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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #12 (March 18-24, 2003), page 13.

What are you?


By Don Lee

W.W. Norton, 2002

Paperback, 255 pages, $13.95

By Josephine Bridges

"I don’t go around every minute of the day thinking I am Asian, and neither do the characters in this book," writes Don Lee, editor of the literary journal Ploughshares, in the question-and-answer section that accompanies Yellow, a collection of eight linked stories. "I wanted to show that Asian Americans can be just as individual and diverse, as sexy, feisty, athletic, articulate, neurotic, and screwed up as anyone else in America." Indeed many of Lee’s characters — Americans of Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino ancestry — have only Rosarita Bay, an imaginary California coastal town, in common.

Marcella Ahn is a wealthy and critically acclaimed poet of Korean-American ancestry; Caroline Yip, "roundly dispatched as a mediocre talent" following the publication of her book of poetry, Chicks of Chinese Descent, makes a living as a waitress. Caroline’s Japanese-American boyfriend, Dean Kaneshiro, a fine furniture maker embarrassed by his fame, completes the uneasy triad in "The Price of Eggs in China."

In "Voir Dire," Korean-American public defender Hank Low Kwan struggles with his girlfriend’s pregnancy and his ethical responsibility to his client, a Chinese-American cocaine addict on trial for the murder of his girlfriend’s three-year-old son. "How can I say I’ll be able to protect this child, when I’m putting people like Lam back on the streets?" Kwan wonders aloud.

Annie Yung, a Korean-American database programmer visiting her sister in Rosarita Bay, feels she belongs at "The Lone Night Cantina," where she wears "a bleached-blond hairdo that looked for all the world like a plastic stalagmite," listens to Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline songs, and hopes to meet a cowboy. Her "lonesome stranger" eventually shows up, but he isn’t what she’s been expecting.

"We’re not Amerasian," Patrick Fenny tells his little brother Brian in "Casual Water." "That’s what they call people whose mothers are Vietnamese." Patrick, valedictorian of his high school class, has been accepted at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Lita, their mother, returned to the Philippines years ago, and their father, Davis, has abandoned the boys to try to salvage his career as a professional golfer. Unable to decide between his future and his brother, Patrick wonders, "Was this what Davis and Lita had felt, internal organs choking with guilt because they wanted, more than anything else, to escape?"

The title story is this collection’s longest and most complex. Danny Kim, born in Rosarita Bay a year after his parents’ emigration from Seoul, "wanted to be exemplary, unquestionably American." His height and exotic features lead whites and Asians to ask him, "What are you?" and he resents the implication that he "is not a real American." As a teenager, he learns to box, despite a haunting fear of the ring. When he panics and begins to fight dirty, an opponent calls him "Yellow" and Danny retaliates with a head-butt that puts an end to his boxing days. "Never mind that he was filled with self-loathing and doubt," Danny excels in college, dating only white women, and distancing himself from "insular, provincial … and hopelessly square" Asians. Filled with despair that his first real romance can’t last, he destroys it and blames the woman. A few years later, he shocks his mother by asking her to arrange a marriage to a Korean American. When Rachel gives birth to his son, Danny is disappointed with the boy’s appearance, "a dull physiognomy, characteristic of Orientals."

Just when the reader is about to give up on this jerk, he begins to get a clue. When his rival for a company partnership asks, "Do you love your family?" Danny is distressed by the realization that "he could not automatically declare, Yes, they’re what I live for." His wife has also heard one excuse too many. "Racism’s not the problem," Rachel tells him. "It’s you. You’ve got no heart, Daniel. You’ve got no soul." But a head butt just like the one that disgraced him years ago in the boxing ring figures ironically into a heroic act that at last frees Danny from his fear.

Don Lee is generous with the resonance of language, the echoes and layers of meaning in a word as simple as Yellow. He also has the confidence to allow these stories the loose ends that make them believable and keep the reader returning to the scene of the mystery: What role will Hank choose to play in his child’s future? Poised as he is at the edge of adulthood, what kind of man will Danny’s son become? A reading group guide that follows the collection contains 17 more questions as thought-provoking as the stories themselves.


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