A Chinaman's Chance (8 page)

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
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A friend of mine named Leslie Helm told me this story. He's a former Tokyo correspondent for the
Los Angeles Times
and author of a book called
Yokohama Yankee
, about his own family's history in Japan
There are two ways to look at Leslie Helm: first, through the lens of his great-grandfather, Julius, a Prussian trader who opened up and built a commercial empire in the port of Yokohama; second, through the lens of his great-grandmother, a Japanese woman who was Julius Helm's mistress and, later, wife.

Most of the time most people see Leslie Helm as white. His face, his graying brown hair, his English first name and German last name all suggest some European blend. But look closely into his dark brown eyes, and you can glimpse a glimmer of Japaneseness in their shape. Talk to Leslie a bit, and he will admit that in subtle ways he is somewhat Japanese: in his deep knowledge of Japanese history and culture and perhaps in his own self-effacement, his quiet attention to the relational scheme of things. I half-jokingly declare that he is Overseas Japanese. But he looks away, his mouth turned in a sheepish, rueful half-grin. He is reluctant to admit his own sense of Japaneseness, not out of shame or self-hatred, but something quite different: unrequited affinity. The Japanese, he knows, would never count him as one of theirs.

There are today over three hundred thousand Japanese Brazilians who were brought to Japan as guest workers. But Japan's decade of recession has made the job market brutally tight, so after a generation living as guest workers in their ethnic homeland, raising families and creating a sense of place, they are now being “invited” to go “home.” The Japanese government will pay them to be repatriated, covering air travel and offering a lump-sum bonus, on a single condition: that they never come back.


I am Han Chinese. That is pure Chinese stock. Blackest hair, fair-yellow skin, high cheekbones. The Han account for over 90 percent of China's population, making the other officially recognized ethnic minorities of that country, from the Hui to the Miao to the Zhuang and of course the Tibetans, something of an afterthought in the popular imagination. Beijing's method for subduing troublesome distant parts of the country in the West, like Tibet and some of the Uighur and Mongol regions, is to export large numbers of Han people there. The indigenous population of these outer regions bitterly resent the arrival of the Han. The Han, not unlike the whites of the American West, come cocksure and ready to civilize the natives. The Han are good. The Han are bad. The Han are a tidal wave, washing away local diversity. The Han are progress incarnate. Like them or not, we all talk of “the Han” as a given.

The Han, however, are not a given. They are not some original clot of pure blood that existed before history and then diffused into circulation. They—we—were constructed, like any and every group that has ever thought of itself as a race. The idea of a proto-ethnic Han identity, separate from the civic identity of membership in the Chinese state, came to prominence during the late Qing Dynasty in the 1890s. Why? Because the Qing had been established by invading Manchus, and although these “barbarians” had been Sinicized after their arrival in 1644, the idea of the Han people—Hanzu
now became a way to split off the “foreign” minority ruling class from the mass of “authentic” Chinese.

In just the same way, “Overseas Chinese” is a fiction. As the cultural anthropologist Chris Vasantkumar has observed, many of the patriots who invented the Republic of China and who eventually toppled the Qing were living in exile, in Europe and the United States, where they developed an intellectual framework for Chineseness, a nationalism that could be said to have preceded the imperial dynasties. Sun Yat Sen, the father of the Republic, the one figure that Nationalists in Taipei and Communists in Beijing can agree to revere, was able to build support and funding for his revolutionary efforts by traveling a worldwide circuit of ethnic Chinese communities, from San Francisco and Honolulu to London and Tokyo. But Sun and reformers like him, notes Vasantkumar, “did not simply find ‘Chinese' people abroad, draw on their natural patriotism, and yoke them effortlessly to the glorious cause of the Chinese nation-state.” Instead, they had to sing and preach this spirit of commonality, this imagined homeland, into corporeal existence. These affinities “were thus the products of nationalist agitation and circulation, not their causes.”

Thus was born the myth of Overseas Chinese. The Chinese term
was a new national signifier that came into common usage at the turn of the last century. It was both a project of identity formation and the primary tool for executing that project. It gave the culturally and linguistically varied communities of Chinese ancestry around the planet something transcendent to belong to. It represented the step prior to “If you build it, they will come.” It was “If you say it, they will build it.” And they did. It was, in short, a Chinese Dream.


The opposite of prejudice is not tolerance, really; it is thoughtlessness. As in: “I never thought of you as Chinese.” Or, “I never thought of you as Asian.” Such words, typically said by white people, are typically said not in malice; indeed, they are meant to be affirming, inclusive, even comforting. They mean, “I never thought of you as not like me.” But such words can represent a kind of empathy on the cheap. They can express a too-quick leap to the safety of colorblindness, skittering past zones of tension and potential conflict and the difficulty of reckoning with one's own position in the colored grid of advantage and disadvantage. It's whistling past the graveyard, a superstitious wish that if color is not acknowledged, then it will not haunt. What irritates me about being told, as I have been at intervals throughout my life, that someone never thought of me as Chinese is this: I am Chinese.

The empathy of the presumptuously colorblind, to be sure, is preferable to outright hostility. But better still, and more necessary, is the empathy of the color-conscious: the non–Chinese American saying to the Chinese American, “I always thought of you as Chinese,
I always thought of you as like me.”

In the hierarchy of needs articulated by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, we humans begin with a basic set of physical needs (food, water, warmth), then move to security, from there to belonging (family, love, friends), self-esteem (recognition and respect), and finally self-actualization (creativity, pursuit of inner talent). As Americans we have our own set of identity needs; our own smaller hierarchies of how we are seen.

Here is mine:

I need to be seen not as an enemy.

I need to be seen not as an alien other.

I need to be seen not as white.

I need to be seen not as without identity or color.

I need to be seen as Chinese.

I need to be seen as American.

I need to be seen as Chinese American.

I need to be seen as myself.

To be seen truly is no common occurrence. In his 1960 essay “Princes and Powers,” James Baldwin describes the scene at a conference in Paris where African and American Negro intellectuals have gathered to explore the cultural content of the pan-Africanism they wish to promote. One African, Leopold Senghor, earnestly cites Richard Wright's memoir
Black Boy
and describes the debt it owes to African symbols and forms of storytelling. Baldwin is not impressed. “In so handsomely presenting Wright with his African heritage,” he writes, “Senghor rather seemed to be taking away his identity.”

Heritage and identity. The two are often conflated, spoken of interchangeably, but in fact distinct. One is the chrysalis, the other the butterfly; one, seed, the other, fruit. The first is insurance against risk; the second is risk. Even if we provide for everyone a useable heritage, we have only barely begun to acknowledge the full flowering possibility of identity.

Listening to the preachers of an imagined continental identity, Baldwin grants that there probably is something African in
Black Boy.
And yet, he writes, “its form, psychology, moral attitude, preoccupations, in short, its cultural validity, were all due to forces that had nothing to do with Africa.” I would more than grant—would claim—that there is something Chinese in me, in my own patterns of thought and expression. The question remains, though, what to make of it, how to fashion from it and many other sources an identity that works and that can evolve. I am called today to consider myself part of a great Chinese diaspora, to find my destiny in that heritage. I can answer the call only in part, and mainly in English.


In Chinese
is a compound word that means “compatriot.”
To be Chinese is, at the deepest level, a matter of blood relations, the coagulation of disparate histories into one. Now that those shared lines of descent seem globally ascendant, so many people of Chinese blood who live outside China feel at once far from the core and reanimated at the core. Distance (and power) makes the heart grow fonder. And perhaps purer.

And yet purity is a trick of the eye. To be American is, at the deepest level, a matter of mindset. Can we face that fact? Can we embrace it as our advantage?

When I was nearly thirty, I came down with a bout of appendicitis. I had never been so sick before, and my emergency surgery left me in a longer convalescence than I'd ever experienced. For the first time since I had learned to shave, I went weeks without shaving. This didn't mean much: it would probably take me a year to work up a respectable beard. Nonetheless, about ten days into my scruffiness, I took a peek in the mirror to see if my hollowed face was regaining its color. I was shocked to discover a different kind of color. Amid all my jet-black wiry whiskers now grew a few reddish ones.
What the hell?
I thought. I cannot overstate how disorienting this dis-Orienting was. Suddenly I remembered a bit of family lore. My mother's mother, my Po Po, had the maiden name Yu. The legend was that her ancestors—and mine—were direct descendants of the Mongol invader Genghis Khan, who conquered most of Eurasia and whose Chinese surname was Tie. After Genghis died, some of his descendants, fearing retribution from his enemies, erased half of the character for Tie and converted it—simplified it, in a sense—into a surname pronounced Yu. I had never taken that piece of lore seriously. After all, some 8 percent of Asian men apparently have Genghis Khan's genetic material. But now, as I looked at myself in the mirror, thinking I could no longer vouch for the pure Chineseness of this Chinese face staring back at me, I could only ask: Who is swimming, overseas, in my Chinese blood?

Lius in the News

John C. Liu: New York City comptroller, 2013 candidate for mayor

Liu Yu: author of
The Details of Democracy
and leading blogger on Weibo

Liu Hohgsheng (1888–1956): industrialist and subject of the book
The Lius of Shanghai

Liu Xiaobo: Chinese intellectual and dissident, Nobel laureate

Lucy Liu: actress

Liu Tong: pastor of Silicon Valley River of Life Church

Liu Zhijun: former Chinese rail minister charged with corruption

Goodwin Liu: associate justice, California Supreme Court

Liu Wen: supermodel

Liu Xiang: Chinese track star, Olympic gold medalist

Randall Liu: NFL spokesman

Joseph Michael Kai-Tsu Liu: runner who runs barefoot for charity

Liu Yifei: actress

Betty Liu: Bloomberg Radio host

Lily Liu: civic entrepreneur, founder of PublicStuff

Long Island University

Eric Liu: champion professional poker player

CHAPTER 4: Destiny of the Nation

I. Dream


When I was a boy, I looked up to someone—literally. High on the shelves of our study, surrounded by heavy marble lion bookends, was a sober black-and-white portrait of an officer in the Nationalist Chinese air force. He was a general. He was my father's father. I never knew him except by his serious mien frozen in photographs. But I knew this: He was born in 1908 in Hunan Province. He was a farmer's son. He attended Whampoa Military Academy in Canton. He became a pilot. He fought the Japanese and then the Communist Chinese, through the 1930s and 1940s. He became the chief of staff of the first air force of the first Republic of China. He helped launch the Flying Tigers, the group of American fighter pilots who joined the Republic in the war against Japan. His name was Liu Kuo-yun: Liu, our family name; Kuo-yun, meaning “destiny of the nation.”

No pressure.

He and my grandmother, Wan Fang Liu, had six sons. This was staggeringly auspicious. Their names were Chao-ning, Chao-hua, Chao-han, Chao-li, Chao-shiuan, and Chao-kai. The Chao in each name means “a portent” or, secondarily, “a million-fold.” My father was the second son, Chao-hua. Hua is shorthand for the Chinese people. So my father was a “million-fold Chinese” or “portent of the Chinese.”

My grandfather died several years before I was born. As a child I heard very few stories of him. We spoke of him so rarely that I didn't have a proper name for him. I came to call him Ye Ye only as I approached adulthood. Instead I referred to him only as “your dad” or “your Baba” in rare questions to my father: “Dad, did your dad like to play baseball?” I cannot recall a single telling anecdote about him at work or at home. All the photos of him are portraits, formal ones in uniform or semiformal ones with his family. As social convention dictated, he is unsmiling. I have never seen a candid shot of him.

I've been told that my grandfather was kind, even mellow, at least for a military man. It was his wife, my Nai Nai, who was especially gung ho and a relentless force. She raised six sons in wartime. She was born the year after the Republic was founded and is now over 102 years old and still fierce. My grandfather was more of a conciliator. He was fair. He was sincere and trustworthy. He had physical and moral courage. He was trusted by Chiang Kai-shek.

In one picture of him as a new cadet at Whampoa Academy all these traits are discernible. His eyes are not hard. He is not bloated with bravado. He is calm, earnest. His eyes are a little more heavy-lidded, his lips a little thicker, his skin a shade darker than that of the average Chinese. That facial phenotype is present, to varying degrees, in his sons. The brothers looked alike and generally like their father, especially uncles 1, 2, 3, and 5 (they addressed one another by birth order—Lao
Er, second oldest, was my father). Uncle 4 had a flatter, more angular face, with jet-black hair swept across the forehead. As a
fan I came to think of him as “Scotty,” because he looked to me exactly like a Chinese James Doohan, who played engineer Montgomery Scott. Uncle 6 was fairer and taller than the others, his face most like his mother's.

By examining this set of brothers I was able to piece together facets of their father, like a traveler across Europe divining from fraternal Romance languages the ancestral meter and grammar of Latin. Uncle 1—referred to by his brothers as Da Ge, or “big brother,” and by us cousins as Da Bo, or “big uncle”—looked most like my grandfather and gave me a glimpse of my grandfather's own bearing and propriety. Da Ge truly was the big brother, the one who figured things out for the others and would clear the path in ways small and large. My father and Uncle 5 both had a mischievous streak, an impish glint in their eyes. But my father in particular could be harshly judgmental about what Lius did and didn't do, a trait I attributed also to his father. Uncle 3 was placid and reserved. Uncle 4 was earnest and more expressive. In Uncle 6 I could see the kind of ardor and intensity that must have propelled the son of a farmer to dream of taking flight.

In one sense, this attempt to imagine my grandfather—to deduce the theme by hearing only the variations—is foolhardy. My grandfather remains a mirage, a shimmering wave of guesses and reveries upon which I wish to impose a pattern. And yet. Whatever the genetic truth of the origins of this brother's solemnness or that brother's playfulness, however untraceable those biological claims may be, there is and always was a family truth, a truth of culture, of
, that made the inheritance of General Liu Kuo-yun something real and distinct. From these many brothers—and indeed, from the many more sons and daughters they bore—comes one imperative still: to fulfill the destiny of the nation.


As early as I can remember I was fascinated by iconography. I loved fonts and symbols and became an obsessive student of insignia—of the armed services, of major league baseball teams, of the Cycle 1-2-3 dog food brand, of the World Wildlife Fund and its
Ranger Rick
magazine. I loved the shape of the words “STAR TREK” at the beginning of each episode. I loved the Starfleet badge and the lettering on the hull of the USS
. I sketched all those over and over again. I also loved the flag of the Republic of China, as Taiwan is called. I would draw and color it in constantly, trying to get the proportions exactly right. I got a shiny ROC flag sticker when I was in fifth grade, and I promptly affixed it to the black file cabinet that's been with me ever since.

Why did I love that flag so much? It was beautiful and simple, yes: red field, navy blue canton, white sun with twelve petal­like rays. But I loved it mainly because unlike, say, the flag of the People's Republic of China—the Communist mainland—it had the same colors and the same basic proportions as the flag of the United States. In point of historical fact that was mere coincidence. The founders of the Republic of China had very specific Chinese meanings for the colors and symbols: the blue is for Chinese nationalism; the white for democracy; the red, fraternity. But to my childhood imagination, the flag symbolized something deeply personal and fortunate: the integration and fusion of Chinese and American aspiration.

When I was a boy, I wondered what it would be like to deliver a nation. It never occurred to me to ask: Which nation? I understood that I was Chinese and that I was American. I did not yet understand that these were not the same thing.

With stories of my grandfather filling my boyhood daydreams, I imagined myself a Flying Tiger, and later a US Marine Corps fighter pilot, one of the Black Sheep squadron led by the roguish Colonel Pappy Boyington, himself a former Flying Tiger. I dreamed of getting into dogfights with Japanese Zeros. I dreamed of killing “Japs,” and painting a little imperial Japanese “Rising Sun” flag by the cockpit of my blue Corsair every time I killed one. I dreamed that to be Chinese and to be American was to have the same enemy and therefore the same identity.

It wasn't until years later, when I learned about how Chinese Americans after Pearl Harbor took to wearing large buttons that proclaimed “Chinese, not Japanese,” that I saw, as if out of body, the absurdity of my earlier self-concept: The Good Asian. The loyal one. But in my youth, it seemed not cringe-worthy but positively providential that I was Chinese rather than Japanese, and this state of being and not-being, this convergence of colors and overlapping of flags, shaped me and the self-story I made.


In the months after Pearl Harbor, as the internment of Japanese Americans was under way,
magazine printed a helpful visual guide for its readers. It was titled “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese.” This full-page spread consisted of some prefatory text and two large photos, of a “Jap” face and of a Chinese face. With clinical detail, it diagrammed the differences: “earthy yellow” versus “parchment yellow” complexion; higher bridge versus flatter nose; never rosy-cheeked versus sometimes rosy; longer, narrower face versus broader, shorter.

You know which is which, right?


When he was a boy, my father was frequently very sick. He read and read and read. He learned the Chinese classics. He missed a lot of school. While at home, he learned to drive a Jeep. This was in Taipei, where his family had fled in 1949, when the Communists took the mainland. He was thirteen.

The war had ended badly for Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists. But Taiwan became more than a last stand or temporary sanctuary after a frantic retreat. It became the ground on which the idea of a stable republican China would for the first time be proven. Over the course of the ensuing half century, even as Taipei lost diplomatic ground to Beijing, Taiwan became the seedbed for a new kind of China: prosperous, educated, and eventually free and self-governing. But at the time the Liu family landed there, it was a backwater still bearing the imprint of Japanese wartime colonization. The house my father grew up in had a dusty dirt courtyard with a few thin trees offering mere patches of shade. The house was built in the Japanese style, with tatami mats and sliding doors. It was spare and a little dilapidated. At the same time, in the pictures of those years and in the stories my father used to tell of his youth in Taipei, details emerge that reveal relative privilege. In one photograph, all six brothers are sitting, from shortest to tallest, on nice bicycles. The person who taught my father how to drive a Jeep was, it happens, the family driver.

This was the household of a general. And though my father's family, like other Nationalist Chinese families who had fled to Taiwan, endured austerity and hardships in those first years in their new land, my father and his brothers were of course among the lucky ones. They had an opportunity to dream of a new life, a new republic, and, ultimately, a new nation altogether.

II. Arrival


Da Bo (Uncle 1) was the first to arrive in 1952. He enrolled at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. He was eighteen. Then came my father, in 1955. For the first few months he stayed with his big brother in Rapid City, working odd jobs to save money. One was painting the yellow line down a highway. Soon he set out to begin his own studies, ending up at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Eventually, three other brothers would also earn degrees from Illinois.

They had immigrated to America upon coming of age because that was where anyone with talent and ambition was going in those years. Taiwan was laying the groundwork then for its postwar economic miracle, with careful planning and investment. But in the early and mid-1950s, only a few years after the exodus and at a time when it seemed war might break out anew across the Taiwan Strait, the infrastructure of opportunity was still underdeveloped. My grandfather made it clear that for college and beyond, his sons should study in America.

During those years, my father and his brothers, equipped with basic English, made their way to their North American campuses (Uncle 5 went to Canada). They wore slim suits and narrow ties and black horn-rimmed glasses. They made friends with other students from Taiwan, had picnics and weekend outings, the small community of them snapping black-and-white Kodak shots of each other. And as they worked hard and applied themselves, bachelor's degrees became doctorates and bachelors became husbands. Most of the brothers began, in ways not wholly intentional, to build an American life. They settled in Yorktown Heights and Wappingers Falls and Mattawan and Champaign. They had sons and daughters, the first coming in 1961. They took jobs at Bell Labs and IBM and the Illinois Geological Survey and the University of Illinois. They started in rented apartments, then moved into ranch and colonial houses in developments with names like Merrywood on streets called French Hill Road and Old English Way. They began to raise American families.

My father didn't seek US citizenship until 1978. I remember when he and my mother came home from their naturalization ceremony, bearing little American flags and booklets about the Constitution and about the meaning of citizenship. It wasn't until recently, when I came upon my father's certificate of naturalization among miscellaneous papers in a cardboard box, that I appreciated how prosaic the occasion must have been. By that time, the document merely confirmed what had gradually and imperceptibly become a truth: they had lived here too long not to call it home.


When I was the age of my emigrating father and uncles, I had my own form of arrival. One humid mid-summer evening I stepped off a bus in rural Virginia with a sack of clothes, and into one of the most disorienting, frightening scenes I'd ever experienced. As soon as my feet hit the ground, large, burly men were screaming at me, shoving me, telling me to go this way and that. It was stressful. But I was arriving, quite voluntarily, into the US Marine Corps. For six weeks the summer after my sophomore year of college, and for another six weeks the next summer, I was at Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia.

At OCS I became acculturated to an Anglo-American naval tradition and lexicon. They called arrival at the base “disembarkation.” They called windows “portholes,” the floor “the deck,” doors “hatches,” the right side “starboard,” and the Marine Corps itself the Fleet Marine Force, or FMF. Those weeks marked a passage for me, a chance to connect my family history and military heritage to my claiming of
country. The echo of cadence calls, the roar of aircraft overhead, the clicking of boots, the mouthfuls of dust after fifteen-mile hikes, the bloat of hastily swallowed canteens of water, the chill of waking up in dark woods, the undulating contour maps: every aspect of my Quantico experience made me feel linked to what I imagined my grandfather experienced two generations earlier in the muggy, buggy marshes outside Canton. I also had something to prove at OCS. I was a little guy. A Chinese guy. An Ivy League guy. A guy with glasses. Indeed, that was the name the drill instructors gave me in the early weeks: Glasses. “
! Get over here!!” “
, are you
me? What in
do you think you are

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
3.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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