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BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
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Life and liberty are the principal rights in Hutcheson's scheme of things. They are also the principal duties. He does not, like those who treat rights as a form of property, think duties arise
to rights in some negotiating give-and-take that sets up a social contract. Men have a duty to stay alive and to stay free in their thoughts and actions. Duty is simply one's right considered from another aspect.

Hutcheson was concerned with the role of virtue and moral sense in a republic. And prominent among his civic virtues was
To Hutcheson benevolence was not a temporary tactical mask for base selfishness; it was an abiding love of others that, as Wills puts it, “was the basic constituent of morality.” The instinct for benevolence, not the abstraction of a social contract, gives rise to justice. This view, of human nature and human rights, begins with
, not with an atomized individual. Right arises from—and is legitimately exercised only to the extent that it promotes—the public good. It does not arise from self-interest or the individual's pursuit of advantage. This is interdependence exemplified. It is a view that in today's politics would be called “socialistic,” “collectivist,” “un-American.” But, as Wills asserts so provocatively, it was the view of Thomas Jefferson.

It was also, of course, the view of Confucius.

Yen Yuan asked about benevolence. The Master said, “To return to the observance of the rites through overcoming the self constitutes benevolence.” (Book XII.1)

This is what excites me about China's rise and the public emergence of Chinese Americans: it will give all Americans occasion to revisit our assumptions about who we are. A time is approaching when we will be able to lay the Declaration of Independence atop
The Analects
and end up with a revelation of interdependence. Hutcheson placed a burden on his intellectual heir Jefferson, who passed that burden on to
intellectual heirs, including you and me, to live a certain way: as if we were citizens of a republic.
Duty is simply one's right considered from another aspect.
Confucius didn't say that, but he could have. I, an American, do.


The Master said: “Time flows away like the water in the river.”

The Hudson River, as seen from the bench by my father's gravesite, seems not just still and peaceful but constant and unmoving. Only the trees on either bank seem to change from season to season, year upon year. But that constancy is a mirage. Rivers seethe with change, with unseen turbulence and clashes of currents.

In China the Yellow River is the artery of all civilization. But rivers change course. Sometimes, as with the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, the course is changed by humans. More often, the course just changes because that is what complex systems do. In the 1940s a federal geologist made a stunning map titled “The Mississippi River Meander Belt.” He had tracked, over thousands of square miles, the river's discernible course changes across more than two centuries. It's a time-lapse, color-coded transparency that shows on a single sheet all the directions in which the river has bent and cut itself off and redirected itself and straightened. The brick red river is from 1820. The light green river is from 1880. Pale blue is 1765. Uncolored is the river at the time of the mapping. The little C-shaped footprint is a tributary that was stranded. So it is with the currents of cultural norms. Quietly, America is becoming more other-directed, more mindful of mutuality. Loudly, China is becoming more selfish, more short-term, less filial, and more self-seeking. These are not fundamental shifts in the direction of the river—ours is still a culture of individuals that holds rights above and separate from responsibilities; theirs is still a culture of collectives and of duties. But in each case the river is bending, more than a bit. To walk the marshy alluvial plains and to kick up dust in the dried-up old channels, to consider a father's memory and chart the course of ghost rivers, to extrapolate rivers yet unseen: this, now, is what I am to do.

Mr. Robinson

When my mother arrived in the United States, she was twenty-one. She arrived alone, with a small bag of clothes and almost no money. The port at Baltimore, where her cargo ship pulled in, was bewildering, the chatter undecipherable. By her own wits and determination she got herself work and was soon able to go to college. But here's another side of this familiar story: my mother was already a graduate of Taiwan University, where her father had taught European history, and she already had a passable command of English. She had no money because at a port call in Tokyo she'd bought an expensive camera on the notion that she might sell it in America for a profit. She arrived alone but was met by former students of her father, who took her in while she looked for work. In every job she had, someone guided her and made her transition more humane. In one of her first jobs in the United States she was a file clerk for Chock Full o' Nuts, the Manhattan-based coffee company. She was shy and kept to herself, but most days she would bump into a kindly, older black executive named Mr. Robinson. He and his secretary made sure she was treated right. They entrusted her with important jobs like passing out each week's paychecks. Mr. Robinson always had a nice word for her in the elevator. Only many years later did she learn Mr. Robinson was an ex-ballplayer whose first name was Jackie.

So which is it? Lonely, scared, young woman immigrant, destined for the margins? Or proud new American, touched by a mythic hero, destined to claim this country as her own? Arrival stories can be told many ways.

Mother Tongue


In his book
An Anatomy of Chinese
, the scholar Perry Link observes that during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong urged his country to sweep out the old ways of doing things, the Red Guards went forth chanting slogans in the ancient Chinese poetic rhythm of
, a seven-beat pattern. “
Ling hun shen chu, gan ge ming
” “Make revolution in the depths of your soul!” Even Mao's name for the despised old ways—the “four olds” of customs, culture, habits, ideas—followed the venerable Chinese tradition of enumerating things to give their sum an aura of authority. This irony too was lost on Mao and his followers. It persists. In today's
new China, many of the catchiest commercial taglines are composed in
's seven beats. “
Shi ke chang xiang Mai Dang Lao!

“Always keep McDonald's on your mind!”


The first books I can remember reading—in any language—are preschool Chinese books. Booklets, really, sixteen pages each. Simple stories in three or four vertical lines, about balls and trees and tigers. They had brightly colored folk-art drawings. The Chinese characters were neatly printed, with smaller pronunciation symbols sitting to the right of each character.

But even if those are the first readings I can recall, I surely had read something else before them. At some point my mother taught me the
system, the phonetic alphabet of every sound in Mandarin that accounted for those little pronunciation symbols. Each symbol was like a piece of a broken Chinese character, a fragment of DNA, or a shard of oracle bone inscription. Each symbol represented one sound. The first four sounds were
, and
hence the name of the system. There were thirty-seven sounds, to be memorized in order and repeated in a four-beat rhythm:
bo po mo fo
te ne le / ge ke he
[rest] / 
ji qi xi
/ zhi chi shi ri
zi ci si
[rest], and so on.

Around the same time I must have been working something out about the English alphabet. I have a borrowed recollection—a re-recollection—of writing the letter
dozens of times on a piece of paper when I was not quite one year old. Borrowed, I say, because I don't remember the act itself; I remember only being told of it by my mother many, many times, from childhood to adulthood, each telling like a new coat of lacquer applied to the original. It's part of the story she formed of me: unusual (why not just draw an
?), directed, a touch obsessive. I can see the sheet of paper in my mind's eye. I can see my funny
s. When I tell the story nowadays I usually omit that it comes from my mother's memory.


In their book
Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age
, the researchers Philip Kasinitz, John Mollenkopf, Mary Waters, and Jennifer Holdaway examine the role of Chinese schools in Chinese American communities. Conclusion: these schools are “remarkably unsuccessful in teaching second generation young people to read or write Chinese.” Indeed, many have given up that function altogether, choosing instead to focus on SAT test prep or the teaching of folk dance.

This, in descending order of vividness, is what I remember about Chinese school: the melancholy Sunday afternoon light slanting through the windows of an unfamiliar elementary school classroom; running down the clean, unlit hallways of that school past the artwork of kids I didn't know; snack time, when we got potato chips or popcorn in cones made of rolled-up paper; the smell of the blue mimeographed grid paper on which the teacher had written the characters we now had to copy, stroke by stroke; the year my mom taught our grade, and how her voice was louder and higher than it was at home; the unmotivated mumbling of the fifteen or twenty kids as we repeated phrases in unison; the festival at Chinese New Year, when we'd get to use the gym for games like beanbag toss; the boxes full of hot McDonald's hamburgers my dad would bring to that festival; how strangely warm I felt when we watched a Chinese movie, set in ancient times, with a beautiful young woman who spoke Mandarin precisely and softly; hoping when we got home there'd be time before dinner for my neighbor John to play catch with me; learning Chinese.


The Chinese language depends far more than English on context and implication. For one thing, nouns in Chinese don't typically come with an indication of number or specificity. So, for instance, the English concepts “cat,” “a cat,” “the cat,” and “cats” would all be covered by the Chinese word
Which of those concepts
was signifying at any moment would depend on the context of the conversation. Indeed, if the context has already made the specification clear,
could further signify, by context, “this cat,” “that cat,” “these cats,” “those cats,” “my cat,” “your cats,” “all cats,” and so on. This makes speaking Chinese somewhat easier—there are fewer things to get wrong in a sentence. It makes listening much harder, though. And it makes listening to what is
being said indispensable.


The kitchen table of my childhood was a dark brown Ethan Allen piece. It was big enough to seat the four of us—my parents and my sister and me—comfortably. It was small enough that we didn't ever have to ask anybody to pass any platters (and anyway, since my parents didn't know to teach us such American customs, we never did).

Probably a good two-thirds of my Chinese I learned at that table. I can't say I learned by listening, because I wasn't listening per se. I was just there. Mom and Dad spoke mainly to each other, and mainly in Chinese. I wasn't tuning in to the substance of their conversation, which usually had to do with my father's work at IBM, much less to the structure and syntax of it. Yet if you'd interrupted them at any point and asked me to say what they'd been discussing, I could've given a passable synopsis—in English. Their conversational Chinese simply washed over me and seeped in. I didn't consciously try to decode it any more than I consciously tried to chew the beef and broccoli before me.

One summer vacation, at that same table, my mother tried to teach Chinese to me and two other kids. This distorted my normal life in subtle, uncomfortable ways. I was at home with my mother, yes. But my mother was not behaving the way she normally did at home. There were two strangers—they were brothers, I think—in my kitchen. Each of us sat in one of the four chairs, my mother in her usual seat. When the other kids essentially stopped trying and were as disrespectful as nice Chinese kids could get, I was torn. I didn't like that they were making my mother feel impotent, but I didn't want to get in the way of their getting in the way of the lesson. I stayed silent, watching her closely. She gave up the experiment after a few lessons.


Chinese is verb-heavy and noun-light compared to English. In English there is a tendency to “noun-ify” processes and actions and turn them into entities with minds of their own. Thus we get in English “ontological metaphors” like “My fear of conversation is making my mother embarrassed,” in which the fear is, metaphorically, doing something. Such a metaphor, translated literally into Chinese, would result in “an awkward sentence that clearly smacks of borrowing from a Western language,” as Perry Link puts it. In Chinese, fear is something one does, more than a thing with habits and interests of its own. The truly Chinese way to express the thought translates thus: “I so fear conversation that my mother can't take it.”


When I was a kid, there were always two or three minutes I would dread on Chinese New Year or on my grandmothers' birthdays. My mother or father, after having been on the phone for a while with Po Po or Nai Nai to wish them well and catch up in general, would then hand me the phone to say a word of greeting. I would begin with a cheerful “
Xin Nian Kuai Le
” But then my grandmother would want to
. I understood their questions well enough. The trouble began when I replied. While my pronunciation was good and my vocabulary sufficient, I didn't have intuitive command of the “right” way to put sentences together. As I spoke, I could tell something was just slightly off. The problem, I realize now, was that I was speaking Chinese as if it were English. That is, I'd take a sentence like “Today I told her that I will go with you” and translate it word-for-word into Chinese, when in Chinese the right way to say it would literally be, “I today tell her we together go.” I used too many prepositions, making explicit all the things that in Chinese remain tacit. By the time these short encounters were over, my palms would be damp. As I sighed with relief and went back to the family room, I could hear my mom laughingly deflect my grandmother's polite praise and joke about how unfluent I truly was.


Before the Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff became well known for his book
Don't Think of An Elephant
, which instructed progressives how to win the game of conceptual framing in politics, he was already well known to word nerds like me for a 1980 book he and Mark Johnson wrote called
Metaphors We Live By.
This book laid bare the way that all language is made out of chunks of metaphor, as we bootstrap from one metaphorical concept to another (laying bare, making, chunks, bootstraps). It cataloged dozens of tropes of metaphor—“argument as war,” “excellence as height,” “emotion as volume”—and was a revelation.

But not every pattern of metaphor that Lakoff and Johnson described for English holds true in Chinese. For instance, because Chinese tends to dispense with words like “with,” the English metaphor “instrument as companion”—that is, our use of “with” to signify instrumentality, as in “I cut this apple with a knife”—is nonsensical in Chinese. In Chinese it's just, “I use knife cut this apple.” The use of metaphor in general is one of the key ways the languages differ. American English more frequently uses metaphors of selling and sports competitions, whereas Chinese uses metaphors of cooking, eating, and family. In
Metaphor, Culture, and Worldview,
linguist Dilin Liu observes that to “call the shots” means in English what
dang jia
or “represent the household” means in Chinese: to be in control. To “get more than you bargained for” is to “not be able to finish eating” (
chi bu liao
). And the Chinese equivalent of “winner take all” is
yingzhe tong chi
, “winner eat all.”


I cannot recall a single time my father or mother told me to study harder, demanded I get great grades, directed me to set my sights on Yale or Harvard, or impressed upon me the need to excel in all things. This is in part because I was a pretty self-motivated kid. But really, it just wasn't their way to be pushy or even that involved in what I was doing. They did not fit the stereotype of hyper-pragmatic, controlling Chinese parents—what today would be called “Tiger parents.”

By the time I was in junior high or high school, I realized my parents were relatively “cool”—laid-back, that is. I felt fortunate, compared not just to other Chinese American kids but also, say, to my second-generation Greek friend George, whose parents could be almost comically tough on him. When my buddies came over for a sleepover or just to hang out, Mom and Dad spoke in English to us all. They could have shifted back to Chinese with me, but they chose not to, lest they put distance between my friends and me. My heart ached a bit at the gesture, and again, when Dad would cheerfully bring out a tray of cookies and chips and soda for us. “Have snacks!”

At the same time, I also cannot recall a single time either my father or my mother said to me, “Good job” or “We're proud of you” or “Congratulations.” They didn't cheer me at sports events or praise me after a recital. I am not sure they ever came to a track meet or a wrestling match. I note this without an iota of self-pity or resentment. It would have been as unnecessary as their saying, “Your name is Eric.” There was an unstated sense that when you're capable of doing well—by talent and/or circumstance—you should simply do well. What I do recall were little darts of disdain they aimed at people who were stupid or lazy or—the most judgmental label a person could ever get—
, “without use,” “useless.” Here was not just moral opprobrium but also an implied whiff of the competitiveness that was otherwise absent from their relaxed style of parenting. The message I absorbed, wordlessly, was that life is a competition to be the most useful.


Among the most prevalent metaphors in Chinese, observes Dilin Liu, are acting and singing metaphors that derive from Beijing opera. To humor someone halfheartedly is to
fu yan
, or “perform skin-deep.” To oppose someone is to
chang fan diao
, or “sing a contrary tune.” When there's nothing left to be done, it's
mei xi
, or “no play.”


Richard Rodriguez wrote a generation ago about the gap between the intimacy of private language and the necessity of public language. For him and his immigrant Mexican parents, Spanish was the private tongue that had to be shed in order for him to assimilate, via English, into public life. Today this seems needlessly binary—not only because the bilingualism he opined against in the 1980s didn't end up fracturing America irreparably, but also, more basically, because loss and gain rarely occur in a one-for-one trade. They sit side by side, amid the ambiguities of our actual lives.

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
3.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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