Anne Liu Kellor’s mother was born in Chongqing during World War II, moved around mainland China during the civil war, and fled to Hong Kong with her family in 1950 before settling in Taiwan. Kellor herself grew up in Seattle in a mixed race household. Her Chinese grandmother helped raise her, keeping her hearing and speaking Mandarin until she started replying in English as she neared her teens. Her new memoir, Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Belonging, is a sort of reverse immigration story as Kellor returns to the province of her mother’s birth to feel more connected to that side of her heritage, one that was so central to her early childhood but had faded as she sought to conform more to her environment in Seattle.
She first travels to China while she is still in college, visiting places like Chengdu, Tibet, and Gansu province. Her white American father a lapsed Catholic and her mother raised without formal religion, Kellor feels little affinity with religion until she travels to Tibet. When she returns to college in the US, she becomes involved with Tibetan activists and even meets the Dalai Lama.Yet after a while, she senses there’s something inauthentic about Tibetan Buddhism in the US.
I also never felt comfortable joining the communities of mostly white, middle-aged strangers who populated American Buddhist sanghas. I attended a few meditations and dharma talks, but I was always turned off by the chanting in another language, by anything that hinted of appropriation.
After graduation, China beckons again, so she returns at the age of twenty-four to immerse herself in the language and to finally solidify that connection with her Chinese side.
With no one to report to, no business to check up on, and no agenda except to make my few thousand dollars last as long as possible, I felt released of obligations to others and free to truly live in the moment, in a way that maybe only a monastic or a really young person can. At times I felt incredibly lonely, but I could also choose to stay or move on whenever I wanted. My sense of self was not hinged upon who I was with, or whether or not I remained with a companion or crowd.
Yet it’s the friendships she makes in Chengdu that shape her story and allow her to blossom into the person she is today. Kellor has always been drawn to the arts and she’s fortunate to befriend two Chinese painters in Chengdu, a woman named Xie Ping and a man named Yizhong. Both are cosmopolitan and show her around Chengdu. She travels to other parts of China with Xie Ping. With Yizhong, she starts a long-term romantic relationship that gives her another side of Chengdu. His parents accept her into their home, feeding her and treating her as one of the family, even though she senses from the beginning that her relationship with Yizhong will not be permanent, yet
Within the privacy of our relationship, Yizhong helped me reclaim this language, to make it belong to me again, only this time as an adult. He allowed me to flounder and make mistakes without making me feel stupid or foreign. And he helped me to discover the part of me that had been cut off when I was young, alienated yet not extinguished.
Kellor’s lyrical writing nicely captures the spirit of China in the 1990s, a time when travel was still slow and people weren’t yet engrossed in mobile phones This pace is reflected in the prose as the story never drags.
Towards the end of her stay in China, she travels back to Xiahe in Gansu Province to visit a Tibetan monastery that she had seen on her first trip to China at the age of twenty-one. At this temple, an older woman takes her arm and guides her in the rituals.