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
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT