Study Guide

Country of Origin

by Don Lee

Country of Origin Essay - Critical Essays

Country of Origin

Even without reading Don Lee’s Yellow (2001), eight stories built around the plight of persons of mixed race, the reader might infer similar themes from Lee’s Country of Origin and its ubiquitous word “gaifun,” Japanese for “foreigner”. Issues of ethnicity and national identity fuel this modern tragedy of an American woman lost in Tokyo. Lisa Countryman is a well- named twenty-four-year-old Berkeley graduate student. Her adoptive parents—a mix of African American and Korean—are dead and her desperately seeking sister Susan is estranged.

The lives of several people, previously strangers to each other as well as to her, become briefly connected in the ironic way of a Sophoclean tragedy. The reader, from the first chapter, knows she’s dead; the other characters are caught up in the search for her. They include Tom Hurley, a young, affable, and pettily corrupt consul at the United States Embassy; Julia Tinsley, the object of his affections and wife of a CIA agent; Kenzo, a neurotic detective; and Yamada, his rival.

Alas, it is easy for the reader, in the struggle to place the spate of characters with their unfamiliar Japanese names, to forget that Lisa is dead and her entrapment as a hostess in a succession of Tokyo pleasure clubs will not serve any of her conflicting reasons for emigrating. This fact keeps the reader from feeling her demise despite Lee’s best efforts.

The real poignancy comes from watching the characters go to their separate fates in the quarter century between the 1980 time of the main story and the present-day epilogue. The start of the 1980’s saw the ascent of the Japanese economy and the plunge of America’s in the humiliations of OPEC, the Iranian hostage crisis, and recession under Jimmy Carter. Thus, the stage is set for culture clash.

Review Sources

Booklist 100, no. 17 (May 1, 2004): 1546.

The Boston Globe, August 8, 2004, p. 844.

Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 8 (April 15, 2004): 351.

Library Journal 129, no. 2 (February 1, 2004): 124.

Los Angeles Times, August 8, 2004, p. 824.

The New York Times Book Review 153 (July 11, 2004): 8.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 15 (April 12, 2004): 34.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 1, 2004, p. 1511.