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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #1 (January 4, 2005), page 12.

Tell me who I am

Country of Origin

By Don Lee

Norton, 2004

Hardcover, 315 pages, $24.95

By Josephine Bridges

She was never black enough, or Oriental enough, or white enough, and everyone always felt deceived if she didn’t announce her ethnic taxonomy upon meeting them, as if not doing so were a calculated sin of omission, as if she were trying to pass. But just as often, when she did claim racial solidarity with a group, people didn’t believe her, suspecting she was merely trying to appropriate the radical-chic color of the month." Lisa Countryman never felt she belonged anywhere, and in Tokyo, in 1980, the prickly, desperate young woman has disappeared.

"For a police inspector, he had very poor powers of observation, he had to admit. He took that back. They were not poor. They were sometimes heightened, electrified, excruciatingly sensitized, but, alas, misplaced." Kenzo Ota has a lot on his mind — noisy air conditioners, neighbors and elevators in his apartment building, a fat juvenile delinquent who may be his son, his relegation to the dead-end "window tribe" at work — but something about Lisa Countryman tugs on his conscience, even as he’s ordered to forget about her.

Tom Hurley, a Junior Foreign Service Officer at the American Embassy, catches Lisa’s case. Half white and half Korean, Hurley tells everyone he’s Hawaiian. He also exaggerates everything from his height to his familiarity with architecture. "He fixated, he obsessed, he studied and practiced, and then, in short order, he dropped it altogether. He was a dilettante, a self-aggrandizing dabbler, in almost everything he did, not able to follow through to the end with anything, in particular with women."

"People don’t have affairs to get out of their marriages," says the wife of a CIA officer with whom Hurley thinks he is falling in love. "They have them to prolong them."

"It’s because we don’t have last names for first names," is how veteran Consular Officer Jorge Hernandez explains the workplace stagnation he and his colleagues of color are facing. "If you really want to belong to the Yankee establishment, you need a good Eastern Seaboard, old-money first name like Ellsworth or Thorne."

Don Lee’s Tokyo is as vivid as his characters. The musical style known as enka, he tells his readers, is "the Japanese equivalent of country-and-western." At the other end of the spectrum is kaiseki, a rarefied dining experience that could cost 500 dollars a person even in 1980. Diners at one such restaurant are led to their tables by a hostess carrying "a very unique lantern — a cage made of bamboo and glass, filled with fireflies." There’s a bar called the Stockholm Farm Lounge "that predictably had no associations with anything Swedish or agricultural," a "No-Panty coffeehouse," and a bizarre array of nightclubs, including one with "a fake office in which salarymen could indulge in sekuharu — sexual harassment."

Country of Origin evokes so many facets of the year 1980 that it feels a little like a time machine. "Some forecasters surmised that volcanic ash from Mount St. Helens was to blame" for the coldest summer in Tokyo in three quarters of a century. Carole King’s Tapestry album is playing at a bar. There’s news from Iran, El Salvador, Afghanistan — none of it good.

Fans of Yellow, Don Lee’s collection of linked short stories, will be pleased to note a passing reference to a certain northern California town. English language enthusiasts will delight in Lee’s use of gorgeous, uncommon words like "detritus," "sundry," "venial," and "skosh."

Don Lee draws his wise and compassionate exploration of belonging to a close more than twenty years later, in Hawaii, and in Lisa’s vision of her mother seeing the United States for the first time: "A land where all was possible, where truth prevailed, goodness was rewarded, and beauty could be found in the meeting of outcasts … We are orphans, all of us, she thought. And this is our home."

 

 

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