When you come from a mixed race background as Paisley Rekdal does — her mother is Chinese American and her father is Norwegian– thorny issues of identity politics, and interracial desire are never far from the surface. Here in this hypnotic blend of personal essay and travelogue, Rekdal journeys throughout Asia to explore her place in a world where one’s “appearance is the deciding factor of one’s ethnicity.”
In her soul-searching voyage, she teaches English in South Korea where her native colleagues call her a “hermaphrodite,” and is dismissed by her host family in Japan as an American despite her assertion of being half-Chinese. A visit to Taipei with her mother, who doesn’t know the dialect, leads to the bitter realization that they are only tourists, which makes her further question her identity. Written with remarkable insight and clarity, Rekdal a poet whose fierce lyricism is apparent on every page, demonstrates that the shifting frames of identity can be as tricky as they are exhilarating.
In this collection, filled with vivid descriptions, Rekdal takes a journey through locales ranging from Beijing, China, to Natchez, Mississippi, and embarks on a personal and cultural exploration as well. The daughter of a Chinese mother and a Norwegian father, Rekdal wrestles with choosing which culture she relates to most powerfully, even telling her mother that she would rather be "full or nothing." In each essay, the author splices an often whimsical storyabout, for example, her time spent teaching English at Usok Girls' High School in Chonju, South Korea, and her mission to find her great-aunt Opal's Chinese roots in Natchezwith difficult truths about ethnicity. Rekdal doesn't hold back: Her family and friends, her travels and her own shortcomings are scrutinized in the same piercing light. While she recognizes in the end that she cannot choose one identity without losing half of herself, even her painful discoveries are mitigated by the freshness and vitality of her voice.
E. Beth Thomas