Don Lee’s Long War on Asian American Stereotypes

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By Don Lee

Few fiction writers have worked as tirelessly to subvert stereotypes about “Orientals” as the Korean American Don Lee. The protagonists in his debut, the 2001 story collection “Yellow,” range in ethnicity (from Korean to Japanese to Chinese) and occupation (from professional elites to mad poets), suggesting the heterogeneity of contemporary Asian American life. Lee’s novels, whether about Asian spies in 1980s Japan (“Country of Origin”) or bohemian Asian artists in Cambridge, Mass. (“The Collective”), also span a broad spectrum. But the organizing conceit of all his fiction has remained consistent: Asian Americans are not monoliths.

“The Partition,” Lee’s first collection of stories since “Yellow,” represents a return to form, replaying many of the same thematic and stylistic concerns from his debut. The opening story, “Late in the Day,” follows the failed career of a once-promising indie filmmaker who now makes vanity projects for rich Californian Asians. “Confidants” lingers on the everyday romantic exploits of two Asian Americans: one a high school dropout who quickly lets us know he is “not a model minority,” and the other an alluring English professor at Johns Hopkins. In “UFOs” (an acronym for “Ugly Orientals,” with an unprintable adjective in between), a Korean American news reporter who has plastic surgery and Anglicizes her name to Victoria Crawford simultaneously dates two men: a white guy with an Asian fetish, named Richard, and an Asian doctor and purported UFO named Yung-duk Moon. The story ends with a twist, perhaps a predictable one in Lee’s hands; Victoria dumps Yung-duk in a moment of sudden cruelty, only to realize later that the true UFO might be herself.

Here we meet the same figures and tropes from “Yellow”: striving artists who sell out; slackers; lovers with internalized self-hatred that turns them violently bitter and paranoid. Many different faces fall under the loose and muddied category “yellow,” though “The Partition” is largely populated by those of East Asian descent (that is, those who have historically been put into this category); South and Southeast Asians rarely appear in his books. Still, Lee narrates from a collective perspective, his stories offering a kaleidoscopic vision of all the ways it feels to be yellow.

Most of the stories in “The Partition” feature aging characters who look back nostalgically on an earlier period in their life. “Years Later,” the shortest story in the collection, depicts a young woman’s erotic encounter, climaxing in a proleptic vision of her hitherto unknown future: “She wanted it to last forever, this feeling — youth, time, glory, everything still before her, waiting, her extraordinary life — but she felt it rolling over her and gave in to it.” Sentences like these, intended to move the reader, often tip into overwritten melodrama. Lee’s stories are often about disappointment, but his prose, too, can disappoint in deflating moments such as these.

The book concludes with an ambitious three-story cycle titled “Les Hôtels d’Alain,” which tracks the itinerant bildung of one Alain Kweon from his youth as an aspiring thespian to his lonely middle-aged years as a washed-up actor, who now runs a successful chain of artisanal boba shops. “I had had this amorphous idea that my boba tea business would be a way to affirm and celebrate my — and other Asian Americans’ — racial heritage,” Alain reflects late in the final story. “Yet boba tea wasn’t Korean or Okinawan or anything else of mine ethnically. It’d simply been another appropriation, another commodification in the guise of cultural identity. What did it amount to? … Had it all been a lie?”

These questions resonate fearfully throughout “The Partition.” In some ways, Alain is a kind of Everyman — the aimless, alienated American male overpopulating the classic short stories of John Cheever, J. D. Salinger and Richard Yates. When he’s viewed through the lens of Lee’s significant career and contributions, however, it’s hard not to read Alain also as a metaphor for the collective struggles of contemporary Asian American self-representation. And how much there is still left to do.

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