Review: When Half Is Whole: Multiethnic Asian American Identities – Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu

When Half is Whole
Book cover: A half-moon

“I listen and gather people’s stories. Then I write them down in a way that I hope will communicate something to others, so that seeing these stories will give readers something of value. I tell myself that this isn’t going to be done unless I do it, just because of who I am. It’s a way of making my mark, leaving something behind . . . not that I’m planning on going anywhere right now.”

So explains Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu in this touching, introspective, and insightful examination of mixed race Asian American experiences. The son of an Irish American father and Japanese mother, Murphy-Shigematsu uses his personal journey of identity exploration and discovery of his diverse roots to illuminate the journeys of others. Throughout the book, his reflections are interspersed among portraits of persons of biracial and mixed ethnicity and accounts of their efforts to answer a seemingly simple question: Who am I?

Here we meet Norma, raised in postwar Japan, the daughter of a Japanese woman and an American serviceman, who struggled to make sense of her ethnic heritage and national belonging. Wei Ming, born in Australia and raised in the San Francisco of the 1970s and 1980s, grapples as well with issues of identity, in her case both ethnic and sexual. We also encounter Rudy, a “Mexipino”; Marshall, a “Jewish, adopted Korean”; Mitzi, a “Blackinawan”; and other extraordinary people who find how connecting to all parts of themselves also connects them to others.

With its attention on people who have been regarded as “half” this or “half” that throughout their lives, these stories make vivid the process of becoming whole.

As soon as I saw When Half is Whole on the Asian Lit Bingo list of possible reads for the non-fiction slot, I knew that I needed to read it. I’m multiracial, and even though the novel examined the experiences of Asian Americans, I thought I might find some things that I can relate to.

This is an #ownvoices book.

I was mislead by the blurb and thought that this book would discuss experiences of Asian American from a variety of ethnicities. However, most of the people interviewed had some connection to Japan or East Asia. There weren’t many with connections to other parts of Asia, and I was not expecting this at all. Thus, I was quite disappointed here. Also most of the people had some kind of connection to the military, and they were all of the same age, i.e. at least a generation older than me. I thought that this would be a book that would provide a more general overview of Asian American experiences, however the author was focussed on discussing his personal story and most of the experiences of others that he discusses, he analyses them in respect to his own experiences. Thus, I assume, the choices for the people represented fell on the people who were mentioned in this book.

This doesn’t mean that the book wasn’t fascinating, I’d just like the blurb to be rewritten because it certainly made my reading experience less fun as I kept waiting for a more diverse discussion with portraits of people with connections to more place in Asia, and people of different generations.

It’s an intersectional book, not only discussing racial issues but also talking about sexuality. Sometimes, a person focusses on only one aspect of oppression and doesn’t delve into how this intersects with other types of discrimination. He discusses how his viewpoint on LGBTQIAP+ rights changed throughout the years, and I loved this.

The author also touched on racism in the Asian American community, and I think this is an aspect that Asian (diaspora) people in general have to keep in mind. We cannot complain about racism happening to us, but do it to others at the same time.

The word “hapa” as a synonym for multiracial Asian Americans is used in this book, and in a later chapter, there is a discussion on whether this term should be used by Asian Americans or if it’s appropriation. I’m not Native Hawaiian. If you are and would like to weigh in on how this part was handled, you can comment down below or link your review.

The word “Indian” is used in this book, instead of Native American at one point.

I highlighted so much while reading this book, as there were so many good quotes that meant a lot to me. I’d like to finish this part of the review with some of my favourite quotes from this book:

“While others may see me as “half”, I know that I am whole. This whole me is greater than the sum of its parts and connects me to something beyond my self, to communities of others and to a collective self.”

“Some feel they have the best of both worlds, while others struggle with an ambiguous identity.”

“When we disobeyed my mother’s rules or screamed, we were being “”too American”.”

“I stifle my curiosity about someone’s background and wait to see whether the person decides to tell me or not.”

So while I liked this book, I was not satisfied as the blurb promises a wholly different book. However, I was able to identify with quite a few experiences and found that I’m not alone in my confusion. It’s an interesting book that will introduce you to some experiences that people from more than one culture have, if you yourself are only of one culture. If you yourself, are multicultural, then you might find some concepts familiar.

Content warnings: racist language.

4 stars

Have you read When Half is Whole? Do you have any recommendations – non-fiction or fiction – that deal with the topic of multiraciality?


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