A Chinaman's Chance (21 page)

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
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Fatherhood is bound up, of course, with manhood. In stereo­typical Chinese culture, men are firm and strict, while women are soft and kind. But in stereotypical American culture, Chinese men are weak and wimpy. So here lurks the danger, if you don't know yourself well, of overcompensating for either or both sets of stereotypes. Fortunately for me, I suppose, those crucible years as a single parent made me know myself better. They made me fuse, on the fly, so-called male and female or Asian and Western or hard and soft styles. I don't mind being perceived by Olivia or anyone as “feminine” in my willingness to listen, to heal rifts, to talk feelings. I don't mind being perceived as masculine in my willingness to confront, to be a hard-ass, to force an issue instead of avoiding it. Each day I feel my way forward about when to be each. I try my best to bend.


The linguists Lauren Hall-Lew and Rebecca Starr studied English usage among Chinese Americans in the Bay Area. They found that “Chinese” ways of speaking are persisting even into the third generation. Consider, for example, L-vocalization (“words like
sound like
”), which for native Chinese speakers results from the absence of a “syllable-final |l| in all forms of Chinese.” I can hear many immigrants I know pronouncing
What these researchers found are people of the 1.5, second, and third generations also pronouncing it that way. Why doesn't this “nonstandard” pronunciation disappear with the passage of generations, as would be typical? Hall-Lew and Starr hypothesize three reasons: one, the relative ethnic concentration of the newest wave of Chinese immigrants to the Bay Area; two, the increased ease for today's Chinese immigrants of staying in contact with and returning to China or Taiwan; and three, the rising cultural cachet of China and rising social appeal of a stylized FOB (“fresh off the boat”) cultural identity. In short, it's becoming ever easier and cooler
to lose the accent.


In David Henry Hwang's play
, a white businessman from Ohio named Daniel goes to China in search of new opportunities for his struggling sign-making company. He arrives, and everything quickly gets lost in translation. On one level the play is a comedy of errors about this businessman and the machinations of his Chinese partners, rivals, and seducers. On a level below is a more philosophical story about how the dominant is always eventually subverted, how everything contains its undoing. And how each side across a divide always assumes it is losing. At one point, Daniel's main Chinese contact, a vice minister of culture named Xi, bitterly remarks to herself, in Mandarin, “This is why it's so difficult to get ahead of America. Even when you are strong, you still act like you're weak.” Which, of course, is just how Daniel and his country see Xi and her country. At this moment of flux and phase shift in geopolitics and geoculture, each side wants simultaneously to regard and disregard, to be like and be unlike, the other.

My daughter, thus far, has not been affected by this tidal tension or by the “rising cultural cachet of China.” She is aware, because her father talks about it all the time, that China is resurgent and that this creates challenge and opportunity for America. But perhaps because her father talks about it all the time, she shows little interest in the topic. She shows even less inclination to start taking style cues from new-wave Chinese immigrants or from people in China. She doesn't speak enough Chinese to make a Chinglish blend of her own, or have enough Chinese friends or neighbors to start adopting FOB fashion. And so her sense of the potential for blending, such as it is, comes more from the people we see crowding into Din Tai Fung, the famous Taipei dumpling house that's opened not one but two branches in the Seattle area and draws a vibrant mix of Chinese, Chinese American, and other American patrons, while a group of white-uniformed Hispanic men make the dumplings. Or it comes from watching
Kung Fu Panda
and the Jackie Chan/Jaden Smith remake of
The Karate Kid
, two films she loves and that were made, as films are now, with an eye to pleasing audiences in China as well as America. There's a sensibility in each movie that reveres a base layer of Chinese tradition but requires a top layer of American iconoclasm. She feels at home with narratives like this. The lines she quotes from
Kung Fu Panda
are usually, with full rocker/slacker intonation, Jack Black's.


There is a table about a third of the way through Jin Li's book
Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West
. It describes “components and dimensions of European-American and Chinese learning models.”

In the European-American column, the table lists such purposes or processes as:

Cultivate mind/understand world

Reach personal goals

Active engagement


Personal insights/creativity

Being the best one can be


Pride for achievement

Disappointment/low self-esteem for failure

In the Chinese column, it lists, correspondingly:

Perfect self morally/socially

Contribute to society


Endurance of hardship

Application of knowledge

Unity of knowledge and moral character

Commitment (“establish one's will”)

Humility for achievement

Shame/guilt for failure


Li's table can be read as either the distillation of enormous amounts of research across cultures and generations—or a summation of clichés about East, West, and “never the twain shall meet.” Li is a professor of education and human development at Brown University, and a nuanced scholar, so the table has authority of the first kind. But given the way big ideas trickle down, it's not hard to envision someone well-meaning and less nuanced, at some conference years hence, showing a PowerPoint version of this table to describe the differences between white and Chinese people.

Would that be OK? Li argues that even as China and America converge economically and culturally, each society does have a core that remains distinct. Thus someone raised and enculturated in China, even if he moves to America, will remain essentially Chinese, she says: “The basic patterns of cultural learning models are tenacious and unlikely to melt in grand unification.” What she doesn't explore as much is what happens when a person is enculturated not in some pure form of Chinese (or Western) culture but in a premelted blend. As I was.

By Jin Li's taxonomy, I am both “European-American” and “Chinese” in my modes of learning. Every item in both columns can apply to me, in different ways at different times. Social science would have predicted this. In responses to psychosocial surveys, Chinese Americans typically land right between people in China and white people in America. But of course, every landing is unique. By Li's taxonomy, my daughter is also a blend of both cultural modes—just not the same blend I am. Olivia, for instance, seems to value “diligence” and “endurance of hardship,” whereas I value “active engagement” and “inquiry.” So she's more Chinese than me. She also values “personal goals,” whereas I perhaps value “contribution to society.” So she's more Western than me.

What even the tiny, inconsequential case study of one second-generation man and his third-generation daughter reminds us is this: it is in the blend that the future resides. That blend is not easily put into columns. It is not Eastern or Western. It is just American.


The psychologist Qi Wang has done fascinating cross-cultural research on how mothers speak to their toddlers. Her aim is to understand the impact of mothering styles on the development of a child's autobiographical capacity. In one oft-cited paper, “Sharing Memories and Telling Stories: American and Chinese Mothers and Their 3-Year-Olds,” she reported that:

American mothers and children showed a high-elaborative, independently oriented conversational style in which they co-constructed their memories and stories by elaborating on each other's responses and focusing on the child's personal predilections and opinions. In contrast, Chinese mother-child dyads employed a low-elaborative, interdependently oriented conversational style where mothers frequently posed and repeated factual questions and showed great concern with moral rules and behavioural standards with their children.

Wang also found that the American children, as they grew older, had more elaborate memories of their own childhoods and more recollections of roles and emotions in the stories. The autobiographical memories of the Chinese children were less detailed and focused more on daily routines.

There has not been comparable research done on the styles of Chinese fathers, whether married or divorced, whether in China or in America.


One afternoon when Olivia was nine or ten, I introduced her and her friend to Morse code. They were taken with it immediately. They ran upstairs to a walk-in closet, sitting against opposite walls, and spent the next two hours mastering the alphabet and then tapping encrypted messages to each other in the dark, erupting with satisfied laughter when they'd correctly decoded one.

For a couple of weeks, Olivia and I also tried to converse in Morse. But because my memory is worse than hers, I couldn't keep up. No matter. We moved on to other ways of communicating. All our lives together, we've played with words. Silly ditties improvised during walks and drives. A game called “In my country . . .” where we took turns making up gibberish phrases and “translating” them into English. A cadence call that accompanied my morning push-ups, when she'd lie on my back and count with me. I thought I'd always remember these games and songs. Lately, though, the details have grown blurry. Will my daughter remember? I tell her often about her earliest years and the things we did. I tell her often about my own early years. I tell her about her father's father, and his father too. These things I say expressly. But the prosody of Chinese speech, the topography of Chinese thought, the unity of Chinese sight: these have been sent in code. Will they survive the transmission? Was the signal too tattered? Only her memory will tell.


I asked my mother the other day, without warning
, “Are you American?”

She paused. “I am
American,” she said. The distinction was this: she still feels too attached to the idea of China, too comfortable with Chinese culture and customs and her Chinese friends and colleagues, to say that she is simply and purely American. But to my mind, her reply (pause included) suggests that she has become simply and purely American.

Julia Liu has now spent many more years of her life in the United States than in China or Taiwan. In the twenty-plus years since my father's death, she has become not only self-sufficient in everyday life but also self-actualized as a citizen. She's come to follow politics and public affairs with a passion. She takes hours to read the
Washington Post
and the local Chinese paper every day. She loves watching Charlie Rose at night and then telling me about the celebrities and politicians who were particularly interesting. She is a choosy independent, watching the debates and candidates closely and casting her vote very deliberately. She joins. She joined her suburban neighborhood association. She joined Chinese cultural clubs and professional organizations. She joined the alumni associations of her Taiwan high school and college. She joined
college alumni association.

These are surface indicia. What marks my mother more deeply as American is that she has made a life that, for better and for worse, could be made only in America. To be purely American is to give oneself over to a jumble of cross-bred influences. To be purely American is to embrace impurity. The dream of claiming this country is not a dream of material advancement only. It is a dream, perhaps more fundamentally, of the freedom to find one's true, self-contradictory self. To contain multitudes and to express them. My mother has been freer to do that in America than she would have been anywhere else on earth. She may feel still as if she is floating between nations. That is what confirms her Americanness.

And this is a time for us all to reconfirm. A generation ago, when Japan's rise seemed to portend America's decline, experts here in business and government sounded an alarm: We needed to act more like the Japanese, they said anxiously, and emulate Japanese ways of running a society. The journalist James Fallows wrote an elegant book in response called
More Like Us
. His point was simple and timeless: America may sometimes falter, but if it simply imitates the competition, it will fail; our best chance for renewal comes from
, from embracing the creative disorder that comes with being the world's magnet and mixer of talent and ideas, and keeping channels of opportunity open for all.

Now we live in a time when China is rising and America, at least in relative terms, has lost its dominance. And predictably, experts—not just in business or government but now also in parenting and education and sports—have come to wish that we in America had China's capacity for ruthless efficiency, giant ambition, and hive-minded execution that were all on display, say, during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

But we live in a time, too, when Chinese Americans are arriving: in a continuous flow to our shores and into the mainstream of our culture. And the arrival of Chinese Americans is a reminder—is, in fact, proof—that if America wants to sustain its greatness, we need not to emulate China but to be
more like us
. No matter how surpassingly large China's economy becomes, America will always retain an inherent competitive advantage. America, with its recklessly open cultural operating system, is more adaptive to change and diversity than China is; we by character and habit include and combine new genes and memes in a way that China, though modernizing with unprecedented speed, does not. And does not want to.

To put it simply: America makes Chinese Americans, but China does not make American Chinese.

The very idea of an American Chinese—that an American of non-Chinese ancestry might emigrate to China and be able to claim, through residency and mastery of the language and social mores,
is socially inconceivable there, literally foreign. Imperfect as our union remains, the notion that an immigrant from China might claim Americanness is not only
foreign here; it's the
of here. To the extent that Chinese Americans thrive, then, America will thrive. To the extent that this country, through the lives of Chinese Americans, can show the world new blended ways of being and thinking, American indispensability will endure. This is our moment, together. Few things today are more American than a Chinese American dream.

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
11.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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