!” A real American would have said, “Yeah, I'm sick. So what? I'll show everyone what I can do.” But I know that's naÃ¯ve. Americans are no less prone to keeping perceived weakness from public view (see: FDR and JFK). What, then, does it mean to be a real American? Is it a matter of simple longevity and familiarity and acceptance in this land? Or is it having the mindset of the perpetual immigrant, ever eager to start a second act, always willing to start over? In this latter sense, my father was perhaps never more American than when he first arrived, when he'd staked everything on an unseen promise and was ready to take on any risk. In the years that followed, life happened. His options narrowed, his attachments grew. It turned out he had not internalized the American spirit enough to leave America.
It has been twenty-two and a half years now since my father died. I was twenty-two and a half at the time. He is with me for fleeting moments every day, in how I laugh at an absurdity, or offer harsh judgments, or break down a problem, or sit in silence when I realize I've erred, or overplay corny jokes. But the older I grow, the thinner and more fragile the fibers of memory become, the more I must strain to imagine how he'd handle a situation. I offer my daughter a composite portrait of her Ye Ye that consists of my recollections. It's better than nothing, more textured than what I knew about my Ye Ye. But death deprives the living of the possibility of surprise. It precludes an unexpected departure from prior patterns. Might my father, one or five or ten years after his initial decision not to go back to Taiwan, have changed his mind? Might he at some point have deviated from his straight-line insistence on hiding his illness and his belief that illness would disadvantage him? We cannot know. Extrapolation fails. It is up to us to make our own jagged lines.
For years the Japanese house and dusty courtyard that the Lius moved into in 1949 remained the family home. With each passing decade, as Taipei boomed, the city crowded in around that house. The unpaved street in front became a four-lane boulevard. On all sides modern high-rise buildings sprouted. The old house, which the Nationalist government had provided to the widow of a national hero, remained stuck in time. Nai Nai ruled over it, and its constancy and her forcefulness had the effect of making my father and uncles, no matter how old or accomplished, always their mother's sons.
When Uncle 5 was a government minister in Taipei, he sometimes stayed in the old house, slept in the same room he'd slept in as a boy. The first time I visited Taipei, I stayed there too. It was 1992. I was part of a congressional staff delegation, representing Senator Boren. During that trip I and the other staffers were treated by the government like VIPs, feted at ten-course dinners and taken on tours. At the family home, my uncles, usually stoic, were unusually expressive in their love and support of me. My father had been gone only two years, and his brothers were filled with bittersweet pride to see me doing work of such seeming importance, pride amplified when, the following year, I began to work for an American president.
On my most recent visit, in 2011, much had changed. The old house had been torn down. In its place the government had erected a six-story apartment building, with one of the units reserved for Nai Nai. Her flat had modern amenities and a view of a twenty-first-century city, but the main thing was she was living on the same piece of land she'd lived on for over sixty years. She had just celebrated her 101st birthday. She was frail but still lucid and forceful in her speech. On this visit, I had no official business. I was a tourist, with my mother, my daughter, my partner JenÃ¡. One evening Uncles 5 and 6 took us out to dinner. In the nineteen years since my first visit, Taiwan had established itself. China was resurgent, and my uncles were confident contributors to this revival. What struck me most at dinner was how little interest they now took in America. The tone of their comments about American capitalism and politics was indifferent. America was not what mattered. The presidential campaign was not of great consequence.
The next afternoon, Uncle 6 took us to a cemetery on the outskirts of Taipei to visit the tomb of my grandfather. The stone tomb is substantial. It sits high on a hill, in the shade of well-manicured trees. It includes a carved inscription by Chiang Kai-shek in memory of Liu Kuo-yun. After my uncles had their successes in the 1990s and beyond, it became a well-known site. People came regularly from across Taiwan to see it and to pay respect to the father of this famous family. Other families built their own tombs in the same format, perhaps to absorb something auspicious by osmosis. On this day, though, it was just us: my mother, my uncle, my aunt, my daughter, my partner, me. I felt their eyes on me as I stood before the tomb and bowed deeply three times.
In the years right after the Nationalist Chinese fled the mainland and retreated to Taiwan, the United States was their great defender. When the Communists in 1958 shelled the little islets of Quemoy and Matsu off the coast of Taiwan, forcing schoolchildren like my parents to do emergency drills to prepare for the expected invasion, President Eisenhower sent the US Navy into the Taiwan Strait. The shelling stopped. The invasion never came. Even after President Nixon normalized relations with Beijing and the People's Republic and de-recognized the Nationalist government in Taipei, the United States remained Taiwan's primary guardian and partner in education and investment. For decades, there was little to no interaction across the strait. To get from Taipei to Beijing, one had to fly through Hong Kong. But gradually, starting in the 1990s, cultural exchanges began; family reunifications proceeded; bans on direct investment and travel were eased.
Taiwan's position today in relation to China and America is not unlike that of Chinese Americans: in between, and pulled more strongly than ever by China. WeâTaiwanese and Chinese Americans alikeâembody the interdependence of the two civilization-states. We benefit from the inheritances and infrastructure of both. We broker exchanges between them, though increasingly on China's terms. The gravitational pull of China is especially palpable among my uncles, who in local parlance are “deep blue” (from the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang, against outright independence for Taiwan, for more bridge-building with the mainland).
So it is interesting, to say the least, for me to contemplate the idea of China as the enemy of my nation. No serious policymaker or commentator in the United States calls China an outright enemy. But nor does anyone call China an ally. Rivals, competitors, codependents: these two countries face each other warily and sometimes adversarially. From cybercrime to disputes over sea lanes and currency manipulation and human rights to accusations of military espionage, there is plenty in the US-China relationship that can lead to troubleâif not to hot war then to cold peace.
Does a Chinese American who calls for accommodation and cooperation with Beijing look to his or her compatriots like a stooge? Does a Chinese American who calls for bellicosity and containment of the Chinese threat seem to his or her compatriots like a self-hater? Does it matter how we
? There were Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor who were so-called no-no boys, protesting the policy of internment by declining both to pledge allegiance to the United States government and to serve in its military. There were also Japanese Americans who went straight to enlist, who served in the all-Nisei 442nd Regiment, one of the most decorated US Army units in World War II. They made different choices but honest ones, and both groups did indeed prove their loyalty to the
After he stepped down as premier, Chao-shiuan Liu (Uncle 5) took on the job of running the General Association of Chinese Culture. In this role, he serves now as intellectual ambassadorâkeeper and explainer of a Chinese cultural inheritance. In a recent lecture he offered his thoughts on the choice China confronts as it grows mightier: whether to attain its goals by reason or by force. Reason, in his telling, means an appeal not only to abstract logic but also to the internal logic of Chinese civilization: the
, or rites; the texts and the unwritten norms that glue a culture together, that can transcend geography or geopolitics. Force means both arms and the throw-weight of money. Soft power or hard? How will China persuade? How will it win friends and influence nations? What will be the source of its appeal?
It's a good question for the United States as well. There have always been two entwined sources of our nation's appeal: the vision of America as a land of unbounded economic opportunity, and the promise of America as a land defined not by blood or ethnicity but by a race-blind creed of equality and liberty. We have often failed to live up to that vision and that promise. But what marks this country as exceptional is that we have always held it a betrayal of national purpose to fail, and have thus always strived to fail
. Now, however, as social mobility has slowed in America, the gap between our ideals and our actual conditions is growing perilously wide. It's an open question whether we can muster the will to close it.
This moment makes Chinese Americans a bellwether. Our prospects and our choices, here in America, will influence the balance of power, the polarity of appeal, between China and America. Chinese Americans today, whether of the first or second or fifth generation, are not all slotted into the pigeonholes that my uncles found so intolerable. There is the Chinese American fashion designer who makes the First Lady's dresses. The Chinese American novelist from Brooklyn who's written the next great Southern novel. The Chinese American avant-garde composer and performer who's upending electronic music. At the same time, apart from these headline-worthy outliers, in the classrooms where Chinese American students are still seen as mere grinds, in the boardrooms where Chinese American employees are still seen as followers rather than leaders, and in the backrooms where Chinese American workers are still seen as cheap obedient labor, stereotypes are not collapsing. They are still holding, holding us all back.
Who will protect us from
Merit is the revered ideal of the American elite, and the motif of the morality tale of American success. But what if the morality tale is a myth?
Frank Samson, a sociology professor at the University of Miami, recently conducted a survey of white adults in California. He asked them their views on admissions to selective colleges and found strong support for the idea that admissions should be determined by “meritocratic” measures like test scores and GPA, regardless of race or ethnicity. This is consistent with the general view of most whites that affirmative action undermines the integrity of selective institutions. But when told prior to the survey that Asian Americans are proportionally twice as numerous in the selective University of California system as in the state population, the respondents changed their tune. Now they favored a reduced role for grades and scores and greater emphasis on “intangibles” like leadership and involvement.
“The results here suggest,” Samson noted drily, “that the importance of meritocratic criteria for whites varies depending upon certain circumstances.” Meritocracy, as long as it preserves my position. Meritocracy, unless it undermines my advantage. Talk about selective
admissions. To the Chinese Americans who played by the rules of meritocracy in order to enter good colleges and professions, only to be passed over when the criteria for advancement became “leadership potential” and “people skills,” this is not news. Merit serves at the pleasure of power.