Are your travel plans currently put on hold? It might be time to look to try another way to satisfy your desire to experience the world- through books.
The Expatriates, a novel by Janice Y.K. Lee, is a satisfying story about the expat lifestyle that anyone who’s lived overseas will easily relate to.
Succinct yet compelling, this novel might challenge how you think about living internationally, especially as a person of privilege.
What is an Expatriate?
An expatriate (more commonly called ‘expat’), is someone, usually highly skilled, living either temporarily or permanently in a country where they aren’t a citizen.
Though they are technically migrant workers, the term ‘expat’ tends to be used in situations that convey higher social class than situations where the word ‘immigrant’ is used.
For this reason, the term has some occasionally troubling race and class connotations that Lee doesn’t shy away from in her novel.
What is The Expatriates Book About?
The Piano Teacher, Lee’s first book, was a huge success among critics and book club readers alike. It’s little surprise that The Expatriates has had a similar reception.
Set deep within the expat community of Hong Kong, the novel looks at the emotions and relationships between three American women seeking to find their place in the city.
The Expatriates novel follows Mercy, an aimless Columbia graduate, Hilary, a wealthy, childless housewife, and Margaret, a mother of three who is struggling with an emotional loss.
The novel explores the impacts all three women have on each other as they strive to overcome the demons within their lives.
Through compelling storytelling, Lee brings each women’s story to life and provides keen observations into their inner lives.
How Three Lives Converged
As the author of the The Expatriates book, Lee relied on her personal experience growing up in Hong Kong to dictate the direction of her storytelling.
By relying on her history of relating to English and Eurasian expats, Janice crafts a compelling storyline about the uprooted lives of three women as they begin to intersect with each other.
Lee’s story is timely, as Hong Kong has become a hub for immigrants across the globe in recent years.
By peering closer at the lives of three women living in an isolated, Americanized region of the city, she has crafted a story about distant, yet surprisingly relatable lives abroad.
Though the three women in The Expatriates novel live in a territory of 7 million people, their experience as foreign Americans is profoundly isolating and creates a culture of entitlement. This means that they are frequently faced with pressure to be louder, more demanding, and act as if they are above everyone else around them- especially the locals.
By delving deep into the questions of white privilege, Lee calls attention to the uncomfortable realities facing westerners abroad. After all, nonwhite expats are more often referred to as ‘immigrants,’ a word that is often negatively emotionally charged.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the different lives all three women in The Expatriates live, their lives are forever changed when they converge together.
Grief is Universal
Grief is a consistent theme throughout the book, and by exploring the ways it impacts each woman, Lee illustrates to the reader just how universal it is.
In the same way, readers will come away with a better understanding of Hong Kong as Lee sees it – a city at the height of modernity that is changing beyond recognition.
As she explores the complex relationships between the coddled expats and the ‘feudal servant’ locals that seemingly exist to serve them, Lee subtly reveals the brutal realities that these same expats are working so hard to shield themselves from.
Even if you’ve never stepped foot in China and never expect to live anywhere besides your home country, The Expatriates is a thrilling read.
You’ll come away entertained, but even more, with a fuller understanding of the complexities of the modern world where national boundaries are becoming both increasingly important and irrelevant all at once.
About the Author Janice YK Lee
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Janice Y.K. is the daughter of Korean immigrants. Lee received a BA in English and American Literature from Harvard and was a former editor at Elle magazine. Today, Lee lives in New York City with her husband and four children. Her first book, The Piano Teacher, spent 19 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into 26 languages around the world.