Eric Liu’s A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream is a reflection of the changing politics and world that colors and influences personal and national identity. Through a pensive meditation of family, Chinese Americans, and the differences and similarities between Chinese and American culture, Liu challenges readers to rethink: “What is Chinese?” and “what is American?”
The phrase, “A Chinaman’s chance,” refers to the 19th and 20th century idiom connoting little or no chance. The expression is rooted in the historical context of anti-Chinese sentiment, a time period of Chinese immigration to the West Coast. Initially attracted by gold, Chinese migrants were instead forced to labor on railroads, in restaurants, and in laundries. And because of an economic depression and job scarcity, many white Americans discriminated against Chinese both through legal channels and vigilante violence.
Liu is an author, educator, and civic entrepreneur. A Yale and Harvard graduate, Liu served as White House speechwriter under Bill Clinton and then as the President’s deputy domestic policy adviser. Currently, Liu is the CEO and founder of Citizen University, an organization that teaches civic engagement. He lives in Seattle with his family.
Liu’s A Chinaman’s Chance reappropriates the idiom and poses the question: What does it mean to be Chinese American in the 21st century? Or more specifically, in an era where China’s geopolitical power is rising and beginning to challenge the United States, what does it mean for Asian Americans given the backdrop of the model minority stereotype, which paints Asian Americans as successful and educated. Do Asian Americans have little or no chance in succeeding and becoming American? Is success based on chance?
When asked about the future of Chinese Americans in this political atmosphere, Liu predicted, “America will start looking towards Chinese Americans.”
Over the last decade, media exposure for Asian Americans appears to have increased. There are more Asian Americans in advertisements, television, and movies. Asian American stars like Jeremy Lin, Lucy Liu, Steven Yuen, Cal Pen, Bruno Mars, Michelle Wie, Arden Cho, and others have become household names. More Asian Americans are rising into political power. For instance, Gary Locke was the first Chinese American Governor of Washington state and ambassador to China, positions historically held by white male Americans. Other notable Asian Americans politicians are Sharon Tamiko Santos, Wing Luke, Cheryl and Ruby Chow, Daniel Inouye, and so forth.
If history has taught us anything, then with this exposure comes backlash. The bombing of Pearl Harbor sent shockwaves of war hysteria that resulted in the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans to internment camps by the federal government under the pretense of national security.
When the Japanese auto companies like Toyota and Honda began competing against U.S. companies U.S. in the late 1970s, anti-Asian sentiment spread. In Detroit, Chinese American Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two formerly employed autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz who attacked Chin under the assumption that he was Japanese. Ebens and Nitz never spent a single day in jail for killing Chin.
After 9/11, South Asians, Sikhs, Arabs, and Muslims became the target of violence. Within four days of the attacks on the World Trade Center, Balbir Signh Sodhi of Mesa, Arizona was shot and killed by Frank Silva Roque. Roque would go on to shoot at a Lebanese American and a house owned by an Afghan family. Sodhi was the first victim of 9/11 hysteria. Thousands of South Asians, Sikhs, Arabs, and Muslim Americans continue to face hate crimes, school bullying, workplace discrimination, and racial and religious profiling.
Liu’s A Chinaman’s Chance, explores the factors that influence national and personal identity and perception. Through the lens of his family and self reflection, Liu highlights the convergences and differences between American and Chinese culture. A Chinaman’s
A Chinaman’s Chance is for a selective audience that might be interested in the correlation between China and Chinese Americans and proponents of acculturation. After all, “America makes Chinese Americans, but China does not make American Chinese.”