A comprehensive and complex look at multiethnic Asian American identities




By Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2012, 248 pp., $21.95, paperback)

The whole spectrum of the mixed race, multiethnic Asian American experience could never be contained in a single book. That said, Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu’s new book, “When Half is Whole,” comes pretty close (without ever setting out to do so). The book is a series of profiles of mixed race and multiethnic Asian and Asian American people, tied together by the author’s personal reflections and explanations of how these people both shape and are shaped by their larger cultural contexts. The people featured in the book have ancestries that include Chinese, Japanese, Okinawan, Filipino, Mexican, black and white. They come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, grew up in different countries, and have different sexual orientations. Some have Asian mothers, others Asian fathers. Yet each person’s experience is portrayed with nuance and sensitivity.

The fact that Murphy-Shigematsu is, himself, a mixed race Asian American who has spent much of his personal and professional life thinking about the issues he explores in this book, shows. It’s also evident that he has genuine and long lasting relationships with many of the people he profiles. Murphy-Shigematsu’s background and relationships have allowed him to write a book that is, on one level, a rigorous study of race that spans two continents, but that reads like a memoir. Even as it tackles complex cultural, historical and psychological issues, it never becomes dry or academic, because it grounds its points firmly in the stories of real people’s lives. And while the writing is clear, engaging and deeply personal, it is also incredibly objective and even-handed.

This may be because Murphy-Shigematsu’s background allows him to be incisive in a way that others could not be. He is able to take a critical look at the experiences of the people he profiles, yet he never comes across as condescending, because he looks upon his own feelings and experience with the same unwaveringly honesty. In fact, his candor and honesty are refreshingly respectful. Too often, writings about mixed-race people treat their subjects merely as victims of intolerance to be pitied, or hold them up as a fortunate few who are blessed with “the best of both worlds.” Murphy-Shigematsu takes on both of these characterizations, highlighting both their partial-basis in truth (in some instances), and how problematic it is to use either to represent the diverse experiences of mixed race people.

And, really, that’s probably the most unique thing about “When Half is Whole.” The book manages to be very comprehensive in the spectrum of experiences it captures and, at the same time, never shallow or simplistic.


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