A Chinaman's Chance (9 page)

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
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But as harrowing as OCS was at the start, I had been braced for worse. I was ready to hear “Chink” and “Gook” and “Ching-Chong” and other things I'd heard as a boy in upstate New York, only now with more malice and from the mouths of grown men against whom I could not possibly retaliate. I told myself to keep my cool when it came. It never came. The worst I got was when one day, while straining through interminable leg lifts, I saw a sergeant-instructor looming over me and sneering, “Look at you, little Liu. You're not a man. You're a
computer
. Aren't you good at computers? Isn't that what you do?” That was it. Tame. Lame, in fact.

I remember the moment later in that first summer when I knew I had made it. I was walking across the asphalt parade deck, on the way back to barracks. I was alone, not in formation, but I still strode purposefully, keeping my crisp Marine bearing. Suddenly a voice rang out from across the parade deck, startling me. “GENERAL LIU!” It was one of the drill sergeants, but not from my platoon. He and another sergeant, sitting on the steps of one of the classroom buildings, had been watching me march and were mightily amused. “Look at him go!” said one of them, imitating me with exaggerated strides and puffed-out chest. “He thinks he's a general already!” Instantly, I had to calculate. There was no hostility. This was friendly ribbing. They knew my name. I smiled ever so slightly and kept walking, as purposefully as before.
General Liu
. I liked the sound of that.

3.

We spent many Christmases with Da Bo's family when I was in grade school. Usually my grandmother Nai Nai was there, the great matriarch with her commanding voice and her distinctive Hunan accent, which flattened vowels and gave words a sharper edge. Whenever she was there, all the brothers and their wives dropped their everyday Mandarin to match their mother's Hunan elongated enunciations and cadences. This must have been, for the brothers at least, the language of childhood and home. We would all crowd around a great circular dinner table, the lazy Susan filled with platters of spareribs and steamed fish and fried dumplings and Chinese greens. Cacophony followed.

After we'd slurped up the last grains of rice from our bowls, the kids would play Sorry! and Candyland while watching holiday specials in the basement playroom. We ate Wise potato chips and Chips Ahoy cookies. Upstairs, the adults ate orange slices and Chinese peanuts and date-nut candies and played mahjong and talked urgently about the state of things—their work, their families, the situation in Taiwan. When bedtime approached on Christmas Eve, we cousins would roll out sleeping bags by the large artificial Christmas tree, next to deep piles of gifts with little tags bearing our Chinese names. The curtains were drawn. The tangled tree lights cast faint, refracted primary colors across the living room. For a while longer the grown-ups moved about wordlessly, filling stockings and tidying up, their footfalls absorbed by the plush, tan, wall-to-wall carpeting. Soon enough their bedroom doors clicked shut, and all that could be heard in the house was the low soothing hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen.

It occurs to me only now that all the adult conversation during those holiday visits was conducted in Chinese, and all the cousin conversation in English. Nai Nai dominated the adult discussions. Though I couldn't follow all of it, I understood enough of the words and all of her tone. She was always pressing the brothers, pushing them to do more. To be more. She could be harsh and cutting. Her silences and sighs could be suspenseful. She had strong opinions about matters as large as the future of the Nationalists and as small as where to eat dinner.

My father, I now realize, didn't tell his mother or brothers very much about his end-stage kidney disease and his four-times-weekly home dialysis and his foreshortened life prospects. Even in the company of his birth family he did not roll up his shirtsleeves, lest they see the bulbous, scabbed fistula by his right wrist. As they strived to fashion a sensation of security for their children, my father and his brothers had little idea that in our second-generation hearts were being formed memories and associations, even if painful or distorting, that would bind us to this place and away from them, their ancestors and origins.

In the decades since, we the cousins have experienced accomplishment and recognition, things that could proudly be recounted at the big round table, but other things too, which Nai Nai would not so easily have found the words to discuss when we were young, or ever: things like divorce, estrangement, disease, simple disappointment. Things made in America.

III. Reckoning

1.

Most of the brothers earned PhDs, in chemistry and engineering and geology and mathematics. My father did not. He was impatient. He got his master's in math from Michigan, started working, thought about switching to law school, of all things, and then decided he would rather work. He got a job at IBM. In short order his managers realized he had unusual clarity of thought and expression, and was cool under pressure. He became a manager. He rose through the ranks. Every night he and my mother would spend hours during and after dinner deconstructing the corporate politics and maneuvering, their rapid-fire Chinese sprinkled with bureaucratese like “MVS/VM” and “line, not staff,” and with names of coworkers like “Popovich” and “Ewing” and power centers like Raleigh and Somers and San Jose.

Uncle 5 had returned to Taiwan after getting his doctorate. All the others stayed, for decades. By any reasonable standard, they did well in America. They embarked on professional careers that rewarded their expertise. They became respected scientists and researchers in their disciplines. Three of them worked at universities. Two worked at IBM. Another worked at Bell Labs. But a question nagged: Was there more to this life than middle management or mere tenure? By the standards they held, and to quote a maxim from one of the management self-help books in my father's study, “good enough was not good enough.” It seemed that too many of the men—the white men, the
yangren
—who were making decisions about the prospects and career paths of the Liu brothers did not appreciate their true talent and ability. What my father and uncles came to wonder, as their ambitions chafed against the grid of American institutional life, was whether their dreams might ever find full expression here in the United States.

Timing is everything. Just as several of the brothers began to feel this restlessness in the early and mid-1980s, Taiwan was coming into its own as an economic powerhouse. Taiwan was one of the Asian Tigers of that era that had recovered completely from the devastation of war to challenge American industrial primacy. Taiwan had also finally ended martial law and was plunging into the wild churn of democratic politics. Freedom was in the air. A storyline of opportunity was unfurling. Taiwan was on the global competitive map, and its leaders were looking to keep it there. So they began aggressively to recruit Taiwan-raised talent—engineers and other experts—and lure them back from the United States. What they promised was not higher salaries, or higher salaries only. They promised a chance to start or run great enterprises. They promised a chance to make history.

One after another, the Liu brothers heeded the call. Uncle 5, who'd been there for years already, ascended to the presidency of National Tsinghua University. Uncle 3 soon became president of National Central University. Uncle 1 took early retirement from IBM and became a consultant helping to create new high-tech industrial parks across Taiwan. Uncle 6, the youngest and perhaps most frustrated with corporate America, quit Bell Labs and started his own telecommunications equipment company in Taipei.

My father wanted to go too. But he was convinced he couldn't. To begin with, he didn't have a PhD. In the credential-obsessed culture of Taiwan, this felt to him like deep disadvantage. For another thing, there was the matter of his illness and home dialysis—all of which he had kept hidden from his colleagues, from our neighbors, from anyone not a blood relative. The complications of finding reliable care in Taipei, of being able to make arrangements that would preserve his desired secrecy, also seemed too great to overcome.

I remember a trip he and Mom took to Taiwan in 1990 to see Nai Nai. When they came back, I sensed an undercurrent of disappointment, regretful preoccupation. Then it passed, or at least was submerged. And he resolved to go on climbing the IBM ladder. Every job there had a level number. As far as I knew, there wasn't another Chinese American during my childhood who attained his level number at IBM Poughkeepsie. But he never cracked the highest tiers. His last business card says “Project Executive.” Not “Vice President.” Not “Director.”

In the years following the return of the other brothers, the Liu family became famous in Taiwan. Uncle 6's start-up company, Teco, grew into a conglomerate making everything from home appliances to wind turbines and operating retail phone stores and trendy fast-food chains. Uncle 3 led his university to prominence and was then tapped to lead Academia Sinica, the Taiwan equivalent of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Uncle 1 became a leading figure in Taiwan's economic and industrial development. And Uncle 5 alternated between university presidencies and leadership in government, serving as transportation and communications minister, then vice premier, and ultimately prime minister of the Republic of China.

All of them, through their work in business and culture and education and diplomacy, have become significant bridge-builders across the strait to China. And presiding over this spectacular array of achievement was their mother, my Nai Nai, Wan Fang Liu, proud and fierce widow of a great general, who had outlived almost all of the founding generation. Together they were celebrated as paragons of the revitalized republic. The sons, under the proud and watchful eye of the matriarch, had redeemed the promise of the patriarch's name.

But from an American perspective—from my perspective—this is equally a story of a nation's failure—
my
nation. The paths of the Liu brothers underscore three simultaneously true stories about many other Chinese Americans: first, they arrived with more advantages of station and education than is typically acknowledged in model minority stereotypes; second, they worked and applied themselves relentlessly to earn their credentials; and third, they perceived glass ceilings that neutralized the first two factors. It used to be for Chinese Americans that wherever the ceiling here was set, it was still higher in absolute terms than what was possible in the ancestral homeland. It's not that way anymore. It hasn't been that way for going on a generation. The master narrative of American life holds that its magnetic pull, its promise and prosperity, is irresistible. That story, though, is disintegrating. America still mints immigrant PhDs, but these days it can't always keep them. A reverse brain drain is under way. The number of Chinese-born graduate students returning to China has increased 40 percent just since 2010.

You might think, hearing the tale of my uncles, that Taiwan was just a small pond where it was easier to be a big fish. But think of it this way: Taiwan has a population of twenty-three million, nearly twice that of Illinois, where so many of the brothers got their higher education, and a few million more than New York. Why, in the comparably small pond of New York State, or the even smaller pond of Illinois, couldn't Chao-han Liu (Uncle 3) see a clear path to leading a university? Why did Chao-kai Liu (Uncle 6) feel blocked from becoming a captain of industry? Granted, these are good problems to have. No one exactly felt sorry for my uncles for leaving secure careers in America in pursuit of still better ones. But the question that lingers is why America couldn't keep them.

2.

Life trajectories are hard to explain, still harder to anatomize. Chance plays a far greater role than any of us ever wishes to admit. Mere hard work, mere intelligence, sweat, and grit cannot always account for why some careers ascend, some descend, others never take flight.

My first boss, David Boren, then a US senator, once gave an unusual reading assignment to me and two other young staffers who, like Boren, had gone to Yale. It was a book called
Remembering Denny
, by Calvin Trillin. Denny Hansen was Trillin's Yale classmate, a handsome, genial godlike swimmer and Rhodes scholar, one of the biggest men on campus during the late 1950s.
Life
magazine covered his graduation. Hansen's years after Yale and Oxford, though, were a crushing accumulation of unmet expectations. He never figured it out. He could have done anything. He chose to be an academic, in a subfield that turned out to be “wrong” and out of favor. He grew irascible. He hid the fact that he was gay and never felt he could come out. He ended up committing suicide at fifty-five.

The message of the book, for us cocksure go-getters, was simply this: practice humility. The message of the
gift
of the book, from someone as distinguished as Senator Boren, was that no one is exempt from the forces of randomness that inevitably enforce humility. It was quite a gift.

Yet when I consider the various trajectories of the Liu brothers, who all had the same initial advantages and burdens of promise, and when I take into account the whims of fortune, bad and good, I do not in fact see mere randomness. I see a pattern in which correlation compellingly implies causation: those who left America did better once they left. It's a hard truth. There is a larger pattern at work today, for immigrants and the native-born alike. Social mobility in America has slowed. Put aside American Dream rhetoric. The strongest statistical predictor of whether you will be poor or rich in America is now this: whether your parents are poor or rich. Not education. Not character. Not even chance.

3.

My ardor for America is innate. More precisely, I am innately ardent about belonging to something greater than myself—namely, America. Had I been born and raised in Taipei or Beijing, though, I would likely be as proud a patriot of the Republic, or the People's Republic, of China. When I was nine, my Sunday Chinese school had a special movie screening. Folding chairs were set up in the elementary school gym the Mid-Hudson Chinese Association had rented. The place was packed. We kids sat on the floor in the front, craning our necks up at the screen. The film was called
Ba Bai Zhuang Shi—The Eight Hundred Heroes
. It was a war movie made in Taiwan, based on the true story of an overmatched battalion of Nationalist Chinese soldiers who held off a Japanese division at a famous 1937 battle in Shanghai. It was a thrilling, sentimental, action-packed movie. I cried at the end. If at that moment, my father had said we were moving to Taiwan so that our family could take its place in the line of heroes, I probably would have jumped up ready to go.

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
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