What is it to be Asian American? It is a story that can only ever be continuously told, and that has no ending.

The oddities found in Paul Yoon’s latest short story collection The Hive and the Honey emerge from the strangeness of life itself, the form of each story reflecting the constant indefinite nature of Asian American diasporic life.

A woman asked to record a conversation of a prizefighter who may be her estranged son; a man trying to build a new life for himself in upstate New York; a son seeking out the father he hasn’t seen in years; a samurai tasked with transporting a young Korean noble back to his people.

While not literally analogous to the life of a 21st-century Asian American, these stories capture the everyday discomfort of being a perpetual outsider. These characters are forever in a place that they are in the process of mapping.

Yoon narrates like he is getting readers up to speed. With little to no insight into the thoughts of these characters, the most we ever get of an internal monologue is this:

“He would have very little memory of that movement other than the lights and falling snow. He would later be told that he leapt out of the trunk and ran straight forward the bridge’s railing.

Perhaps he was disoriented by fear and didn’t know where he was going. Perhaps in his disorientation and fear he thought of surviving a jump and swimming down the Hudson. In any case, a policeman tackled him before he could make it to the edge.”

The bizarre emptiness is only reflected back to us, not invented by the author.

To be Asian in the United States — for me, to be half Filipino and half white — is to exist in a place that has no definition. This identity finds its expression in Yoon’s short story collection; characters discovering who they are and what they want, living in stories that don’t quite know where they’re going, nor do they ever find out.

Yoon writes in the short story “Bosun:”

“He suddenly felt he had come a long way and that something great was going to happen to him, maybe not tonight or tomorrow, but soon. And he concentrated on it, wanting to make the feeling last as they talked through the last hour of the night.”

These characters are striving for some kind of connection, but it is ultimately their position, their identity, their job, the time, and place that impedes them. When the outside world attempts to connect with them, they have no means of bridging the divide.

When another character tells Bosun what his name means in English, an officer rank on a sailing vessel, he flatly accepts it. This is not some revelatory moment of enthusiastic welcome or assimilation, it is a recognition of difference. One that carries them both forward, perhaps hopefully, toward an understanding and existence beyond a folding into the status quo.

In a recent event for his latest book, Man of Two Faces, author Viet Thanh Nguyen spoke about his experience growing up in the U.S. to parents who were both Vietnamese refugees. He talked about how regardless of what space he was in, he always felt like a spy, an outsider, a double agent. He had no stable position from which to ground himself. In the book, which is part personal and part family memoir, he interrogates himself via the second person because of a lack of singular self. It is this lack of singular self, no authoritative voice, that gives form to Yoon’s short stories.

“Person of Korea” is a story about a boy who is left an orphan after his uncle dies and goes in search of his father who is a prison guard on Sakhalin Island. Again, Yoon clues us in to a sort of limbo.

“Maksim doesn’t know if his father still works on Sakhalin or if he got the letter telling him that is brother, Makism’s uncle, is dead. He doesn’t know what his father’s favorite food is anymore. Whether he is fat or thin, or speaks in Russian or Korean most days. Maksim’s father left for the island five years ago. Or was told to leave.”

Maksim, the boy, doesn’t even know what lies ahead, or even what circumstances caused his father to leave. And when he finally does reach his father, not even he knows what lies ahead.

“‘Is there anyone else?’ Maksim says. ‘Anyone else?’ ‘In our family,’ Maksim says. ‘Is there anyone else, somewhere else?’ ‘Hell if I know,’ Vasily says, and jumps onto the bed of the pickup… He feels a lingering heat where his father held his hand, focused there in his palm. He keeps feeling it as he passes the prison… He sees nothing in the fog but panning light — the dog in the field; his uncle swimming. He reaches out. Then a car rushes by, swift and dark, almost touching him as the alarm continues to sound, louder now, across the island.”

No resolution. No happy ending. No catharsis. Just sitting at a dock, waiting for another boat to arrive.

We are all told to choose. To pick a side. We are told we can either shed our foreignness or forever be an outsider. Usually and almost always, it is others who choose for us. What we find comforting, where we find home, and where we choose to make ourselves comfortable is a constant negotiation between “stable positions.”

Similar to the characters in Yoon’s collection, my very existence is one that is by definition unstable. I am either Filipino or American. Filipino American is an empty signifier that is nothing more than a conjoining of two defined identities.

We are told to inhabit a prefabricated definition rather than participate in the creation of a new one. We can strive to integrate and assimilate into being American or Asian but in the end, nothing will ever be enough to meet the criterion of these positions.

Rather than have characters conquer their fears, integrate into a new community, find a new home, and settle in, Yoon’s characters lurk in a sort of purgatory. While discomforting because of the perceived instability, the freedom of this position is infinite.

The question of what defines a diasporic community will never be answered. The possibilities are endless.

Borders, boundaries, traditions, practices, and ways of being are all up in the air. Fair game. Ripe for reinvention. Regardless of the origin of a diaspora, be it war, imperialism, famine, or economic exploitation, these stories show us the beginnings of a new way of being.

What those ways of being will be, no one can say. Yoon’s stories ask us to not look for an answer in the end result, but in the becoming.

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