Mixed Asian American Identity in “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee” & “Country of Origin”

The primary focus of my research thus far has been in the fields of Asian American Studies and Critical Mixed-Race Studies. I am interested in examining the representation of mixed Asian Americans in literature, the scarcity of writings on mixed Asian Americans in comparison to other multiracial minorities, and how fictional writing portrays and speaks to the struggles of mixed Asian Americans in reality. My interest in this particular subject arose from my academic and personal readings of ethnic literature. I noticed that while many novels, essays, articles, etc. focus on the challenges of minorities in white majority societies (such as the United States), these works tend to emphasize the stories of non-Asian American communities, such as African American, Latinx, and Native American. Furthermore, writings on multiracial people, in comparison to monoracial folk, are scarce, especially mixed people of Asian American descent. I was thus intrigued by these observations and decided that I wanted my thesis to focus on the lack of representation of mixed Asian Americans in literature and what their experiences teach us.

I am specifically curious about how mixed Asian American characters create their own definitions of space, belonging, and identity, which are major tropes in mixed Asian American literature. It is generally agreed by writers and scholars that there is no fixed space for mixed Asian Americans, no place where they can feel like they belong, no common ground where they can share a culture and language. Identity crises usually ensue for mixed Asian Americans, with concepts such as race, culture, language, and nationality clashing against each other. This thus results in feelings of exclusion or having to choose a “side” to feel included. While I agree with this common view, I am curious to see if I can challenge it by arguing that mixed Asian Americans have the ability to resist choosing a race as well as a “half-and-half” identity and can instead be a part of two worlds.

To gain a better understanding of the struggles highlighted above (exclusion, identity crises, choosing a side, etc.), I will be examining two primary texts that go into detail about conflicting emotions over mixed racial identity. The first book is Paisley Rekdal’s The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In. Published in 2000, this collection of autobiographical essays tells the story of how Rekdal embarks on a journey throughout several countries in Asia as well as in the United States to find out if she, the daughter of a Norwegian man and Chinese American woman, belongs anywhere. As she travels across the globe, Rekdal experiences various instances in which she is excluded from certain racial and social circles due to her status as a mixed race woman who was brought up in the United States. It is during these moments when Rekdal questions her identity and spirals further into a confusing pit of self-doubt.

In the essay “Americans Abroad,” Rekdal highlights a time when her nationality and ethnicity alienated her from the culture of her host family. One summer, while studying abroad in Kobe, Japan, Rekdal’s Japanese host family takes her to a Japanese festival where she discovers the joy of participating in a traditional dance. However, while Rekdal is able to imitate the dance moves just fine, her host sister, Fumiko, insists that “Americans cannot do Japanese dances…they are Japanese-style, not American style” (Ho 107). This leaves Rekdal stunned and frustrated because despite her ability to adapt and imitate, Fumiko makes it clear that Rekdal cannot call her dance style authentic or Japanese, simply because of where she comes from and what she looks like; it is clear that only Japanese people from Japan can perform the “true” dance. I am excited to close read the rest of the stories within this book because this moment in Japan is just but one example of exclusion within Rekdal’s collection of essays. I am curious to see how else Rekdal will use her multiple identities of race, culture, language, and nationality to question her place in the world and how her experiences are related to my questioning of mixed Asian Americans creating their own comfort zones.

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The other primary text that I wish to read is Don Lee’s Country of Origin. Published in 2004, this novel focuses on the complexities of identities, specifically race, culture, and nationality. Set in Tokyo, Japan in 1980, the story follows three characters who all wrestle with conflicting senses of belonging and loyalty: Lisa Countryman is half African-American and half Asian, Tom Hurley is half-Korean and half-white, and Kenzo Ota is full Japanese, but faces constant alienation within his own country due to his years spent in America. The lives of these three conflicted characters become intertwined when Lisa goes missing. Both Tom (an agent of the U.S. Embassy) and Kenzo (a local Japanese cop) are assigned to the case to find Lisa. As they probe deeper into the investigation, they discover that Lisa has vanished into the dark underground world of Tokyo’s sex trade. But this novel is more than just a crime solving detective story: as noted above, it is a tale that highlights the struggles of mixed race and national identity, with the three protagonists trying to figure out who they are and where they belong.

Out of all three character arcs, Kenzo’s story stands out as he is not a person of mixed heritage yet is nevertheless portrayed as one. In a passage of the novel, his four years abroad in America are described as thus: “the American schoolkids had teased him mercislessly about his broken English and his slanty-eyed dogeater tapehead Jap looks” (Lee 47). Kenzo’s time outside of Japan is certainly difficult and sad to read, but it is even more disheartening when we find out what happens upon his return to his homeland: “reentering the Japanese educational system in Kobe, Kenzo had been ridiculed more than he had been in America. He now spoke Japanese like a gaijin [foreigner]. He had difficulty catching up in school, despite attending juku, cram school” (Lee 47). Even though Kenzo is first and foremost a native of Japan and has no claim to another ethnicity or race, he is treated like an outsider in his own country. This is a unique struggle to read and is also relevant to the mixed race crisis. I am therefore looking forward to reading about the challenges that Lisa and Tom must face and how they shape their own paths and identities in a world where everyone seems to force them to choose a side. I believe that their stories and the themes of the novel will tie in well with my interest in seeing how mixed Asian Americans deal with issues of self-identity and learn how to create their own definitions of race and nationality.

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The biggest challenge that I am currently facing is whether or not these primary texts will be the best sources for directly answering my question of whether or not mixed Asian Americans have the ability to create their own spaces of belonging. These two books address the issue of this space being practically nonexistent and how the characters within the texts wrestle with problems of being torn between multiple identities. As I have not read the entirety of either text yet, I am worried that they will not yield the results that I am hoping for. I want to make sure that the primary texts for my thesis will provide me with examples of mixed Asian American characters being able to accomplish the goal of forging identities and spaces that they are comfortable with and feel a part of without any overbearing anxieties of alienation/exclusion.

Works Cited

Ho, Jennifer Ann. Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture. Rutgers University Press, 2015.

Lee, Don. Country of Origin. W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.

2 thoughts on “Mixed Asian American Identity in “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee” & “Country of Origin”

  1. I think it’s really interesting that one of your chosen texts is a memoir, the other a mystery. The ways that characters are represented (or experience identity within space) throughout several genres would be really exciting to explore. Also, I know that detective fiction (specifically the noir genre) often relies heavily on questions of otherness. Older noir crime novels like The Maltese Falcon sometimes use Asian characters as racist caricatures, so it would be interesting to compare how those types of characters are updated and improved in modern novels vs. in older detective fiction. In other words, could you possibly look at the history of the genres of your primary texts to see if any of the texts are directly subverting genre tropes?

  2. I think, especially due to the obscurity you acknowledge, that your Thesis’ connection to the narratives of mixed-race Asians will ultimately allow you to bring something new to the table of Mixed-race Studies. A quick suggestion on how you discuss mixed-race narratives- I think it’s extremely important to remember that mixed-Asian narratives should not be considered in competition with other mixed-race (whether mixed-Black, mixed-Latinx, etc) narratives, and narratives that ‘emphasize’ these latter identities should only be seen as an encouraging thing that shows the potential of what mixed-Asian narratives can also accomplish. Additionally, when you wrote, “Rekdal cannot call her dance style authentic”, I felt like the mention of authenticity could open up further investigation to the way mixed-Asian spaces are constructed. Basically, does the concept of authenticity create a tension with these spaces, or is the authenticity of the individual and their experience enough to negate socially constructed perceptions of an authentic, singular race? Hopefully these suggestions make sense, but especially after reading the Ho piece and your Facilitation- I’m really curious how you will contend with the issues you raise!

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