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The Island Of Bicycle Dancers

Overview

This is the coming-of-age story of twenty-year old Yurika Song, a Korean-Japanese woman who comes from Japan to New York City for a summer to work with her Korean relatives and improve her English. Yurika's friends back home have always joked that she is half-sushi/half kim-chi. But cross-Asian ethnicities turn out to be far less jarring than her entree into New York life in the guise of bicycle messengers and the street culture in which they thrive.

On one level this is a tale ...

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The Island of Bicycle Dancers: A Novel

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Overview

This is the coming-of-age story of twenty-year old Yurika Song, a Korean-Japanese woman who comes from Japan to New York City for a summer to work with her Korean relatives and improve her English. Yurika's friends back home have always joked that she is half-sushi/half kim-chi. But cross-Asian ethnicities turn out to be far less jarring than her entree into New York life in the guise of bicycle messengers and the street culture in which they thrive.

On one level this is a tale of mistaken love—Yurika falls hard for an attractive, but dangerous, Puerto Rican bicycle messenger nicknamed "Bone." But on another, deeper level, our heroine finds freedom in this new language, which to her "is like a huge octopus, very clever and sometimes hard to catch."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"I was dazzled.... One of the most exciting new voices I have read."—Amy Tan

"A first novel that shows both daring and skill...Richly and gracefully drawn characters and keen ear for street language show Adachi's great promise."—Booklist

"A classic immigrant's saga of newcomers taking up the American Dream that has been rejected by natives.... Raw."—Kirkus Reviews

"[An] energetic debut...portrays badass messengers and Yurika's linguistic struggles with equal facility."—Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly
A 20-year-old Korean-Japanese woman comes to New York City to work at her Korean uncle's grocery for one dramatic summer in Adachi's sometimes awkward but energetic debut. Yurika Song is supposed to be improving her English-and giving her parents back in Kawasaki a break from her rebellious behavior-and she promptly does so by immersing herself in the subculture of the city's bike messengers. Yurika's education evolves from banter with the sweaty messengers, who impart slang and expletives as she rings up their juice purchases, to breakfast lessons with her cousin Suzie, a party girl who works in a nail salon but aspires to more. She becomes close friends with Whitey, a particularly sensitive messenger whose affections she doesn't return. Yurika must also contend with her disapproving aunt, Hyun Jeong, a flat, wicked-stepmother figure, as well as an erotic affair with Hector, aka Bone, a troublemaking Puerto Rican messenger with little to redeem him but smoldering good looks and "long, dark muscles like a wild animal." The half-Japanese, half-Hungarian author spent time as both a bike messenger and a teacher of English as a foreign language; he portrays badass messengers and Yurika's linguistic struggles with equal facility. A triple-tiered finale of tragedy and violence overwhelms the most rewarding thread of the novel: Yurika's fascination with the English language, "a huge octopus... with so many wild and beautiful limbs writhing about" and her gradual assimilation into a new and heady culture. (Feb.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Yurika Song is a 20-year-old Korean Japanese girl who arrives in New York from Japan to work at her uncle's corner store for the summer. Hoping to improve her English and learn the subtleties of street talk, she gets acquainted with some of the bicycle messengers who frequent the store. Attracted to their raw and multifaceted street culture, Yurika leaves the safety and long workdays of the store to enter the fraternal world of the bicycle messengers. She quickly learns important phrases and double meanings in English from her Americanized cousin and from her streetwise friends, recognizing both the deceptiveness and the loyalty of these misfits and coming to understand her newfound sense of belonging. Populated with realistic, fully drawn characters, this debut is a well-crafted coming-of-age story that depicts a mixture of humor, irony, love, and death against the rush of downtown Manhattan. The joys and difficulties of learning English as a second language (the author is an ESL teacher and former bike messenger) is a current and important theme, making this noteworthy novel appropriate for any adult library collection.-Ron Samul, New London, CT Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The lives of Manhattan's bicycle messengers, as seen through the eyes of a young immigrant woman. Rarely noticed by outsiders unless they are the victims (or instigators) of traffic accidents, New York's bicycle messengers form a kind of urban tribe with traditions and rituals all their own. Overwhelmingly male and young, the messengers are usually black or Hispanic kids from the rougher neighborhoods who scrape together a living with a set of wheels and a pair of strong legs, although you can find middle-class refugees (usually aspiring artists or actors) in their ranks as well. One of these is Whitey, rebellious son of a prosperous and staid southern family who dropped out of his Ivy League college to live on the Lower East Side and expand his consciousness through poetry and Eastern mysticism. Resolutely single in the true tradition of all outlaw geniuses, Whitey finds himself attracted to Yurika, a teenager who works in her uncle's grocery in the East Village. Half-Korean and half-Japanese, Yurika is resented by her Korean aunt as standoffish and superior, but she works dutifully at the store and gradually improves her English with the help of her cousin Suzie and messengers like Whitey who come to flirt with her. She even (against her aunt and uncle's wishes) goes out with Whitey, but she's more attracted to Hector, another messenger who works for the same agency. While Whitey tries to win Yurika and find a congenial way of living in what he takes to be a decadent and commercial world, Yurika is more and more entranced by the openness of American life and excited by the prospect of putting her traditional Asian reticence behind her. Altogether, it's a classic immigrant's saga ofnewcomers taking up the American Dream that has been rejected by natives. A naive and somewhat raw debut, but with a fresh charm that makes up for much of the awkward pacing and rambling narrative. Agent: Sandra Dijkstra/Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312312466
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 2/1/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 244
  • Sales rank: 568,840
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Meet the Author

Born and raised in New York City to a Japanese father and Hungarian mother, Jiro Adachi earned his B.A. from Columbia University and a M.F.A. from Colorado State University. He lives with his wife and daughter in New York City, where he teaches writing at The New School University.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Him

She looked for him-the bike messenger with the splendid caramel-colored skin. Other bikers went by, taxis, delivery trucks, buses, but no him. Slowly, she swept cigarette butts, bits of food, and store receipts toward the curb. She glanced down First Avenue again, then swept the trash into the street where it landed on top of a pigeon wing. Where was the rest of the bird? No bird, no blood, just dirty feathers and some broken bone curled against the concrete. Back home in Japan there were no dead animals or animal parts lying around. In her hometown of Kawasaki, there was only the occasional stray cat or dog. Once, she had seen a rat outside the Kirin bicycle race stadium, but that was it. New York had everything, she thought. New York had him. Where was him?

Where dat nigga at?

This voice in her inner ear came so quickly she had to go back over it and figure out what it meant, where she might have heard it. Nigga, nigga, nigga. She stared down First Avenue and tried to recall. The 7 train? The guy with the gold tooth at the bakery down the street? One of her older cousin Suzie's hip-hop tapes, maybe. There were so many bits and pieces of English passing by the Lucky Market window each day; it was like a fever dream-full and pressing. The words and phrases she heard crowded her mind sometimes, vied for attention-like this one now. She could hear the voice so clearly but had no face to attach to it, no source. She tried to match it to the face of her messenger, but it didn't quite fit.

Suzie had told her it was good to be able to imagine different voices in English because it meant you had a good ear. In New York, there were too many different kinds of English. Sometimes her head was full of her aunt and uncle's Korean English, sometimes Suzie's American English going on about the Indian women who came into the nail salon dripping with yellow gold and the black women who spent all their money on nails that ended up looking like cheap jewelry. Her ear caught snippets of Chinese English from the high school kids on the 7 train, Spanish English everywhere, Russian English and Polish English near Lucky Market; black English all over, even from white people and some Asians-everyone trying to act black. Did her messenger act like that, too? she wondered.

More cars. A fire truck. What could she say to him? Would he think she was Korean? She imagined telling him that she was half Japanese and half Korean. He would want to know more, of course, and she would explain that she came for the summer. Work in the store. Learn English. The real problem, she would tell him, was that Japanese was spoken all around the neighborhood of the store-not even Japanese English but just plain Japanese-in restaurants and boutiques and hair salons. She couldn't tell if the speakers were tourists or people who lived here, but they were always speaking Japanese, never English. She had promised herself that they were to be avoided at all costs. Only English this summer.

An ambulance was trying to get through First Avenue traffic, its siren loud and steady. In the back, she imagined, lay a one-winged pigeon, a gray stain on a white sheet, eyes wide with fear.

Then she saw him: riding behind the ambulance-long, dark muscles like a wild animal. She drank him in with her eyes. He sat upright, in one hand a bagel and in the other an orange juice. Quick twitches of his hips steered the bike between lanes of traffic. An impossible, crazy dance. She caught her breath as he sped past. Then he was gone. No more him.

"Jae Hee!" It was the girl's Korean aunt, Hyun Jeong, standing in the doorway of the store. "Move from street!"

She never listens to me, thought Hyun Jeong as she waited for her niece to turn around. Hyun Jeong stared at the girl, who was gazing off into traffic as though she had just missed her bus. She mumbled to herself in Korean her growing list of complaints against this half-breed summer guest pawned off on her by her brother-in-law, this girl who didn't dress like a girl but wore a red-and-white baseball shirt and tight jeans on a hot June day. The crazy blond streaks in her short hair. She wasn't even here a full week before she changed her hair color the first time. How many color treatments had that scalp suffered in the last month since her arrival? Hyun Jeong had lost count. Just like Suzie, only worse. At least Suzie was pure Korean. This girl clearly didn't want to be Korean or Japanese. Yet she was skinny like most Japanese. Her head was big like a Korean.

"Jae Hee!" Hyun Jeong cried again as she stepped onto the sidewalk. "You sleeping?"

The girl didn't look at her aunt. She glanced over at Daniel, one of the store workers, who was outside unpacking a box of apples. He grinned at her and shook his head. He and José, the other worker, but especially him, seemed to know what was going on at all times. She spoke little to them, but when she did it was friendly. They shared new English words. They teased her about her hair colors. They helped her behind the register if the store got crowded. They called her by her Japanese name.

She had decided not to answer her aunt so long as the woman insisted on calling her Jae Hee. For a month now since her arrival, this was how it had been. This battle of names. Her father had told her this would happen and encouraged her to avoid any conflict by trying to use her Korean first name while she was in New York. There was no reason to keep it a secret in New York, he said. She refused, of course, because it seemed like bad advice from a Korean man who had spent so much of his life pretending to be Japanese to avoid being thought of as a chon, the Japanese equivalent of "nigger" for Koreans. Her father told her stories of when he first came to Japan, how there was a sudden lack of apartments at a real estate agency when he first looked under his Korean name. Then he changed his name but almost lost his first job as a newspaper ad salesman because the boss found out he was Korean. Her mother being the obedient O.L., Office Lady, that she was, told her to listen to her father.

In any case, her aunt didn't seem to care about what name she liked to be called. As soon as she got off the plane, it was Jae Hee you look like a boy, Jae Hee you're much taller than when we saw you eighteen years ago. Jae Hee, Jae Hee, Jae Hee. Like she was trying to make up for twenty years of being called by her Japanese first name. On top of this, the woman was constantly nosy. How much was that bag and that shirt? Where are you going now? What did you eat for lunch? It was no wonder her own daughter, Suzie, came home only to sleep and have breakfast.

"Jae Hee!" her aunt called again, growing more shrill, but the girl still refused to look up.

The messenger was long out of sight already, but the girl felt suddenly disturbed that he hadn't bought his bagel and juice at Lucky Market. She was stuck with her aunt again. But, she decided, it was time for decisive action. With the toe of her sneaker, she slid the pigeon wing onto the flat straw of the broom, carrying it over to Hyun Jeong, who stepped out onto the sidewalk.

"What that?" Hyun Jeong asked. "No, don' bring here. No-"

The girl held the broom up toward her aunt. "My name is Yurika," she said as she dropped the pigeon wing at her aunt's feet.

"Shibal!" her aunt cursed as she moved past her into the store.

"You are also Korean," Hyun Jeong said a short while later when her niece was back behind the register. "You have Korean name. You don't have to make secret here." She had a concerned look on her face that Suzie had told her was never real-the way her eyes grew large and her lips formed O's of worry. She slapped the back of her hand over and over. All the cutting was too much: cutting flowers, cutting meat, cutting vegetables, cutting open large boxes full of small boxes. She laid her hand palm up on the counter and watched the fingers curl closed as though still holding a knife or scissors. No good shape fingers, she thought in English as she reached for the extra-large jar of Tiger Balm under the counter.

"Everybody like Korean people here," she went on. "Not like Japan. Also, I know. Japanese woman always have trouble here." She massaged the balm into her hands. "Men so bad like that. This city not safe for Japanese women." She shook her head and laughed, making her permed ponytail shake like a used party streamer.

Yurika glared at her aunt, then scanned the counter, looking for the top of the Tiger Balm. The smell was nasty, like her. "You don't care the name I like-"

"In this store," Hyun Jeong said, "you are Jae Hee. It good name."

"Nobody call me Jae Hee," Yurika protested.

Her aunt tried to translate the meaning of the name but gave up. She was tired of always having to speak English to the girl. Why hadn't her father taught her Korean? Why hadn't he sent her to one of those Korean schools in Tokyo or Osaka? It was bad enough that she, Hyun Jeong, had to deal with the English her customers spoke, talking so fast, using all kinds of words she had no idea about; plus, she hated having to repeat herself because they couldn't understand what she said. She clicked her tongue against her teeth. "Okay," she said, returning the Tiger Balm underneath the counter. "I go down."

Yurika understood this statement meant her aunt was going down to the basement. She felt relieved and turned to the window. There was no messenger out there. Not hers, anyway. Sadness drew her face down. She had seen him from the store or the street almost every morning since she had begun working there. He looked so flee. The times he had come into the store, she was stricken with speechlessness and could not say a thing. Was that why he had bought his juice and bagel somewhere else that morning?

Yurika didn't know what to do with herself, trapped in her uncle's store for a whole summer. The days passed with her pulling on rubber bands, shuffling matchbooks, selling cigarettes and coffee to commuters, aspirin and tampons to young women with their periods, bubble gum cf0to schoolkids. There was Daniel to sometimes talk to, but he was often busy unloading truckloads of produce and packaged food while she rearranged the things under the counter: the first aid kit, telephone books, tape measures. Her two feet never left the ground.

Perhaps her messenger would stop in the store when he came back downtown. Maybe he had a delivery to make in the neighborhood and would need more juice or a candy bar. Maybe he smoked menthols like other messengers who came into the store. Was he a native English speaker? Did he speak Spanish? He looked like something Latin American. Daniel had taught her some words. Bueno, she imagined telling the messenger if he ever asked how she was. He came and went frequently in her daydreams. Gracias. Hola. Sí, bueno. She didn't remember how to say "good-bye."

With one eye on the front door and one eye on her work, she rang up bottles of water, juice, plums, peaches, and every other cold object American people liked to press against themselves to cool off in the heat of early June. But the image of the messenger stayed with her and would not leave. Distracted, her fingers began ringing up incorrect amounts at the register. After the lunch rush, she even left the register open.

"Wake up," her uncle, Sang Jun, scolded.

Sometimes, he looked to her just like her father-the square jaw and lean build. Except her father, who was the younger of the two, did not have as much gray in his hair and seemed a bit softer. With all the work at the store, Sang Jun stayed more fit compared to her father the kai sha in, the salary man who sat at a desk all day selling newspaper advertisement space and who enjoyed his wife's noodle soups at night.

Sang Jun and Yurika spoke little except when necessary. On her first day at the store, they had had their first person-to-person conversation. He had shown her around the store, how to use the register. In between customers, he asked her vague questions about his brother and sister-in-law. He seemed satisfied with her one- and two-word answers, and Yurika was surprised he didn't seem more interested. She wondered why but thought it might be rude if she asked, so she remained silent except to answer his questions. He didn't call her by any name, as though he didn't want to take a side between his wife and her. Sometimes, he gave her little English tips, which he seemed proud of. He told her that if an American asked how you were doing, always be positive-say, "Good" or "Not bad" or "Fine," something like that, then add, "And you?" Americans, he explained, liked to keep things moving when it came to conversation, and they weren't interested in any information that would slow things down.

fs20

Sang Jun noticed that the girl seemed to appreciate the advice, and sometimes he heard her use what he had taught her. She was a good worker, he thought now as he stepped outside the store to light a cigarette. But, like his brother, she was a bit of a dreamer. She needed to be watched.

Later that day, he told his wife about the girl leaving the register open. They were alone in the basement of the store, sorting through a dry goods delivery. "Her mind is somewhere else," he said.

"She misses Japan," said Hyun Jeong, making a face. "First time away from your brother and her oka-san."

Sang Jun frowned at her use of the Japanese word for "mother."

"Anyway, that's what happens to mixed children," Hyun Jeong went on. "A dog can't live in two houses."

Sang Jun touched a match to his cigarette and listened to the quickening of his wife's Korean. He was startled when she threw down an empty box of tea.

"Why give her a Korean name if she speaks Korean like a five-year-old-not even! A three-year-old! And she only uses that weak Japanese name!"

Her husband reminded her that since she was eighteen she had been using her Korean last name. "Besides," he continued, "she's here to learn English."

"Not from you! Not from me!"

"Speak for yourself," Sang Jun said in English. He prided himself on his language efforts. Although he had never had the time to take a class, he tried to read only English newspapers and listen to only English-speaking radio stations in the car or in the store. Occasionally, he even tried to listen to a Yankee game on the radio. He also had a thick, blue grammar reference book he consulted now and again and even knew the English names for the parts of speech. Hyun Jeong, on the other hand, never cared about English, never studied. It didn't matter to her that she was in an English-speaking country. She spoke Korean every chance she got, and as incredible to him as it was, for nearly twenty years she had spoken English only when it was absolutely necessary.

Copyright © 2004 by Jiro Adachi

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Reading Group Guide

About the Book:

Love, sex, death....and English as a foreign language.

The Island of Bicycle Dancers is the coming-of-age-story of twenty-year-old Yurika Song, a Korean-Japanese woman who comes from Japan to New York City for a summer to work with her Korean relatives and improve her English. Yurika's friends back home have always joked that she is half-sushi/half-kim-chi. But cross-Asian ethnicities turn out to be far less jarring than her introduction to New York life, the world of bicycle messengers and the street culture in which they thrive.

On one level this is a splendid tale of mistaken love-Yurika falls hard for an attractive, but dangerous, Puerto Rican bicycle messenger nicknamed "Bone." But on another, deeper level, our heroine finds freedom in this new language, which to her "is like a huge octopus, very clever and sometimes hard to catch but with so many wild and beautiful writhing limbs."

Discussion Questions:

In what ways do you, the reader, identify with Yurika's struggles with a new language and being an outsider?

Yurika is drawn to the world of bike messengers, a world that is generally not "acceptable" to her aunt and uncle - and by extension her parents. Have you ever felt yourself drawn to a subculture that you know would be jarring to your friends and family?

Our pasts are always intruding upon our presents. How is this dynamic present in the characters' struggles with each other and in their respective situations?

Often, setting takes on the trappings of a character. In what ways does New York City act as a character in this story?

Music, it is often said, is the language of the soul. In the case of this story, an argument can be made that language is the music of the soul. How do you think this belief relates to the relationships in this novel?

In what ways does the English language change Yurika's perception of her world and of herself? Are there any kinds of vocabulary or ways of speaking you have used to make yourself feel differently?

Do you believe that the death in this story is representative of the life that was lived by this character? Why or why not?

One of the themes of the novel is, "What goes around comes around." Based on this idea, where do you picture the characters in this book five years from now? Ten years? What in the book makes you think this?

About the Author:

Born and raised in New York City to a Japanese father and Hungarian mother, Jiro Adachi's first language was not exactly broken English-more like malleable English. Mr. Adachi drew on both his experiences as a bike messenger and a teacher of English as a Foreign Language for this novel's portrait of bike boys and immigrants in New York. He lives with his wife and daughter in New York City.

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