4 out of 4 stars
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D.J. Chang was the second generation of a Chinese family immigrating to America after the Chinese Communist Revolution. Since she was the sole Asian girl in a predominantly white community, her childhood was not all roses and sunshine. Despite that, her light was Ah Kung, an elderly domestic worker who used to serve her grandfather. He spoke no English but managed to protect and take care of her. After his sudden death, she mysteriously had the ability to converse with his supposedly spiritual voice. In First Mistake, D.J. retold how Ah Kung’s voice had helped overcome her sexual confusion, relationship fallout, career dissatisfaction, and her inexplicable obsession with death and helpless things. And yet, just like a hamster pointlessly running inside a static wheel, she was still stuck in life. The memoir documented her lifelong attempt to get to the bottom of the problem and fight her way out of the perpetual circle that had dampened her happiness.
The book dealt with many serious topics, such as redemption, forgiveness, and gratitude. However, I would argue that the most significant themes were love and its many facets: love of self, love of significant other, love of God, love of life, and as ridiculous as it sounded, love of mistakes. It was easy to love, but it was much easier to love the wrong way. That was the author’s first mistake. Love without acceptance was deception. Love without responsibility was ignorance. Love without pushing the others to do the right things was compliance and enabling. Love without consideration for the future was just selfish idiocy. Through a painful journey of self-reflection and religious practice, D.J. finally learned what real love was and how love intertwined with faith could lead to contentment and self-actualization.
The lesbian relationship between D.J. and her beloved Caroline was not commonplace, especially when it was complicated by drugs, diseases, and past sexual abuse. However, as D.J. recounted every little detail, such as the house-hunting and the petty arguments stemming from deep-seated insecurities, she gave us the sense that they were a normal couple. The author’s sincere introspection juxtaposing with Caroline’s fragile poems painted the perfect picture of their love: contradictory, painful, private, and beautiful. The gentle melody of Alan Jackson’s Remember When was playing in my head the whole time.
As I was reading First Mistake, I kept imagining D.J. as a middle-aged Chinese woman standing on a modest stage and solemnly narrating her life. To be honest, because of the stark differences in our personalities and life outlooks, I disagreed with most of her decisions and sometimes got irritated by her irrationality, emotional outbursts, and savior complex. Yet, her thoughts still reached me and made me understand, sympathize, and appreciate her as a tender warrior fighting for her love and beliefs. The book captured the political climate of liberal America in the late nineties and early 2000s. It featured many Christian teachings and described how her continuous questioning of God’s intent had driven her to do the good deeds.
The book was professionally edited, and I could hardly find any mistakes. The minor drawback was that although the book hinted at the spiritual aspect in the form of Ah Kung’s voice, I suspected it was just a tool for her inner consciousness to come out. Overall, this was an insightful personal tale packed with intellectual and theological wisdom that one could use in his life.
I rate this book 4 out of 4 stars. First Mistake will be greatly appreciated by mature readers who had experienced ups and downs in life. It will also give precious advice to those who want to engage in a religious journey or those who have the misfortune to love someone difficult. On the downside, it has some descriptions of drug use, sexual abuse, and death. Therefore, if you are in search of an entertaining light read or want to avoid emotionally exhausting and unsettling books, you definitely should steer clear from it.
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