Skip to main content

Why I don't hyphenate Chinese American

By Eric Liu
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Liu: Words are expressions of power and identity, and even punctuation matters
  • Liu: As I explain in my new book, I call myself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen
  • He says the hyphenated "Chinese-American" signifies a transaction between two parties
  • Liu: Similarly, "ABC," or American-born Chinese, is also inadequate in its identity label

Editor's note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the author of several books, including "A Chinaman's Chance" and "The Gardens of Democracy." He was a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter @ericpliu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Those who live in fear today imagine that America is being overrun by foreign, disease-carrying, tax-sucking criminal hordes. They cannot imagine that immigrants, whether documented or not, could ever contribute to our country. They refer to the children and families trying to cross the southern border as "illegals."

But to quote John Lewis, who fought 50 years ago for civil rights and fights now for immigration reform, "There is no such thing as an illegal human being."

Language matters. Words are expressions of power and identity. And even something as trivial as punctuation can say a lot about what it means to become American.

Eric Liu
Eric Liu

For instance, I never hyphenate.

As I explain in my new book "A Chinaman's Chance," I call myself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen. American is the noun, Chinese the adjective. Or, rather, Chinese is one adjective. I am many kinds of American, after all: a politically active American, a short American, an earnest American, an educated American.

This is not a quibble about grammar; it's a claim about the very act of claiming this country.

The hyphenated form, "Chinese-American," to me signifies a transaction between two parties, as in Chinese-American diplomatic negotiation or Chinese-American commerce and trade. The hyphen implies a state of interchange across nations. It does not name a person, much less a citizen.

For the same reason, I never really accepted the label that my immigrant parents attached to me and other second-generation kids: "ABC," or American-born Chinese. I understand why they used it. They had been formed in China. They were deeply culturally Chinese and as they tried to make their way in this country and raise kids, they hoped those kids would think of themselves the same way.

We didn't, exactly. The second generation rarely does. While Chineseness was a deep influence on my palate and vocabulary and moral sensibility, I grew up in this land, an American. I went to Chinese school on Sundays, but I counted the minutes until I could get back to playing baseball with my best friend John. I was raised at home with a Chinese belief in family obligation and social propriety, but I was schooled everywhere else in an American spirit of individual invention and reinvention.

Actually, my immigrant dad taught me this. He's the one who introduced me to the noxious phrase, "a Chinaman's chance," which since the 1850s had meant "slim to no chance."

When he came here in the late 1950s, he decided, with his wry sense of humor, to reappropriate this slur. He would apply it playfully to commonplace situations, such as saying that the Yankees had "a Chinaman's chance" of making a ninth-inning comeback.

That's how I grew up. To call me "American-born Chinese" is to make my birthplace and upbringing incidental rather than central. It is to imply that wherever a person of Chinese ethnicity may be born, he is not truly of that place; he is just a sojourner, attached to a vast global web of Chinese.

That's not the way of our nation. In America, immigrants become American -- and by so doing, change America. The change is accelerating.

We've already become heavily Hispanic. Now -- to the surprise of many -- Asians have become America's fastest-growing group. People who look like me can no longer be presumed foreign until proven otherwise. We are becoming the new face of the United States.

In 1914 or 1814, when Italians or Irish were coming in great waves (uninvited by government, by the way, and unsanctioned by law), "becoming American" meant assimilating to a white, WASP way. In 2014, it means entering a vibrant and more complex omniculture that mixes the styles and memes of the entire world.

This shouldn't be scary. It should be exciting. For what makes America enduringly great is precisely this ability to synthesize the best of the rest of the planet.

That's our edge -- as long as we don't blow it. Yes, not blowing it includes taking illegal immigration seriously because borders do matter, and so does enforcing borders. But it primarily means keeping our eye on the bigger picture: that we are stronger when we are more inclusive and better when we activate our full diversity.

Welcoming and integrating legal immigrants is therefore a necessity. So is creating a pathway to citizenship for our undocumented neighbors, friends and colleagues so that we don't leave millions of people stuck in second-class limbo.

There will never be a simple answer to the eternal American question, "Who is 'us'?" But in this moment when jobs feel scarcer and life feels more zero-sum, we have to make a conscious choice to be bigger than our fears. That, without hyphens or hyperventilating, is the true American way.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT