Cover image for Yellow : stories
Yellow : stories
Lee, Don, 1959-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Norton, [2001]

Physical Description:
255 pages ; 21 cm
The price of eggs in China -- Voir dire -- Widowers -- The lone night cantina -- Casual water -- The possible husband -- Domo arigato -- Yellow.
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A collection of stories set in the fictional town of Rosarita Bay, California, examines what it means to be Asian in America.

Author Notes

Don Lee lives in Boston, where he is the editor of the literary journal Ploughshares.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Just imagine Annie Yung. She's 38, with a good software job in Silicon Valley, but now she's listening to Patsy Cline, wearing tight jeans, cowboy boots, and a "bleached-blonde hairdo that looked for all the world like a plastic stalagmite." She's looking for love in a cowboy bar in Rosarita Bay (aka Half Moon Bay, California). It's no surprise that the guy she meets turns out to have as many complications as she does. And Annie is typical of the Asian American characters you'll meet in these lyrical and intriguing short stories. There's surfer Duncan Roh, whose search for a woman to marry is getting nowhere. One of his lovers is a reference librarian whom he met at a meditation class where she was seeking relief from the great stress in her life caused by people asking stupid questions. She dumps Duncan for his lack of self-awareness. Each of Lee's achingly vulnerable characters deals with totally believable fears, plus an added layer of racial awareness. The final story, "Yellow," sums it all up in the struggles of handsome Danny Kim, whose perspective is continually skewed by his fear of racism. The Rosarita Bay setting provides connection, but the characters also mingle, adding texture to a compelling, beautifully written collection. --Peggy Barber

Publisher's Weekly Review

Set mostly in Rosarita Bay, a fictional coastal town near San Francisco, this debut collection from the editor of the literary journal Ploughshares traces the lives (usually the romantic lives) of a motley assortment of male protagonists. Lee examines the circumstances of Asians living in white society, as well as the differences and occasional tensions, mostly unnoticed by Anglos between persons of various Asian descents. "The Price of Eggs in China" finds gifted furniture designer Dean Kaneshiro caught in the middle of a feud between his girlfriend, Caroline Yip, and Marcella Ahn (aka the Oriental Hair Poets). Caroline is convinced that the more successful Marcella exists only to torment her, and Dean hatches a dubious plan to end their years-old rivalry. In "Voir Dire," public defender Hank Low Kwon grapples with his representation of a cocaine addict accused of beating his girlfriend's infant son to death. Hank's anxiety over the case and his occupation in general is exacerbated by the pregnancy of his own girlfriend, Molly, a blonde diving coach. And Korean-American oncologist Eugene Kim contemplates the peculiarities of mixed-race romances in "Domo Arigato," recalling an ill-fated weekend spent in Japan 20 years ago with a white girlfriend and her parents. Eugene wonders if "you couldn't overcome the hatreds of countries or race, any more than you could forgive someone for breaking your heart." Hatred and heartbreak, though, are mitigated by Lee's cool yet sympathetic eye and frequently dark sense of humor, as when, in the title story, young Danny Kim watches in horror as a drunk kisses his father on the mouth and proclaims, "I forgive you for Pearl Harbor." Agent, Maria Massie. (Apr.) Forecast: This appealing collection shouldn't be relegated to Asian Studies shelves. The fact that Norton is the publisher, coupled with word-of-mouth interest among the literary set, may boost crossover appeal. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One THE PRICE OF EGGS IN CHINA It was noon when Dean Kaneshiro arrived at Oriental Hair Poet No. 2's house, and as she opened the door, she said, blinking, "Hello. Come in. I'm sorry. I'm not quite awake."     He carried his measuring rig through the living room, noting the red birch floor, the authentic Stickley, the Nakashima table, the Maloof credenza--good craftsmanship, carefully selected, this poet, Marcella Ahn, was a woman who knew wood.     "When you called," she said in her study, "I'd almost forgotten. It's been over two years! I hope I wasn't too difficult to track down."     Immediately Dean was annoyed. When she had ordered the chair, he had been clear about his backlog, and today was the exact date he'd given her for the fitting. And she had been difficult to track down, despite his request, two years ago, that she notify him of any changes of address. Her telephone number in San Francisco had been disconnected, and he had had to find her book in the library, then call her publisher in New York, then her agent, only to learn that Marcella Ahn had moved an hour south of San Francisco to the very town, Rosarita Bay, where he himself lived. Never mind that he should have figured this out, having overheard rumors of yet another Asian poet in town with spectacular long hair, rumors which had prompted the references to her and Caroline Yip, his girlfriend of eight months, as the Oriental Hair Poets.     He adjusted his rig. Marcella Ahn was thin and tall, but most of her height was in her torso, not her legs--typical of Koreans. She wore tight midnight-blue velvet pants, lace-up black boots, and a flouncy white Victorian blouse, her tiny waist cinched by a thick leather belt.     "Sit, please," he said. She settled into the measuring rig. He walked around her twice, then said, "Stand up, please." After she got up, he fine-tuned the back supports and armrests and shortened the legs. "Again, please."     She sat down. "Oh, that's much better, infinitely better," she said. "You can do that just by looking?"     Now came the part that Dean always hated. He could use the rig to custom-fit his chairs for every part of the body except for one. "Could you turn around, please?"     "Sorry?"     "Could you turn around? For the saddling of the seat?"     Marcella Ahn's eyes lighted, and the whitewash of her foundation and powder was suddenly broken by the mischievous curl of her lips, which were painted a deep claret. "You mean you want to examine ... my buttocks ?"     He could feel sweat popping on his forehead. "Please."     Still smirking, she raised her arms, the ruffled cuffs of her blouse dropping away, followed by the jangling release of two dozen silver bracelets on each wrist. There were silver rings on nearly every digit, too, and with her exquisitely lacquered fingers, she slowly gathered her hair--straight and lambent and hanging to midthigh--and raked it over one shoulder so it lay over her breast. Then she pivoted on her toe, turned around, and daintily lifted the tail of her blouse to expose her butt.     He squatted behind her and stared at it for a full ten seconds. It was a good butt, a firm, StairMastered butt, a shapely, surprisingly protuberant butt.     She peeked over her shoulder. "Need me to bend over a little?" she asked.     He bounced up and moved across the room and pretended to jot down some notes, then looked around. More classic modern furniture, very expensive. And the place was neat, obsessive-compulsive neat. He pointed to her desk. "You'll be using the chair here?"     "Yes."     "To do your writing?"     "Uh-huh."     "I'll watch you, then. For twenty minutes, please."     "What? Right now?"     "It'll help me to see you work, how you sit, maybe slouch."     "It's not that simple," she said.     "No?"     "Of course not. Poets can't write on demand. You know nothing about poetry, do you?"     "No, I don't," Dean said. All he ever read, in fact, were mystery novels. He went through three or four of them a week--anything with a crime, an investigation. He was now so familiar with forensic techniques, he could predict almost any plot twist, but his head still swam in delight at the first hint of a frame-up or double-cross.     He glanced out the window. Marcella Ahn lived off Skyview Ridge Road, which crested the rolling foothills, and she had one of the few panoramic views of Rosarita Bay--the harbor to the north, the marsh to the south, the town in the middle, and, everywhere beyond, the vast Pacific.     Marcella Ahn had her hands on her hips. "And I don't slouch," she said.     Eventually he did convince her to sit in her present desk chair, an ugly vinyl contraption with pneumatic levers and bulky ergonomic pads. She opened a bound notebook and uncapped a fountain pen, and hovered over the blank page for what seemed like a long time. Then she abruptly set everything aside and booted up her laptop computer. "What do you do with clients who aren't within driving distance?"     "I ask for a videotape, and I talk to their tailor. Try to work, please. Then I'll be out of your way."     "I feel so silly."     "Just pretend I'm not here," he said.     Marcella Ahn continued to stare at the computer screen. She shifted, crossed her legs, and tucked them underneath her. Finally, she set her fingers on the keys and tapped out three words--all she could manage, apparently. She exhaled heavily. "When will the chair be ready?"     "I'll start on it next month, on April twentieth, then three weeks, so May eleventh," he told her, though he required only half that time. He liked to plan for contingencies, and he knew his customers wanted to believe--especially with the prices they were paying--that it took him longer to make the chairs.     "Can I visit your studio?" she asked.     "No, you cannot."     "Ah, you see, you can dish it--"     "It would be very inconvenient."     "For twenty minutes."     "Please don't," he said.     "Seriously. I can't swing by for a couple of minutes?"     "No."     Marcella Ahn let out a dismissive puff. "Artists," she said. Oriental Hair Poet No. 1 was a slob. Caroline Yip lived in an apartment above the R. B. Feed & Hardware store, one small room with a Pullman kitchen, a cramped bathroom, and no closets. Her only furnishings were a futon, a boom box, and a coffee table, and the floor was littered with clothes, CDs, shoes, books, newspapers, bills, and magazines. There was a thick layer of grease on the stovetop, dust and hair and curdled food on every other surface, and the bathroom was clogged with sixty-two bottles of shampoo and conditioner, some half-filled, most of them empty.     Dean had stayed in the apartment only once--the first time they had slept together. He had lain naked on her futon, and Caroline had inspected his erection, baldly surveying it from different angles. "Your penis looks like a fire hydrant," she had said. "Everything about you is short, squat, and thick." It was true. Dean was an avid weightlifter, not an ounce of fat on him, but his musculature was broad and tumescent, absent of definition. His forearms were pickle jars, almost as big as his thighs, and his crewcutted head sat on his shoulders without the relief of a neck. "What am I doing with you?" Caroline said. "This is what it's come down to, this is how far I've sunk. I'm about to fuck a Nipponese fire hydrant with the verbal capacity of tap water."     There were other peculiarities. She didn't sleep well, although she had done almost everything possible short of psychotherapy--which she didn't believe in--to alleviate her insomnia and insistent stress: acupuncture, herbs, yoga, homeopathy, tai chi. She ran five miles a day, and she meditated for twenty minutes each morning and evening, beginning her sessions by trying to relax her face, stretching and contorting it, mouth yowling open, eyes bulging--it was a horrific sight.     Even when she did sleep, it was fitful. Because she ground her teeth, she wore a plastic mouthpiece to bed, and she bit down so hard on it during the night, she left black spots where her fillings were positioned. She had nightmares, a recurring nightmare, of headless baby chickens chasing after her, hundreds of decapitated little chicks tittering in rabid pursuit.     The nightmares, however, didn't stop her from eating chicken, or anything else, for that matter. She was a waif, five-two, barely a hundred pounds. Her hair--luxuriant, butt-length, and naturally kinky, a rarity among Asians--seemed to weigh more than she did. Yet she had a ravenous appetite. She was constantly asking for seconds, picking off Dean's plate. "Where does it all go?" he asked over dinner one night, a month into their courtship.     "What?"     "The food."     "I have a very fast metabolism. You're not going to finish that?"     He scraped the rest of his portion into her bowl, and he watched her eat. He had surprised himself by how fond he'd become of her. He was a disciplined man, one with solitary and fastidious habits, yet Caroline's idiosyncrasies were endearing to him. Maybe this was the true measure of love, he thought--when you willingly tolerate behavior that, in anyone else, would be annoying, even abhorrent to you. Without thinking, he blurted out, "I love you."     "Yikes," Caroline said. She put her chopsticks down and wiped her mouth. "You are the sweetest man I know, Dean. But I worry about you. You're so innocent. Didn't anyone let you out of the house when you were young? Don't you know you're not supposed to say things like that so soon?"     "Do you love me?"     She sighed. "I don't right now," she said. Then she laid her hands on top of his head and shook it. "But I think I will. Okay, you big boob?"     It took her two more months to say that she might, maybe, be a little bit in love with him, too. "Despite everything, I guess I'm still a romantic," she said. "I will never learn."     They were both reclusive by nature, and most of the time were content to sequester themselves in Dean's house, which was tucked in a canyon in the coastal mountains. They watched videos, read, cooked Japanese dishes: tonkatsu, oyako donburi, tempura, unagi . It was a quiet life, free of catastrophe, and it had lulled Dean into thinking that there would be no harm in telling her about his encounter with Oriental Hair Poet No. 2.     "That cunt!" Caroline said. "That conniving Korean cunt! She's moved here on purpose!"     It was all she could talk about for three days. Caroline Yip and Marcella Ahn, it turned out, had a history. They had both lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in their twenties, and for several years they had been the best of friends--inseparable, really. But then their first books came out at the same time, Marcella's from a major New York publisher, Caroline's from a small, albeit respected press. Both had very similar jacket photos, the two women looking solemn and precious, hair flowing in full regalia. An unfortunate coincidence. Critics couldn't resist reviewing them together, mocking the pair, even then, as "The Oriental Hair Poets," "The Braids of the East," and "The New Asian Poe-tresses."     But Marcella came away from these barbs relatively unscathed. Her book, Speak to Desire , was taken seriously, compared to Marianne Moore and Emily Dickinson. Her poetry was highly erudite, usually beginning with mundane observations about birds or plant life, then slipping into long, abstract meditations on entropy and inertia, the Bible, evolution, and death, punctuated by the briefest mention of personal deprivations--anorexia, depression, abandonment. Or so the critics said. Dean still had the book from the library, but he couldn't make heads or tails of it.     In contrast, Caroline's book, Chicks of Chinese Descent , had been skewered. She wrote in a slangy, contemporary voice, full of topical, pop culture allusions. She wrote about masturbation and Marilyn Monroe, about tampons and moo goo gai pan , about alien babies and chickens possessed by the devil. She was roundly dispatched as a mediocre talent.     Worse, Caroline said, was what happened afterward. Marcella began to thwart her at every turn. Teaching jobs, coveted magazine publications, awards, residencies, fellowships--everything Caroline applied for, Marcella got. It didn't hurt that Marcella was a shameless schmoozer, flirting and networking with anyone who might be of use. Yet, the fact was, Marcella was rich. Her father was a shipping tycoon, and she had a trust fund in the millions. She didn't need any of these pitifully small sinecures which would have meant a livelihood to Caroline, and it became obvious that the only reason Marcella was pursuing them at all was to taunt her.     "She's a vulture, a vampire," Caroline told Dean. "You know she won't go out in the light of day? She stays up until four, five in the morning and doesn't wake up until past noon."     And then there was the matter of Evan Paviromo, the English-Italian editor of a literary journal whom Caroline had dated for seven years, waiting patiently for them to get married and have children. He broke it off one day without explanation. She dogged him. Why? Why was he ending it? She refused to let him go without some sort of answer. Finally he complied. "It's something Marcella said," he admitted.     At first Caroline feared they were having an affair, but the truth was more vicious. "Marcella told me she admired me," Evan said, "that I was far more generous than she could ever be. She said she just wouldn't be able to stay with someone whose work she didn't really respect. I thought about that, and I decided I'm not that generous. It's something that would eat away at me, that's bothered me all along. It's something I can't abide."     Caroline fled to California, eventually landing in Rosarita Bay. She completely disengaged herself from the poetry world. She was still writing every day, excruciating as it was for her, but she had not attempted to publish anything in six years. She was thirty-seven now, and a waitress--the breakfast shift at a diner, the dinner shift at a barbecue joint. Her feet had grown a full size from standing so much, and she was broke. But she had started to feel like her old self again, healthier, more relaxed, sleeping better. Dean had a lot to do with it, she said. She was happy--or as happy as it was possible for a poet to be. Until now. Until Marcella Ahn suddenly arrived.     "She's come to torment me," Caroline said. "Why else would she move to Rosarita Bay?"     "It's not such a bad place to live."     "Oh, please."     Dean supposed she was right. On the surface, Rosarita Bay looked like a nice seaside town, a rural sanctuary between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. It billed itself as the pumpkin capital of the world, and it had a Main Street lined with gas street lamps and old-time, clapboarded, saltbox shops and restaurants. Secluded and quiet, it felt like genuine smalltown America, and most of the eight thousand residents preferred it that way, voting down every development plan that came down the pike.     Yet the things that gave Rosarita Bay its charm were also killing it. There were only two roads into town, Highway 1 on the coast and Highway 71 through the San Vicente Mountains, both of them just two lanes and prone to landslides. The fishing and farming industries were drying up, there were no new jobs, and, for those who worked in San Francisco or "over the hill" in San Vicente, it was a murderous, traffic-choked commute. The weather was also terrible, rain-soaked and wave-battered in the winter, wind-beaten in the spring, and fog-shrouded all summer long, leaving basically two good months--September and October.     In theory quaint and pretty, Rosarita Bay was actually a no-man's-land, a sleepy, slightly seedy backwater with the gray air of anonymity. People stuck to themselves, as if shied by failure and missed opportunities. You could get lost here, forgotten. It was, when all was said and done, a place of exile. It was not a place for a wealthy, jet-setting artiste and bon vivant like Marcella Ahn. But to come here because of Caroline? No. Dean could not believe it.     "How could she have even known you were here?" he asked Caroline. "You said you're not in touch with any of those people anymore."     "She probably hired a detective."     "Come on."     "You don't understand. I suppose you think if anyone's looking for revenge, it'd be me, that I can't be a threat to her because I'm such a loser."     "I wish you'd stop putting yourself down all the time. You're not a loser."     "Yes, I am. You're just too polite to say so. You're so fucking Japanese."     Early on, she had given him her book to read, and he had told her he liked it. But when pressed, he'd had to admit that he didn't really understand the poems. He was not an educated man, he had said.     "You pass yourself off as this simple chairmaker," Caroline said. "You were practically monosyllabic when we began seeing each other. But I know you're not the gallunk you make yourself out to be."     "I think you're talented. I think you're very talented." How could he explain it to her? Something had happened as he'd read her book. The poems, confusing as they were, had made his skin prickle, his throat thicken, random images and words-- kiwi, quiver, belly, maw --wiggling into his head and taking residence.     "Are you attracted to her?" Caroline asked.     "What?"     "You're not going to make the chair for her, are you?"     "I have to."     "You don't have a contract."     "No, but--"     "You still think it's all a coincidence."     "She ordered the chair sixteen months before I met you."     "You see how devious she is?"     Dean couldn't help himself. He laughed.     "She has some sick bond to me," Caroline said. "In all this time, she hasn't published another book, either. She needs me. She needs my misery. You think I'm being hysterical, but you wait." It began with candy and flowers, left anonymously behind the hardware store, on the stairs that led up to Caroline's apartment. Dean had not sent them.     "It's her," Caroline said.     The gifts continued, every week or so, then every few days. Chocolates, carnations, stuffed animals, scarves, hairbrushes, barrettes, lingerie. Caroline, increasingly anxious, moved in with Dean, and quickly came down with a horrendous cold.     Hourly he would check on her, administering juice, echinacea, or antihistamines, then would go back to the refuge of his workshop. It was where he was most comfortable--alone with his tools and wood, making chairs that would last hundreds of years. He made only armchairs now, one chair, over and over, the Kaneshiro Chair. Each one was fashioned out of a single board of keyaki , Japanese zelkova, and was completely handmade. From the logging to the tung oil finish, the wood never touched a power tool. All of Dean's saws and chisels and planes were hand-forged in Japan, and he shunned vises and clamps of any kind, sometimes holding pieces between his feet to work on them.     On first sight, the chair's design wasn't that special--blocky right angles, thick Mission-style slats--but its beauty lay in the craftsmanship. Dean used no nails or screws, no dowels or even glue. Everything was put together by joints, forty-four delicate, intricate joints, modeled after a traditional method of Japanese joinery dating to the seventeenth century, called sashimono . Once coupled, the joints were tenaciously, permanently locked. They would never budge, they would never so much as squeak.     What's more, every surface was finished with a hand plane. Dean would not deign to have sandpaper in his shop. He had apprenticed for four years with a master carpenter in the city of Matsumoto, in Nagano prefecture, spending the first six months just learning how to sharpen his tools. When he returned to California, he could pull a block plane over a board and produce a continuous twelve-foot-long shaving, without a single skip or dig, that was less than a tenth of a millimeter thick--so thin you could read a newspaper through it.     Dean aimed for perfection with each chair. With the first kerf of his dozuki saw, with the initial chip of a chisel, he was committed to the truth of the cut. Tradition dictated that any errors could not be repaired, but had to remain untouched to remind the woodworker of his humble nature. More and more, Dean liked to challenge himself. He no longer used a level, square, or marking gauge, relying on his eye, and soon he planned to dispense with rulers altogether, maybe even with pencils and chalk. He wanted to get to the point where he could make a Kaneshiro Chair blindfolded.     But he had a problem. Japanese zelkova, the one- to two-thousand-year-old variety he needed, was rare and very expensive--amounting to over $150 a pound. There were only three traditional woodcutters left in Japan, and Dean's sawyer, Hayashi Kota, was sixty-nine. Hayashi-san's intuition was irreplaceable. So much of the work was in reading the trees and determining where to begin sawing to reveal the best figuring and grain--like cutting diamonds. Afraid the sawyer might die soon, Dean had begun stockpiling wood five years ago. In his lumber shed, which was climate-controlled to keep the wood at a steady thirty-seven percent humidity, was about two hundred thousand dollars' worth of zelkova. Hayashi-san cut the logs through and through and air-dried them in Japan for a year, and after two weeks of kiln heat, the boards were shipped to Dean, who stacked them on end in boule order. When he went into the shed to select a new board, he was always overcome by the beauty of the wood, the smell of it. He'd run his hand over the boards--hardly a check or crack on them--and would want to weep.     Given the expense of the wood and the precision his chairs required, anyone seeing Dean in his shop would have been shocked by the rapidity with which he worked. He never hesitated. He attacked the wood, chips flying, shavings whirling into the air, sawdust piling at his feet. He could sustain this ferocity for hours, never letting his concentration flag. No wonder, then, that it took him a few moments to hear the knocking on the door late that afternoon. It took him even longer to comprehend why anyone would be disturbing him in his workshop, his sanctum sanctorum .     Caroline swung open the door and stepped inside, looking none too happy. "You have a visitor," she said.     Marcella Ahn sidled past her. "Hello!" (Continues...) Excerpted from YELLOW by DON LEE. Copyright (c) 2001 by Don Lee. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.