In this collection of short essays, novelist Gee constructs a mosaic of her life from tiny fragments.
The author is used to confounding misguided expectations about Chinese American–ness. “I was born in St. Louis, Missouri,” she writes at the beginning of “Mother Tongue.” “Does that surprise you? I also lived in Houston, Texas, and for a while, I spoke with a southern accent. A little Chinese girl with a drawl, y’all.” Gee was raised in a Christian family, though her parents later lapsed, and her mother eventually became a Buddhist; the author herself experienced a teenage flirtation with Evangelicalism. When her family moved from the United States to Hong Kong in 1983, when she was 14 years old, she keenly felt her outsider status. In these brief essays, she probes moments that highlight the complexities of her identity. The pieces explore her experience at an American boarding school, her expatriate years working in China, marriage, parenthood, and her still-complicated relationship with her mother, among other topics. There are also pieces about Hawaii, where Gee and her husband settled, including a terrifying account of a 2018 missile-attack false alarm and a gastronomically focused “Ode to the Spam Musubi.” Gee’s prose style is taut and lyrical, often bordering on prose poetry: “When I say I’m Chinese American, no one asks what part Chinese, what part American. I am a pie divided, not devoured.” The micro-essay format lends itself to the interrogation of photographs, lullabies, conversations, and text exchanges. One piece, for instance, is a series of captioned illustrations about her family that Gee made at age 10. Sometimes, she revels in the format’s inability to tell everything, as in “Tiny Love Story,” which summarizes her history with her husband in only 98 words. Such summaries highlight important details while also calling attention to everything left unsaid. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the format, some essays feel more realized than others. But overall, the reading experience is one of accumulation. Readers will walk away feeling as though they’ve been swimming in an ocean, even though they’ve only felt a few drops of rain.
A slim, satisfying set of miniature nonfiction works.