[REVIEW] “A Bittersweet Reminder: Reviewing Rabbit in the Moon” by Karen Ma

{Written by Karen Ma, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Heather Diamond, Rabbit in the Moon, Camphor Press, 2021. 302 pgs.

Editors’ note: Rabbit in the Moon is scheduled for publication on 11 May 2021.

Rabbit in the Moon is a thoughtful, at times hilarious, memoir about a late bloomer giving it all to find love and reinvent herself in unlikely places. Although the read is slightly uneven in places, it is ultimately a celebratory American tale about hitting the midlife reset button and following your dreams to exotic destinations.

Heather Diamond, a shy, introverted 45-year-old white American mother and grandmother with Russian roots, becomes involved in a whirlwind love affair with an ethnomusicologist from Hong Kong while doing a summer China course in Hawaii. Diamond is initially unsure about her budding romance with Fred Lau because they are both married and she is set on entering a PhD programme in Hawaii. But she soon follows him to the Hong Kong island of Cheung Chau to meet his large, boisterous family. Before long, the fiercely independent Diamond, now mid-way through her ethnographer training, finds herself Fred’s gweilo (Cantonese term for Western) bride and “foreign sideshow”, adjusting to an unfamiliar life in the former colony. Along the way, she battles culture shock, the language barrier and a lack of privacy. 

The 285-page memoir is divided into three parts. Part I, at 110 pages, is easily the most titillating part of the book because Diamond writes with zeal, wit and self-deprecation, providing us with juicy titbits about how her younger self comes to flirt with the stout and tanned Fred at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii and ends up in bed. She also details their ensuing efforts to keep up the romance while shedding their respective marriages, and recounts their four-year courtship at the EWC as a cross-cultural couple. Fred, with his rough-and-tumble ways, is nothing like the author’s first two tall (and shy) husbands, yet the younger Heather cannot help falling for the loud, fearless academic who is “closer to my own size, our conversations always on the same level”. He wants to protect her, makes her laugh out loud and welcomes her into his world. 

Mid-way through Part II—which covers Heather’s year-long life as a trailing spouse when Fred goes on sabbatical to teach in Hong Kong—however, Diamond’s prose begins to drag. The problem is not with the author’s writing, which remains well-crafted, but what she chooses to include in this segment.

Diamond starts out with an intimate portrayal about living nearby in Amah and Abah’s (Fred’s parents’) house on Cheung Chau. But she soon goes into overdrive with elaborate details about every temple festival, ancestor ritual, community parade and cultural tour she becomes involved in during the short nine months on the island. Of the 11 chapters in this section, almost half cover her observations of these events: there is an entire chapter on a parade on neighbouring Peng Chau island in honour of the god for saving people from a plague; another one on the Hungry Ghost Festival when people make offerings for the dead and a three-page description about a serendipitous visit to a healer who helps Fred “beat the bad spirits” so his colleague will stop bothering him. The list goes on.

With so much elaborate description within such a short space, the read is simply overwhelming, making these chapters among the hardest to wade through. Somewhere in the book Diamond says that as a trained ethnographer with academic expertise in folklore and tourism, she has “endless curiosity about traditions”. What she forgets is that not every reader shares her enthusiasm. More importantly, the long-winded expositions are mostly fact-based, offering few insights into the author’s emotional journey.

It would have been much more effective if Diamond focused here on the tension of her personal life and reflections about people who have given her meaning. For instance, she could have probed a bit deeper into family conflicts with her in-laws and Fred. She is a new bride and this is an intercultural marriage, after all. But most of the culture clashes she recounts are mentioned only in passing, such as when Amah enters their room without knocking. In fact, one senses that the author is a bit guarded with her thoughts about the Lau family, and even her own emotions and backstory.

The saving grace is two chapters about Diamond’s parents visiting Hong Kong and her friendship with an expat named Rani. In these chapters, we get a glimpse into the author’s more vulnerable side, including her realisation that she has failed to warn her working-class parents to bring gifts to her in-laws on their first meeting, and other faux pas; as well as her feelings of envy and resentment when she discovers that Rani lives in a gorgeous flat in Pok Fu Lam while she puts up with a borrowed place in the austerity of Cheung Chau.

Diamond does find her rhythm again in Part III, where she provides thoughtful musings about her Russian family roots and what she has learned about life, family and death over the years. Here’s where Diamond connects her grandfather’s journey to America through China’s north-eastern province of Heilongjiang. She draws an interesting comparison between her Russian Orthodox grandmother’s “mixed marriage” to a Russian Jew—for which she paid dearly, being rejected forever by her family—and the author’s own cross-cultural marriage to Fred.

Part III also offers observant cultural comparisons between the Diamond and Lau families, including the different attitudes towards death, ageing and inter-personal relations. When Diamond’s father’s heart gives out one day, we see her family thrown into chaos over what to do at the hospital. Diamond remembers her father once said he didn’t want to be resuscitated. Yet she also knows that “however much my father might have wanted a fast ticket out when it was his time to go, he wasn’t ready…” because “despite a failing body…. he was still planning to stick around”.

In contrast, the Lau family is far more accepting of death, as is seen in Amah’s comment that “a funeral for an old person like my father or Second Aunt is a ‘laughing funeral’ because the deceased has lived a long life, and family is there to attend to their final passage”.

Similarly, accustomed to close family ties, Amah and Abah “welcome the attentions that come with age as benefits”, while Diamond’s mom Arlene, who values independence, “hates being considered old”.

In many ways, Rabbit in the Moon, which takes place between 1998 and 2014, is less a book about surviving an intercultural marriage than a meditation on what it means to be a family with diverse backgrounds. In that sense, it differs from many similar memoirs involving Asia that end as cautionary tales. This one is all about taking a deep dive into an unfamiliar culture and coming out wiser and more accepting of what life has to offer.

At one point in the book, Diamond writes about the lessons she has learned:

I wonder if generational difference is just another form of cultural divide. How many encounters did it take for me to climb over my internal fences between America and Hong Kong? I’ve learned that getting past difference takes thinking like an anthropologist and then not. It takes time, proximity, acceptance, compassion, and a big dose of humour. It takes humility. I need those same tools on the journey back home. 

—Heather Diamond, Rabbit in the Moon.

Insightful, upbeat and written with humour in eloquent prose, this one is also for those curious about academic life in Hawaii and some lesser-known Hong Kong traditions, especially those involving the former colony’s smaller islands. As the future of Hong Kong becomes less clear, Rabbit in the Moon will likely remain a bittersweet reminder of what life once was like in the territory when things were quieter.  

How to cite: Ma, Karen. “A Bittersweet Reminder: Reviewing Rabbit in the Moon.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 28 Apr. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/04/28/rabbit-in-the-moon/ 

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Karen Ma is a US-based Chinese-American writer who holds an MA from the University of Washington in Chinese Language and Literature. Raised in Hong Kong and Japan, Ma spent the last 15 years living in China, India, and the United States. She writes frequently about Chinese literature, culture and film for international publications, including The New York Times (Chinese), NPR, The International Herald Tribune, ChinaFileKyoto Journal, South China Morning Post and VCinema. She is also the author of Excess Baggage (China Books, 2013), a semi-autobiographical novel based loosely on her family’s experience in the 1990s as Chinese immigrants living in Japan. Visit her website for more information. (Photo credit: Daniel Berehulak.)

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