#DiverseDecember: The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee

My Diverse December reading initiative started with a white-knuckle ride of a novel ‘The Killing Lessons’ by Saul Black (aka Glen Duncan). Well written and scary thought it was, it disappointed me in two respects: the over-the-top Hollywood explosions and violence; and the fact that there was nothing about it at all to signal that it was written by somebody from an ethnic minority. Far be it from me to suggest that BAME writers should stick to BAME themes – but there was no ‘alternative point of view’ to introduce that elusive element of diversity that I was hoping to find in my Diverse December reading.

expatriatesSo it was with some cultural relief that I turned to my second book in the reading initiative: ‘The Expatriates’ by Janice Y.K. Lee, which is about different categories of expats living in Hong Kong. The author herself is of Korean origin, grew up in Hong Kong and studied and worked in the US, so weaves in all these diverse elements in her story.

This is the story of three women living as expats in Hong Kong and how their lives intersect over the course of roughly 18 months. Hilary is a wealthy housewife living in a placid marriage of convenience where very little real communication takes place. She is frustrated by her inability to conceive and toying with the idea of adopting a mixed-race boy from the orphanage, but closes her eyes very deliberately to anything that is less than perfect about the expat life.

David follows her lead, is amenable to what she wants. Their relationship has cooled in the meantime, cooled into politeness and well wishes, but she pushes that thought away, because how many difficult thoughts can one handle in one sunny afternoon?

Margaret used to love her job in landscape architecture, which is nearly impossible to pursue in the cramped neighbourhoods of Hong Kong, so she has devoted herself to her children instead. Yet we sense she is not quite satisfied with her loss of identity, that she remains critical of expat attitudes and is more self-aware than most. The author implies that expats are the new colonialists.

This was what bothered her: the presumption of the expatriates in Hong Kong. It is unspoken, except by the most obnoxious, but it is there, in their actions. They way they loudly demand ice in their drinks or for the AC to be turned up or down or for ‘Diet Coke, not Coke Zero’, as if everyone thought such a distinction was crucial. The idea, so firmly entrenched, that they could be louder, demand more, because they were somehow above – really, better than – the locals. How did that still exist in this day and age? And it was in her.

Finally, Mercy is the child of Korean immigrants to New York, who made her family proud with her Columbia degree, but who has since struggled to secure a job, to find purpose in her life or even a steady boyfriend. She is neither American nor Chinese, and she is often made to feel inferior to her peers.

Hong Kong was supposed to have been a new start – if one could say on needed a new start at the age of twenty-four… People were friendly. She found her cheap apartment and felt that she was getting a foothold. Then the office door was locked one day, the publisher went under and she didn’t have a job again. Then it became a sort of roller-coaster where she had a job, then didn’t, then got another lead… lurching from one near-missed opportunity to another… She sits at home, eats almost nothing, looks at her dwindling bank account online and wonders when she’s supposed to start her life again, when she is allowed.

Hong Kong skyline, from Wikipedia.
Hong Kong skyline, from Wikipedia.

Of course, we soon realise that there is something deeper going on underneath all this vague malaise. Margaret’s life has been touched by tragedy and she has become numb and detached. Mercy has involuntarily played a part in that tragedy and she is about to impact upon Hilary’s life as well. The balletic moves that the author imposes upon her characters, how they dance in and out of each other’s conscience and line of sight, how they change and develop (in a rather mechanical and rushed way towards the end) reminded me of soap operas at times. The plot is far less interesting than the wry, witty, sometimes acerbic observations of expat life, the often patronising encounters between expats and locals, and the subtle hierarchy between the different ‘types’ of expats (and how the Americans end up huddling together). The artificial setting and the lifestyle of the arid expat bubble are described to perfection, but I’d have liked to find out more about secondary characters like Chinese Olivia or supermom Frannie, who was seen crying in her car once. All too frequently the most interesting aspects happen ‘off-stage’, are not part of the main story and are recounted in anecdotal fashion, rather like in a magazine article (the author used to be a journalist on women’s magazines, and this sometimes shows in her breezy style).

This is the Hong Kong curse that expat housewives talk about in hushed voices: the man who takes to Hong Kong the wrong way. He moves from an egalitarian American society, where he’s supposed to take out the trash every day and help with the dinner dishes, to a place where women cater to his every desire – a secretary who anticipates his needs before he does, a servant in the house who brings him his espresso just the way he likes it… – and the local population is not as sassy with the comebacks as where he came from… The rental buildings are littered with the ghosts of ruined marriages… a man lost to the paid hostesses who found his every utterance completely fascinating… a welcome relief from the woman he faces at home, complaining about his travel, his schedule, his lack of time with the kids. So why not change it up? Why not trade up? Or down, and have some fun?

…the man just starts his life anew, with a younger model of a wife, sometimes a slightly smaller apartment, but his new life pretty quickly looks like his old one… To add insult to injury, in his fervor not to mess things up again… when he has more children, he vows to really do things right this time, so he pitches in to an unimaginable extent, does more with the kids… so the new family gets the benefit of this new and improved man, and the old family gets to see it all.

Author photo fro hk-magazine.com
Author photo from hk-magazine.com

I’ve quoted somewhat extensively from this, because there is much I recognise in the shallow, smug and insular society she describes, although Geneva is less extreme than some other, more isolated locations. The expat community forms the backdrop to the crime novel that I’m currently working on, so I was paying close attention to the ‘show vs. tell’ ratio. I couldn’t help feeling that this erred a little on the ‘tell’ side of the spectrum.

The sterile and claustrophobic environment, the fact that everyone seems to know everyone else within the English-speaking community, can make tensions run high and unpleasant secrets will be exposed at the most inconvenient of times. I would perhaps have enjoyed this more if there had been a murder or two! The conclusion left me nonplussed: if these women could only forgive each other and bond over that most marvellous achievement of all – motherhood – everything will be all right. This felt too facile and rushed a conclusion, when everything leading up to it had shown that the reality is far more complex and nuanced than that.

But, overall, an entertaining book providing a window into a world far removed from the everyday most of us experience. I would recommend it to anyone contemplating a move to Hong Kong or elsewhere as a ‘trailing spouse’ – although, be warned, it might put you off it for good! I think I might also take a look at the author’s debut novel The Piano Teacher, set in Hong Kong in the 1940s/50s, a period of political and social turmoil.


20 thoughts on “#DiverseDecember: The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee”

  1. This does sound like an interesting perspective on the ex-pat life and experience, Marina Sofia. And I have to say that witty and acerbic observations can really make a book for me. That said though, I know what you mean about not – how to put this – diving deeply enough. Still, it sounds like a good read.

    1. Then again, I am in a grumpy reading slump, so maybe I would have rated it more highly at another time. Still, a fun read and an insight into an unusual way of life.

  2. I’m glad you’ve reviewed this (and glad I read your review!). I’ve read the book but am saving my review for after Christmas. I thought it was okay – some bits I really enjoyed, some bits really annoyed me. I agree with your soap opera comment (even though I hate saying that about books by and for women). I hated the ending and I really disliked how so much of it revolved around motherhood as though it’s the centre of every woman’s universe. However, like you, I enjoyed the acerbic comments and, having never experienced life as an ex-pat, I enjoyed the glimpse into the lifestyle too.

    1. Sounds like we had many of the same reservations about this book… And I have no hesitation in saying that books by men can be like soap operas as well: SJ Watson’s Second Life struck me as that kind of book (and with far less potent things to say about the clash of cultures).

  3. I can understand why you were drawn to this novel, particularly given the focus on life as an ex-pat. An ex-colleague and friend of mine moved to Hong Kong when her husband got a job there some fifteen years ago. Oddly enough, her situation is quite similar to Margaret’s with a dash of Hilary’s too (my friends have a child of their own plus an adopted daughter from HK). I often think of her life out there, especially this time of year as we exchange Christmas cards.

    1. Hopefully not too close to Hilary and Margaret’s lives, as these do change for the worse as the book goes on… But yes, the description was what attracted me to the book in the first place – and there are surprisingly few good books written about this kind of life.

  4. It does sound heavy on the tell vs show part. But, having lived and worked overseas in Korea and experienced the expat life, I find it very familiar, and I think anyone else who has will too. Familiar, in a “been there, done that” kind of way. I too have a book in progress about the expat life!
    It’s a neve eding source of interesting material!

    1. We have to exchange our WIP at some point – we could probably be good critiquing partners for each other on that aspect of the novel at the very least… Thanks for visiting and good luck with your writing!

    1. I have to admit I was slightly envious of the lifestyle described – as it’s not at all what I am accustomed to here. I suppose being an expat without the expat package is not quite the same… but that is one of the issues she addresses in the character of Mercy.

  5. Ahh yes….I didn’t have “the package” myself, though I had the expat life. I guess I could say I identify with the character Mercy…and the expat life at the broke and struggling end of the package looks very different from life at the top of that package…

  6. I know you wrote this ages ago but I’ve just finished the book today. I was keen to find another reviewer who felt that certain aspects were a bit facile. “…if these women could only forgive each other and bond over that most marvellous achievement of all – motherhood – everything will be all right” – this sums up what I felt perfectly! Thanks.

    1. Never too late for a comment, glad to see that we both felt the same way about this. Having been an expat myself and often feeling that other than talking about the children I had nothing in common with some of the other expats, I wanted to see more of this (probably quite common) dilemma explored.

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