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Book Review: Exploring the Borderlands of Race, Nation, Sex and Gender

Growing up in predominantly white Marin County, mixed-race yonsei Akemi Johnson hates her name and just wants to blend in. In college, though, her attitude changes. She studies race and ethnicity and travels to Japan. Though her stated purpose there is to study issues around the American bases in Okinawa, she later writes, ”My real motives were more personal and intertwined with the past, with traumas that had been born many years before.” She reflects on why her grandparents, who were imprisoned at the Tule Lake and Gila River concentration camps, never talked about those experiences. Eventually she returns to America satisfied that she has confronted her “fears of association, shame, really, of my Japanese ancestry—and won.”

Johnson’s story is just one of many that psychologist Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu tells in his latest book, When Half is Whole: Multiethnic Asian American Identities. Exploring the complex issue of identity among mixed-race Asians has been his life work. With subtleness and great empathy he guides us through what he calls “the borderlands” where transnational and multiethnic identities are formed, arguing that in an increasingly globalized world, identities are more flexible and inclusive, and can “challenge the meaning of national and racial categories and boundaries.”

Interwoven through the stories of a vastly varied group of mixed-race Asians are bits and pieces of Murphy-Shigematsu’s own story, told in a hypnotic, at times poetic, style that sets his book apart from other academic studies on the topic. The Tokyo-born son of a Japanese mother and Irish American father, he was educated in Catholic schools in Western Massachusetts, earned a Harvard degree in psychology, connected with his ancestral roots in Japan, married a Japanese woman and raised mixed-race children of his own. To assert his dual-heritage background as well as explain to the world his mixed race face, he changed his surname from Murphy to Murphy-Shigematsu, appending his mother’s maiden name.

An acute sense of isolation and loneliness fueled Murphy-Shigematsu’s struggle to find his place in the world, and his passion for the study of Amerasian identity issues. It also made him uniquely qualified for the role he has carved as author and spokesman on hapa issues, multicultural families and multiethnic identity, as well as for his current position as consulting professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine and lecturer in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity

For the exploding numbers of mixed race Americans, When Half is Whole offers up a wide range of role models, characters who defy societal expectations and forge hybrid identities that empower rather than diminish them. The book will be of interest to any Asian American who, like Johnson, initially embraces mainstream culture then comes to realize that something is missing. Murphy-Shigematsu wonders why for mixed-race Asians like him, “ethnicity is the central guiding factor of their lives,” while for others, it holds seemingly little significance. For some, he writes, “it is easier to be white, dwelling in a comfortable place were color does not exist,” asserting “that race, ethnicity and culture have no meaning in their lives.”

The chapter that recounts the author’s friendship with scholar Lane Hirabayashi and their involvement in the beginnings of the hapa movement is one of the book’s most personal and moving. The two young men, “similary consumed by our identities, community connections and scholarly passions,” meet for the first time in San Francisco in 1984, and feel an immediate kinship. Murphy-Shigematsu jumps into the simmering debate consuming the Asian American community over the term “hapa.” Hirabayashi, the son of a Nisei father and a Norwegian American mother, is in the midst of it, brash enough to take on Japanese American community leaders who reject the word and argue that mixed-race Japanese should simply be considered “beautiful human beings,” or Nikkei (members of the Japanese diaspora, literally “of Japanese lineage”). Hirabayashi insists that the term itself is not important; what matters is how the mixed-race person feels, “the right of the ‘insider’ to define and conceptualize his or her own experience.”

Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu

Murphy-Shigematsu writes, “I loved the message that “we” had the right to self-definition. He notes that the term “hapa”—of Hawaiian origin meaning “part” or “mixed,” as in hapa haole (part Hawaiian, part white)—has since been embraced and popularized as a symbol of mixed Asian American identity and empowerment.

When Half is Whole goes well beyond stories like Johnson’s and Hirabayashi’s. The fascinating range of Asian mixed-race “borderlands” Murphy-Shigematsu explores reflect 30-years’ worth of research and conversations with artists, writers, scholars, performers and filmmakers, whose backgrounds include Korean/Iranian, adopted Korean/Jewish and a young international Japanese American growing up in Kyoto. He even tackles the thorny issue of ethnic Koreans in Japan, some who are fighting to regain their Korean names after being pressured into taking on Japanese names when they became Japanese citizens.

Murphy-Shigematsu’s portrait of Rudy Guevarra introduces us to a fourth-generation “Mexipino” hip-hop artist/gangbanger-turned professor, who realizes he wants to tell the story of the rich history of generations of Mexican Filipino families in San Diego, of eating burritos and bagoong (fermented salted fish paste), or pancit noodles and tamales. A chapter titled “Grits and Sushi,” includes the “Blackanese" woman Mitzi, who explores her African American, Okinawan and Southern upbringing in her blog by that title. She travels to Japan to explore her roots, hoping, and to some extent finding, a more accepting culture. Yet Murphy-Shigematsu points out that race and class are important factors in the treatment of Amerasians: those schooled in international schools will fare better than those on military bases.

In the chapter “Bi Bi Girl,” a biracial Chinese American named Wei Ming Dariotis comes to term not only with her mixed-race heritage but also the realization that she must fight another either/or binary opposition. As she comes to terms with her bisexuality, she realizes that just as she does not have to be only Chinese or American, she does not have to be gay or straight. She becomes a minority-within-a minority, reminding Asian Americans “they are not only excluded but can also exclude others.”

Other affecting chapters of the book discuss mixed-race Okinawans, who are looked down upon as symbols of the long-term presence of the American armed forces on the island. Burdened with a fraught history that stretches back even before the annexation of the Ryukyu Islands by the Meiji government in the late 19th century, Okinawans have endured the devastating Battle of Okinawa and over sixty years of American military presence on their land. Okinawan Amerasians “may be seen as lying at the bottom of a line of aggressors,” writes Murphy-Shigematsu, oppressed by Okinawans who have themselves been victimized.” Whereas Japanese Americans who don’t speak Japanese are the norm, Murphy-Shigematsu points out, in for their counterparts in Okinawa, inability to speak English brands them as shima-haafu, raised on the island and not privy to a private English school education or an upbringing in the States.

At book’s end, Murphy-Shigematsu reflects on his own personal journey, of moving from being obsessed with dichotomies and differences to wanting to make the boundaries of race, nationality and all forms of “otherness” “more pliant, permeable and flexible,” to instead focus on commonalities. Telling these stories, reaching out to others and establishing a community, he comes to realize, is a “way to connect with self and others, synthesize one’s experiences, and find one’s place in the world.” It is when we feel a connection with others, he adds, “that we experience joy in overcoming our existential isolation.”

When Half is Whole: Multiethnic Asian American Identities
By Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu (Stanford University Press)

© 2012 Nancy Matsumoto

Asian Americans hapa identity multiethnicity racially mixed people Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu When Half is Whole (book)
About the Author

Nancy Matsumoto is a freelance writer and editor who covers agroecology, food and drink, the arts, and Japanese and Japanese American culture. She has been a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, Time, People, The Toronto Globe and Mail, Civil Eats, NPR’s The Salt,, and the online Densho Encyclopedia of the Japanese American Incarceration, among other publications. Her book, Exploring the World of Japanese Craft Sake: Rice, Water, Earth, was published in May 2022. Another of her books, By the Shore of Lake Michigan, an English-language translation of Japanese tanka poetry written by her grandparents, is forthcoming from UCLA’s Asian American Studies Press.  Twitter/Instagram: @nancymatsumoto

Updated August 2022

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