The Good Asian or The Bad Asian — who am I?

betty ming liu Art, Inspiration 23 Comments

Okay, grasshoppers, I really need your help today. Slowly and steadily, your humble servant is progressing towards a real book project. So far, I’ve got 3.48 out of 18 chapters drafted.

And now, I’m stuck.

My book will be a collection of essays sharing what I’ve learned about getting the life I want. It will deal with how my Chinese immigrant parents raised me — and how I broke out of the box. (Regular readers of this blog know this as a familiar drumbeat.)

Thankfully, I’m making progress. But I have hit a creative fork in the road: Which way should I go in honing the material and message?

Can you offer some feedback? Your responses to any/all of the questions below will be useful. Those of you who would like to respond privately can email me at

Okay, here we go…

Do you view me as The Good Asian or The Bad Asian? When you hear the name “Betty Ming Liu,” which one describes me? Or maybe you don’t think of me in these terms at all?

If you’re not Asian, would “Asian” in the book title turn you off? Right now, my blog readership is very diverse and I want to keep my book readership diverse too. If you’re not Asian, what would you want me to write about in this book?

If you’re Asian, what topics would speak to you? I actually don’t know if there are two audiences I’m writing for, or one. Your thoughts?

Do you know who Confucius is? He will be an evil character in my book. I think he’s responsible for a lot of my problems but not sure anyone knows who he is, especially young people. When you hear the word “Confucius,” what comes to mind?

What does being The Good Asian or The Bad Asian mean to you? Feel free to answer this question any way you want.  :)


I’m taking the next few days off from my job to sit home and write. My goal is to complete what’s known in the book-writing business as “the shitty first draft.” As always, your feedback will change my life. Thanks in advance for your help.

Oh, and here’s a doodle of Confucius that will give you an idea of how I’ll be illustrating the book. Thanks again! xo


Comments 23

  1. Post

    It’s 7:48 a.m. and I can’t wait to see what kind of responses the day brings. Thanks, so far, for the likes and tweets. They already a barometer of some sort! And now, time to roll out of bed to walk the dog…Then, I am back to my desk, where Chapter 4 is waiting for me.

  2. Betty,
    On reading the title and first question am I a Good Asian or a Bad Asian, my thoughts went to Gino Vannelli’s song “Ugly Man” You probably never heard of it so here is a link ( I think you can answer that better than anyone.
    Why stop at Asian, why not examine what it is to be good or bad? I think most people think of Confucius as a Chinese philosopher, who had many ideas, which ended up in fortune cookies (an American invention by-the-way) but he was not a prophet or anything like that.
    I think you have to look at good and bad first and then see if it fits “Asian Ideas” fit this model. You have already said that many Asian Ideas and Confucius’s ideas are not good. The next question would be what have you done to fill the void and is that good? What parts of your “Asian upbringing” is good and what part is bad? How much of this is just tradition which is interesting but is neither good nor bad?
    Honoring your father and mother is not uniquely “Asian” thing it is a commandment in the Old Testament. However, perhaps they take it too far.
    Whenever I think of whether I have been good or bad I think of the words of a song by W.L. Thompson…
    Have I done any good in the world today?
    Have I helped anyone in need?
    Have I cheered up the sad and made someone feel glad?
    If not, I have failed indeed.
    Has anyone’s burden been lighter today
    Because I was willing to share?
    Have the sick and the weary been helped on their way?
    When they needed my help was I there?

    I think we can only judge good and bad is in these terms.
    If your parents were alive today and the situation was different what would you do? For example, if you had a chance to meet your father before old age and time had taken their toll (much like in the ending of “Field of Dreams”) Do you think you would recognize your father as a young man?
    Are the teachings of Confucius unique? Are there parallels in other traditions? What do you find destructive and beneficial? One thing that is different in Asian culture is the idea of “Saving face”. Is this a good thing? Or is better to just say “I screwed up” or “that didn’t turn out as I planned”? You have spoken of how destructive it was when your parents made decisions for you. I contrast this with the idea of teaching children to make good decisions and giving them as much freedom as they are ready for.
    Well those are my thoughts.

  3. Wow Betty! You want a lot from a blog reader! (LOL – Bless your heart) OK, here are some thoughts about your questions. When I hear your name my first thought is of The Emperor Ming The Merciless.Not that you share any of his characteristics but having the old Buck Rogers series as a fixture of my childhood has left an indelible impression. Its automatic. Then, when I get hold of myself and say “no. no – you’re stereotyping – Betty is not an evil conqueror of alien planets,” I think of the final flowering of beautiful but decadent traditional Chinese culture in the Ming Dynasty, which also doesn’t have much to do with you so none of this is any help all, really. It’s sort of like when people hear my last name is Grace they make some comment about asking a blessing at the dinner table – which has nothing whatever to do with me either. I don’t believe that whatever guardian spirits of the universe there are give a shit about whether I’m happy with my pot roast or not. There really are only two possible ways to deal with them: 1. Ignore them and put your name as Betty M. Liu on the book – or – 2. Use it – emphasize it – have your dust jacket pic taken dressed as Emperor Ming or some version thereof, pointing a long, jeweled finger nail straight at the reader as if to say “this book is about YOU as well as me. Buy it now or suffer the death of a thousand regrets.”
    Now about Confucius – hold on there – we’re talking about one of human history’s most influential thinkers. We discuss him and read from his works in the world history class I teach. As for “kids today not knowing who he is,” what sort of kids are we talking about? 5 year olds? Trailer trash? Hannah Montana fans? All the young people I know certainly know who he was and have at least a general idea about his philosophy. Myself, I read The Analects when I was about 17 and thereafter, for about 6 months, called my father and mother “Honored Parents.” That didn’t last though but they enjoyed it while it did.
    Confucius teaches us discipline. Without discipline and respect for the past, creativity is formless and without communicability. Art that does not communicate is either a fraud or an exercise in self-indulgence. Respect for the past provides us with the established lexicon of communication, which we can then use, change or evolve as artists but without which we speak only to ourselves.
    As for “bad Asian vs. good Asian,” I really don’t know what that means. Seems to me you are begging to be stereotyped just by posing the issue. There are bad humans – like, say, Adolph Eichman, and good humans – like, say, Archbishop Tutu, but it has nothing to do with ethnicity. All of the issues of your childhood, dealing with hyper-controlling parents who had rigid expectations are ones that can be found in many cultures. Ask many a Jewish kid for example – or the son of an Irish mother who had her heart set on having a priest in the family.
    I’d say you need to find a title for the book that says “this Asian-American experience has universality and in it you will find reflections of your own experience.” Good luck finding it!!

  4. Post

    Thanks to you both. Interesting that you’re both not Asian and you both want me to get beyond the Asian stereotypes. Hmmm.

    HyperGamma, I appreciate you putting the Confucian principles in the larger context of good/bad values. That’s an important point to make.

    Toby, thanks for indulging my need to analyze my name! I’ve never thought of the “Ming” in terms of either the Ming Dynasty or Ming the Merciless. But of course, that makes total sense. And be prepared for a surprise because I will indeed appear on the cover in costume. Since I intend to have fun with stereotypes in the book, your feedback tells me that this is a pretty nuanced dance. I think I can do it!

    Btw, I am not expecting everyone to send me such lengthy comments. Just write as much or as little as you want. I’m grateful for all of it. Don’t think any of you realize how much bloggers rely on reader feedback!

  5. As far as the Asian subject goes, I think as long as you’re sharing new information, readers will be interested. It needs to reach beyond the stereotypes of Asian families. For instance, as a Korean American, I want to identify with you and nod my head in agreement, but I also want to know how we are culturally different. What is specific to Chinese upbringing? To me, forming a strong identity as a child of Chinese immigrants sounds more compelling than a read about an Asian American woman. But maybe that’s just because I’m Asian as well.

  6. Betty-san,

    Dilemmas can be easily resolved: easy.

    First, write from the heart your parents gave you. Why are you writing from your brain? Stop that! You are from “heart people.” Feeling is important. Tell your heart’s story.

    Second, you are not generic. You are a unique brand of woman, I think. Ming Liu tells so much about you. You are Asian only for the library section on Asian women’s literature. In life, you are someone who is unique.

    Third, your Mommy’s water broke in Vietnam where you were born. Then your parents bundled you off to the U.S. Do not forget your roots in Vietnam though you may not remember that. Go dig that history up. Write from Betty ming Liu’s heart! Why Mommy give birth to you outside of the Great Wall?

    Fourth, only in America is Confucius reduced to epitaphs in fortune cookies! Maybe China will put Barrett’s Quotable Quotes in chocolate chip cookies in Beijing and Shanghai! First cookie: “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Means don’t waste money buying cookies with high sugar content! It’s bad for general health! Yes, Shanghai buyer will feel stupid for a moment! If young “Asian” people don’t know Confucius, hit them in the head with a wet noodle!! They are too dopey! Jay-Z at the Barclay Center or TuPac from the grave may speak prophetically, but they are no Confucius! No way, no way, no way Jose!

    Fifth, what are you talking about??!?!!!?! Bad and good Asian??!?!?!! Who will draw this line to determine a bad or good Vietnamese/Chinese/American suburban woman? You are bad if you taste bad and good if you taste good! Hehehehehehehee! But it’s true! Either I will spit you out or swallow you, depending. I think these terms are irrelevant! A little soy or fish soup broth makes everyone taste good! Heeheheheehehehee.

    Sixth, you have an audience? Who is sitting in the chair in front of you while you write? Who are you talking too? Who needs to hear Betty’s tales? I know Oanh who shares your Diasporic journey, but she never speaks about “boat people” parents and the journey to Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, London, then Texas! I know Moy whose immigrant parents came from the mainland and had their first born—her—in the US. She ends up in Jersey, but I met her in Chinatown, NY! Gem wanted to be an artist and parents thought she was crazy; Ying was treated like family dirt then became a beautiful woman after she left home; Wendy grew up in the suburbs before becoming a hospital administrator. These women didn’t have “the bluest eye” but are like you: brown eye. I think they will like to hear your tale and laugh with you about crazy parents and school and family and kids and history over chrysanthemum tea!

    You know what kinds of narratives I hate, Betty-san! Please: don’t go there except in humor. Then we can all laugh at the pains!

  7. Post

    Kristin, how interesting. So you want specificity. They always say that in the specifics you can find the universal story. Helpful. Thanks!

    Stephen, I hope to be funny. I can’t stand reading earnest angst. It’s too painful. Just one thing….my mom isn’t from Vietnam — that was my dad. She’s from China. I was born in Newark, N.J.Thanks for making me aware that people will be looking for these details. :)

    Oh, and here’s the other thing. I think Confucius is Public Enemy #1. Maybe I should go back and add that to the post now. In fact, will do that, thanks!

  8. Well I do not judge you in terms of good or bad Asian. Asians can be diverse.

    Confucius reminds me of old chinese, not someone who broke the mould

  9. Many cultural stereotypes are built on a kernel of historical truth, which is then applied too broadly/shortsightedly/wrongheadedly – and then, instead of being reflective of reality, and illuminating, they become distorted and unjust. I think the key to examining stereotypes – to either debunk them or to thoughtfully see where they fit or don’t fit, to poke fun at them or rail against them, or even to own them proudly – you need to first define them in some very readable way (and if you’re worried about Confucious, hell, you can define him too). And in defining/creating (and maybe you could write/illustrate some sort of witty manifesto of the major stereotypes you’ll be dealing with, i.e. the good Asian does this the bad Asian does that) -you are going to make it obvious to the reader that – helloooo – “you don’t have to be asian” to shlep THIS baggage! I relate to a lot of your stories (and struggles) as a fellow daughter of immigrants – non-Asian. But I enjoy reading the rich cultural context you (as a Chinese-American woman) give to it. That way two different, key pleasure-centers are being hit, for me as a reader: the “identifying” part, and the “learning something new/getting a window on someone else’s world that isn’t mine” part. So that’s groovy.
    Are you a good Asian or a bad Asian?? Well, BOTH, of course! And isn’t that one of the morals of the story? Coming to terms with who we are, and embracing it? And I know that’s not the actual “theme” of your charming self-caricature of the multi-armed goddess – but that’s one of the things *I* see in it. All those outstretched arms, capable of doing so many different things – reaching out, grabbing, searching, fumbling, creating… embracing.

  10. Clarification of that last point: I don’t believe that the classic definition of the powerful multi-armed goddess carries the implication that she is both “good” and “bad” (vis-a-vis fulfilling the traditional expectations of her culture). But I think that the drawing of the multi-armed, multi-faceted Betty-goddess does carry some of that.

  11. Post

    Sos, thank you for the clarity stated with such brevity. Yes, Confucius is old, and hopefully I am new (but not exactly young, haha!). Will keep this in mind.

    Vivien, could you do me a huge favor…and just write this book for me? xo

  12. Lol – yeah suuuure… just as soon as you bequeath ME some of the outstanding self-discipline, time-management and creativity you bring to your amazing range of undertakings.
    Have fun with this!
    ps Born in Newark? Me too – sitsa from anutha mutha!! Beth Israel Hosp.

  13. Newark, New Jersey?? My bad! How disappointing though! Change your story! Best seller on the NY Times best seller list requires you to be born in father’s hometown and brought to America as a stowaway in a beat up suitcase! Mother laboring in Newark lacks drama? Hmm… So, you were born outside of Ho Chi Minh City, and…?

    Foolish me: it’s Bartlett’s not Barrett’s! I should have eaten breakfast early this morning for a better memory in late morning writing.

    Confucius is public enemy #1? Well, it’s not too difficult to understand from an “Asian” woman’s perspective: Confucius hadn’t quite completed his enlightenment process! Wikipedia fails to mention if he had a woman as a lover, partner, or wife! Was there a “Ms. Confucius” or whomever? “A man imprisoned by his own vision and mind, fails to see the whole world!” Respectfully kick Confucius’ a**!

    Finally, I agree: don’t leave out your Diasporic details! Chinese Vietnamese Daddy meets Chinese Mommy and produce a Jersey girl requires lots of narrative! That’s half your book already, and it’s pushing to the top of Times best seller list–hooray!! Daddy speaks Vietnamese too? How did parents acquire Confucian philosophy? They attend Confucian parochial school or Confucian “Sunday school?” What’s the story?

  14. Post

    Vivien, you make me sound like…The Good Asian. Haha! Quite honestly, if I have the self-discipline-time-mgt-blah-blah, it’s probably only because I’m a single woman these days. If I was madly in love with someone fantastic, I’d probably be too happy and busy to think about a book. But things have worked out because I’m now madly in love with this project and feel it will take me some place happy. Btw, I don’t know where I was born in Newark; will have to dig that up. :)

    And Stephen, I know, my reality is so mundane. Newark isn’t exactly exotic. Or is it? Haha! As for Confucius, I remember reading somewhere that he had a family (I feel sorry for his wife; he must’ve been a pill to live with). China is a big place and a lot of ideas spread from there to other Asian countries. Just had this chat with a friend of mine who is Korean-American; they never talked about Confucius in their home but the family lives by Confucian values.

    Confucius wasn’t good for men either. Sure, they had all the power. But when you’re a man and cast into such a narrow role, it can only spell trouble for your personal development. I recently attended a talk given by someone who works with mental health issues in the Asian-American community. She said that Confucian values led to men not being able to express themselves in constructive ways. Some of them turn to domestic violence, verbal abuse and worse. At the very least, it makes for men who are emotionally repressed. Rings true to me.

  15. I think I know what you’re trying to say when you ask “bad” vs. “good”. They are in quotes b/c I am guessing you are saying “Do I fit the stereotype of the Asian woman”? Asians on a whole are thought of as “model minorities”. Hence, no analogy to the “noble savage” of other races– you’re ALL noble for Confucius’ sake! Anyway, if I remember correctly, you said you are divorced and you your ex is black????? Let’s not go one step further my friend- bad, very bad. :-) But I think your marriage serves as a metaphor for other choices in your life that we probably can only guess at ta this point. I know you have been a journalist for a while but were you ever Science or Business Journalist? Not sure if you went to Ivy or “Very competitive” college. I think the lack of all of the above categorically makes you “bad”. I am not well-versed in Confucius but am aware of him and understand that some of the teachings prescribe a s certain way of relating to one’s parents and authority in general. I am guessing that the reason you use the term bad is perhaps you grapple with feelings of guilt for not adhering to the social stereotype in all (key) areas of your life while at the same time holding fast to an intrinsic understanding that your own desires as an individual apart from you race should be honored. I am also guessing that like a lot of Christians(not saying you’re not Christian) who respect their religion but outright reject some its tenets and are just unable to follow others though they try is similar to your experience with Confucianism. That is your value system and that is NOT bad. So Betty, you are “Bad” but not bad.

    other questions…

    I am not Asian and no “Asian” in the book title would not turn me off. It does not matter anyway as it is just good business sense nowadays to put “Asian” in the title. “Asian” is a brand with nothing but good connotations so I would capitalize on that from a Marketing perspective… I hope this helps…

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