An American born and raised in Hong Kong, Janice Y. K. Lee offers insight into the island’s expatriate community with her latest novel The Expatriates, the follow-up to her runaway bestseller The Piano Teacher. The novel centers around three women whose lives become increasingly intertwined, a common mechanism in fiction, but one that makes sense in this world where the community is so small that, as Lee writes, “if you go out enough, you will run into every expat at some point in the same five restaurants.”
All three women are further bound by their common experiences with motherhood, which reveal themselves in surprising ways as the story unfolds. Korean-American Mercy Cho is the youngest of the women and, according to a fortune teller, is cursed with bad luck. Despite her Ivy League education, she cannot find a permanent job and moves to Hong Kong for a new start. She is hired as a nanny by Margaret Reade, a mother of three who found herself in Hong Kong after her husband’s relocation. On a family vacation to Korea, one of the Reade children is abducted and Mercy is held responsible while Margaret is devastated. Both spiral into deep depression. The third woman, Hilary Star, struggles with infertility and considers adoption while dealing with her own marital strife.
Through her three characters, Lee makes larger observations about the American experience abroad. “People here seem hermetically sealed, as if they live in Hong Kong but are untouched by it,” she observes. “They live in an almost wholly American section of the former British colony, now China, and are only inconvenienced sometimes by the lack of good tomatoes or how hard it is to find a really good hamburger.” Margaret remarks on the insane carbon footprint left behind when expats buy products from the United States that are first shipped there from China, and Hilary notes that most expats think of “their stint in three-year increments” and are “always preparing for their inevitable return” by keeping in touch with friends back home.
Lee viscerally conveys the loneliness inherent in both the powerlessness of motherhood and the transient nature of the expat lifestyle. Yet, despite their sense of impermanence, the three women manage to make profound connections with each other and the book ends on an uplifting note as they look toward the future with optimism.