A more accurate subtitle for Paisley Rekdal’s first book, a collection of 11 essays about being Asian and American, might be “observations on not wanting to fit in.” Rekdal is a contrarian, perpetually dissatisfied with racial and cultural boundaries. Biologically, she is a hybrid, the child of a Chinese American mother and a Norwegian father. Wherever she is, others regard her curiously. In Asia, she is often seen as a quintessential American, with a big nose and liberal ways. In her Seattle schools, she is one of the Asians, an object of racism and exoticism, and in the South, where she lives now, she’s a freak.
Rekdal’s book is a hybrid too, a loosely constructed blend of a memoir’s inward musings and a travelogue’s outward mysteries. Its essays are generally arranged according to regions of the world, beginning in Taiwan, where Rekdal’s relationship with her American-born mother is movingly rendered. There, Rekdal’s closeness to her mother is offset by her humiliation when she realizes that her mother pretends to understand salesclerks and waiters in Taipei, all of whom, based on racial features alone, assume her mother speaks Chinese.
A few passages feel extraneous, most notably the essay on Japan, where Rekdal’s summer stay is singularly unrevealing. Japan’s insistence on social consensus seems to stymie Rekdal’s contrarian nature, leaving her uncharacteristically bewildered by her hosts. But travel has a way of tapping parts of the self that are obscured by one’s native culture. Rekdal’s finest writing presses beyond the anxiety of racial confluence to grasp at the slippery filaments of identity itself. When she finds herself involuntarily adopting more reserved habits during a teaching stint in Korea, she astutely implicates her own duality: “It would be too easy to blame this on Korea. . . . Instead I felt as if a personality that had lain dormant a long time inside me had bloomed. This other me is not the adventurer. . . . She is timid and repressed, conflicted as to the value of her independence.”
A hybrid self is neither one thing nor another—”I cannot choose one identity,” Rekdal writes, “without losing half of myself.” To her credit, she is too angry and self-aware to play confusion for sympathy, as when she assays the nebulous psychological nature that is also her inheritance: “Being Asian in America . . . disappears from view when scrutinized directly, like certain stars or planets at night, only to resurface in unexplainable tastes or angers or prejudices that roll in on tidal shifts, the irregular tug of the moon.”