IN SEARCH FOR SELF For Asian American Eric Liu, looking back is a big step forward

I AM FOLLOWING Eric Liu because I am Chinese. . . Naturally, I’m oversimplifying matters. Liu is promoting his first book, “The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker, ” in which he interweaves political and cultural essays with intimate recollections.

I don’t normally stalk authors or Chinese people, but we share similarities, so much so it’s tempting to think but for the grace of a chromosome there go I. We both teeter on the edge of 30. We share an East Coast upbringing in a predominantly white suburb (his in Poughkeepsie and mine in Brookline, Mass., birthplace of John F. Kennedy Jr.). We retain a fledgling grasp of our native languages, although childhood Sunday afternoons in Chinese school give him the edge.

We shied away from minority affiliations in our college days, fearing such ties might be an ethnic stranglehold. We gradually recognized the concept that Asian America needs a political defense but still lacks an independent culture. We’re both good-humored and, as I discover while following Liu during his two-day Bay Area book tour, dislike coffee.

The similarities are of course superficial and do not a cultural bond make. When I meet him in the lobby of San Francisco’s Huntington Hotel just after 9 a.m., Liu is sporting a preppy East Coast ensemble: blue blazer, Oxford shirt and what could be the Dockers pants that he notes in his book’s facetious checklist of items acclaiming his “whiteness.” He has already finished a television appearance and phone interview, but an alert congeniality still emanates from behind gold wire-rimmed glasses.

The uniform and assured bearing subtly declare his privileged background, which he describes in terms of “having access” and “opportunities.” Son of an IBM engineer and Yale-educated, Liu protested the unjust twenty-something slacker image by founding “The Next Progressive, ” a journal of opinion, and editing an anthology, “Next: Young Americans on the New Generation.” He has worked as an MSNBC commentator, a Capitol Hill intern and a foreign policy speechwriter for President Clinton. All this, and he still has one more year of Harvard Law School to go.

Nor are our similarities even skin-deep. His family comes from Taiwan, while mine fled China to Hong Kong before ending up in pilgrim land. We also mark the gulf between generations: I, an immigrant by virtue of six months, reluctantly scrabbling into the abyss of assimilation, Liu, the assimilated son of immigrants, peering back over the edge to the other side.

Liu does not pretend to speak for me, and I am not shadowing him because I agree with his views. Indeed, he painstakingly emphasizes at every opportunity that his circumstances are “not the storyline for all Asian Americans.”

What Liu does articulate, and from where our similarities spring, is the uniquely American experience of acculturation, both its enormous sacrifices and its enormous gains. “A lot of what I write about in talking about assimilation is describing the process of loss, and the loss of memory that accompanies the loss of language.”

That’s why I’m not the only one following Liu these days. It’s also the black woman from Long Beach calling the afternoon radio show to talk about her two girls, whom she shares with her Filipino husband. It’s the second-generation German woman whose grandparents declined to pass on the language after the poison of Nazism. It’s the black man who after the O.J. Simpson trial was suddenly made answerable to his race. It’s the fourth-generation Japanese girl at the book signing, whose eager words are echoed minutes later by the fourth-generation Chinese girl, “You are telling my story.”

His willingness to tell his story invites others of all backgrounds to tell their own. It probably helps that Liu is also safe. He has the Ivy League credentials that would assuage patrician unease, the Marine officer candidate training that quells patriotic suspicions, the Chinese blood that permits him to occupy the “in-between” position in race dialogue. He’s also at an in-between age and in-between generations.

Liu has a way of including people in the discourse. He diplomatically seeks the common bond in a viewpoint, then submits his own. Although I am to be the unobtrusive shadow, he instinctively draws me into the discussion, whether by grinning at me during a caller’s particularly outrageous comment or interrupting eye contact with another journalist by turning to me and saying, “We were just talking about that point.”

Sincerity saves him from slickness. “If you’re going to write about race ultimately with honesty and some sort of meaningfulness, you’ve got to start at home, ” he says. “That’s where I tried to start.”

Aside from back-of-the-bus “chink” slurs, to which Liu and his white friends quickly responded with spitballs and “white trash” epithets, the youthful traumas he recounts resonate with the universal pang of teen anguish. The romantically bereft adolescence. The unruly, bristling hair that transgressed the ’80s feathered locks of conformity. “But make no mistake, ” one radio host reads aloud, clearly reliving her own adolescence in Liu’s woes, “this was one of the most consuming crises of my inner life as a young teen.”

In a sea of white faces, though, Liu blamed such normal deviations on his most visible difference. He recalls, “it became my impulse to attribute my anxiety not to my age, but to my color, and to blame my race rather than my situation for things as trivial as my hair and perhaps as profound as trying to fit in generally.” He tried to be “beyond color” and nearly disowned heritage.

Liu became the accidental Asian after stumbling upon racial identity. “The accidental’ part means something else, as well, ” he adds, in the way we divide the population into categories. “There’s something that’s so fundamentally arbitrary about that line-drawing, something so accidental about the nature of race and the way we invest race with belief and social force.”

The thoughtful intelligence that shimmers from the pages of his book can be heard in his voice as he ponders how the condescending appellation “honorary whites” bestowed upon Asian Americans denigrates all minorities, and how easily this ceremonial title can be revoked during, say, the Far East money scandals. He dissects the mutable notion of whiteness, how it has rejected and enfolded Germans, Irish, Jews, and how it really translates to anti-blackness.

At the same time, he has already been used as an artificial lightning rod to show dissension in Asian America, as though disagreement among members betrays its fragmented disunity rather than a lively pluralism.

“I inject a voice that is nonwhite and nonblack into the race debates and race dialogues, ” Liu says. His is not the first, and should not be the last. Besides, just as race and identity are fluid, the thoughts that “Accidental Asian” expresses may not be the same views Liu will hold five years from now. “There’s no question that this book is a real mark of the moment, ” he says.

The most compelling impetus to write, “the impulse to record, ” was to remember his father, who died seven years ago. His father’s friends had assembled a memorial book with photographs, stories, reminiscences of his “baba.” Liu was beginning to forget things about his father and couldn’t find answers in the book written in Chinese.

“I think that really drove home the loss that went into my assimilation, and I think it goes into every assimilation, ” he says. “Accidental Asian” is his memorial book to his father. It’s also a “snapshot” he can pass on to his own children, who will be a mix of Chinese, Scottish, Irish and Jewish.

In the Chinatown garage on our way back to the hotel, I ask him if he burned incense for his father. I ask because of yet another similarity: At the same time his father was slowly dying from kidney failure, my mother was slowly dying from nonemphysema lung cancer. We had made the same concessions, filling vases with flowers rather than performing the ancestor rituals that our parents themselves did not observe.

Like in Liu’s situation, my parent died too young to finish telling her story and when I was too young to ask. I had begun to see beyond her role as mother, to glimpse history beyond the one tightly entwined with mine. When she became ill, it seemed too late, too unkind to reach back to try to reclaim my heritage when she had to fight to breathe. It was as though asking would have precipitated her death, scheduled as it was by medical professionals six months after her diagnosis.

Perhaps I am following Liu because I’m trying to follow my own story.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times