Swans Commentary » swans.com January 17, 2005  



Don Lee's Country of Origin


by Milo Clark


Book Review




Don Lee, Country of Origin, W. W. Norton, New York, 2004, ISBN 0-393-05812-3.


(Swans - January 17, 2005)  Novelist Don Lee is Korean-American or an American of Korean descent. He is sensitive to racial, ethnic and cultural nuances.

Hawaii abounds with people called "hapa." Hapa are multiracial, multicultural and multiethnic. Walking diversity.

Hawaii is touted as a multicultural society. We are said to have high tolerance for differences. My wife Lee and I are happy to be in the minority here. Yet, the ethnic and racial groupings of Hawaii are no less and in some ways more xenophobic than most communities. While we abound in interracial marriages and seem overrun with hapa children, resentments run strong among the older generations.

Peoples of Asian origins now living in Hawaii are strongly intolerant of negroid peoples. Blacks, as now popularized, tend to be uncomfortable in Hawaii. "Kurombo" is very rarely heard spoken, yet it is the Nipponese insult signifying Black people. Koreans taken to Japan during the years of occupation (1910-1945) were never assimilated. Like pale-skinned Blacks attempting to "pass," being zainichi is akin to a yellow star in Hitler's Germany.

Japanese are among the world's most openly xenophobic people. Similarly, Americans rank high in the more covert xenophobic categories. In short, in spite of "advances" after the Civil Rights battles of the late 20th century, racism and its relatives have little abated in fact. Notice the acceptance and prevalence now of skinheads, for example. Not a very subtle code, though.

Overt distinctions tend to be more evident in contemporary America in terms of socio-economic stratifications imposed on racial underlays. Let a minority member move into a type of neighborhood and the first questions will relate to whether or not that person or family has a decent job, drives a decent car, sends kids to decent schools, dresses decently etc. If "yes," then a kind of superficial tolerance will set in. Tolerance of the sort classified as "Some of my best friends are ......."

Don Lee has written a subtle tale of such distinctions and their behavioral manifestations. Country of Origin uses Japan as site. In it, he mixes hapas and displaced home bodies returned to Japan in a variety of interacting situations. Within all those situations and interlocking relationships, a distinguishing characteristic always involves racial and ethnic criteria.

Spreading over more than 40 years from occupation times to present, Lee shows how these subtle and non-so-subtle distinctions color so much and ultimately dictate plot. Hapa peoples anywhere are faced with struggles of identity and cultural loyalties unknown to others not so branded.

In America, the once clear lines among European descendants have blurred with time. Features generally Caucasian yield to fewer evident distinctions than those related to Asian or African ancestries. Yet those of African ancestry were formerly given classifications related exclusively to their purported degrees of African blood: Octoroon, quadroon, mulatto were once more commonly heard or written than today. An octoroon would be one eighth African ancestry. Quadroon, one quarter. Mulatto could be anyone of lighter colored skin passing or attempting to pass yet classified for the degree of African ancestry noted or assumed. People of Caucasian ancestry were rarely identified in such ways.

Mr. Barrak Obama, newly elected Senator from Illinois, has a Caucasian mother and a hapa father of mostly African ancestry. Media insist on naming him "Black." His childhood years were spent in a variety of places, many overseas, none of which are in America's overtly racist South. He lived in Hawaii for a number of years. Is he labeled "Black" as a means of enhancing his political career or damaging it?

Don Lee's competent writing skills weave complex webs involving his characters in situations inevitably colored by Country of Origin. Some of his key characters are involved with the American embassy in Japan. The Foreign Service hierarchy keeps hapas in minor level jobs beyond which few are promoted. CIA operatives use their hapa characteristics to ingratiate themselves with Japanese deemed to be useful to promoting American interests. Yet, being hapa remains a barrier to inclusion or to acceptance even though of Japanese ancestry.

Lee is describing a kind of cultural or societal rot. This rot gnaws at foundations. No matter how papered over it may seem, the rot quietly undermines. Country of Origin is about rot manifested in many overt and covert forms. Toward the end of the novel, Lee subtly expands the extent of rot. Two of his men meet after more than twenty years separation. Both had worked in the American Embassy in Tokyo. Each in his own way has gone on with his life with varying degrees of satisfaction, with little or no regret.

Talking about their times in Japan more than twenty years before, Tom senses that: "After 1980, everything had changed -- decades of solipsism and greed that seemed without end. The Cold War was over. The Japanese economic bubble had burst. Countries and civilizations rose and fell. But the great divisions of ethnicity and class and religion raged on, and everything was still, in the end, about money. The world was a much meaner place now, more superficial, more corruptible. There were scandals, but nothing was really scandalous, because the worst things imaginable happened everyday and were immediately packaged into entertainment. No one seemed to have any innocence left to lose. Yet, underneath it all, people still lived out a million heartrending dramas of no consequence, searching for love and kinship, finding joy and betrayal. Hostage to their hearts." (p. 310)

Welcome to tsunamiland, successor to Rwandaland, Sudanland, Somaliland, Iraqland, . . . Disneyland and to all the moments of tragedies past their 15 minutes of entertainment.

The more it changes, the more it is the same. Thank you, Don Lee, for an entertaining perspective on déjà vu.


· · · · · ·
Don Lee, Country of Origin, W. W. Norton, New York, 2004, ISBN 0-393-05812-3.

It can also be ordered from your local independent bookstore through Booksense.
Simply enter your Zip code and click on "Go" to find all local independent bookstores near you (in the U.S.):

· · · · · ·


Internal Resources

Book Review on Swans


About the Author

Milo Clark on Swans (with bio).



Please, feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Milo Clark 2005. All rights reserved.


Have your say

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.


· · · · · ·


This Edition's Internal Links

America Has Left The Building... - by Phil Rockstroh & John Steppling

Working With Havel - by Charles Marowitz

Tsunami Relief: A Study In Hypocrisy - by Joe Davison

God And Country - by Manuel García, Jr.

The Insurgent Word: Bring It On? - by Gerard Donnelly Smith

Instructive Quotations - Dossier: Behind the Israeli Propaganda

The Dumb Prophet: An Allegory of Intelligence - by Gerard Donnelly Smith

Blips #10 - From the Editor's desk

Letters to the Editor

· · · · · ·


[About]-[Past Issues]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Copyright]



URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/mgc147.html
Published January 17, 2005