Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 20, 2017

The Expatriates (2016), by Janice Y.K. Lee

Yes, well, I’ve been reading some rather heavy books lately, so it was time for a bit of light fiction…

The Expatriates, however, turned out to be not-quite-light, delivering me into a different world and another outlook on life.   The child of Korean parents who migrated to Hong Kong, Janice Y.K. Lee was born and brought up there, but finished her education in America.  She now lives in New York where her first novel The Piano Teacher reached the bestseller lists.  Bestseller status is usually enough to warn me off, but The Expatriates appealed because, yes, it’s about American expats in Hong Kong, and it offers sharp observations about this affluent community living in a bubble within one of the most dynamic cities in the world.


The plot revolves around three women, all of whom are marooned by the tragedy of loss as well as by their lifestyle in a place where wives are almost superfluous.  Mercy Cho, a Columbia graduate without the family background that leads to the job network, is working as a nanny for Margaret Reade when the family is on holiday in Korea and the youngest child disappears into the crowd.  Mercy is paralysed by guilt, and Margaret is overwhelmed by her loss.  Hilary Starr, stuck in a bad marriage and struggling with infertility in an expat society where the only thing for women to do is to have children, doesn’t know what to do with herself in a place where the wives can’t work and don’t even have the running of a household to do because that’s all done by cheap household staff.  All three of them find their former identities subsumed by inertia, drifting in an empty social life where their privilege is an unspoken embarrassment.

Margaret looked around.  Everyone was white, and they may have all been American, and even all from the left side of the country.  She had thought that Hong Kong would be international and cosmopolitan, but she felt as if she were at a dinner party in any suburb in northern California. (p.30)

Feeling disassociated from everything around her because of her grief enables Margaret to recognise the unreality of the life they lead:

Is it any wonder, she thinks, that expats become like spoiled rich children, coddled and made to feel as if their every whim should be gratified?  These trips to islands where the average annual wage is the cost of a pair of expensive Italian shoes cast the Western expatriate in the role of the ruler.  The locals are the feudal servants, running to obey every whim.  These small empires, these carefully tended paradises of sand and palm, shelter the expatriates from the brutal realities just outside the guarded gates.  (p.141)

At times, however, it’s the author’s voice we hear.  This isn’t the character of Hilary, though she’s been musing on the rituals that take place when expats finally go home:

That’s the shock, and the surprise, to a lot of repatriates: No one back home cares.  There’s an initial, shallow interest in what life is like abroad, but most Americans aren’t actually interested, at all.  They’re back to talking about the divorces going on at work, or how the neighbourhood pharmacy is going under, or how highway construction has added forty minutes to their commute.  They don’t want to know about the trip to Hoi An and how Vietnam has changed immensely, or how Beijing’s pollution is so thick that when you were there, you had to wear a handkerchief over your face. America is so vast, and there is so much to see, just in the fifty states, these people tell you – it’s like you never have to leave.  This insularity will seem shocking for the first year back, when re-entry is difficult, when you miss the ease of Hong Kong, forgetting all your complaints from when you were there, remembering only the good winter weather, the amazing dumplings and cheap taxis, but all too soon most everyone slips into the warm comforts of America, so convenient, so uniform, forgetting there is anything outside its borders.  (p.228)

This attitude is to different to Australia where we are great travellers, and everyone pesters those back from a holiday to find out if that destination would suit them too!

Lee is good at irony (though she feels she needs to point it out).   Hilary’s great friend and support is a Hong Kong local called Olivia, who, at a party, is dismissed as ‘foreign’ because everything that Hilary appreciates in Olivia has no currency. 

Olivia does not watch the latest network shows on Apple TV; she doesn’t go back to the United States every summer, or know what’s going on with the NBA or NASA.  Instead, she talks about LegCo or the West Kowloon Arts project or other things that concern people who will make their life in Hong Kong forever.  There are no people like that here.  Everyone here is temporary.  They all think of their stint in three-year increments.  They have never considered politics in Hong Kong or China or the implications of raising the local minimum wage.  Olivia is heard politely, then dismissed as foreign, ironically.  (p.261)

Though there are amusing episodes like this in The Expatriates, the overall tone is sombre because of the lost little boy, known only as G but ever present in his mother’s heart.  She is afraid first to leave Korea, because how can he find her, she thinks, if they return to Hong Kong.  Then when she is eventually persuaded back to Hong Kong for the sake of her other two children, she is afraid to go home to the US for a holiday in case there is news about him and it would take too long to get back.   When they pose for a photo, they are a nuclear family of four not five; when she makes small talk she dreads the coming question about how many children she has, almost as much as she dreads being recognised as the mother whose little boy was lost.   The author has depicted this overwhelming chasm in her character’s life brilliantly and reminded me afresh of little lost children in Australia – the Beaumont children, and Eloise Worledge – and my heart aches for the anguish their parents have suffered for decades now.

The book concludes with advice from Margaret’s therapist, which is worth remembering:

You don’t win anything for being saddest the longest, Dr Stein has said.  There’s no prize for being the most miserable.  You are not betraying anybody by trying to live a better life. You are not giving up on anyone.

I’m not telling you to be happy. I’m telling you that it’s okay to have moments when you are not sad.  You can laugh, maybe once a month, maybe twice.  It’s okay.

Here’s the thing.  You think only one specific event, one miracle, will make things better, but actually life will get better if you only let it.  You have to let life get better. You have to for your family’s sake, and for your sake. You don’t think your happiness matters, but it does.  It matters for your family. They can’t be happy unless you see that you have the ability to be.  Time will help.   It can be agonisingly slow, but it always does. (p.325)

I don’t think these words would help when you are in the depths, but they might when that first glimmer of non-sadness beckons and you feel that sense of shock that it has become possible, and then you feel the sense of betrayal, as if the love you have lost is somehow diminished because the overwhelming grief has lifted a bit.

Yes, not-quite-light. An interesting novel!

Check out the review in the NYT as well.

Author: Janice Y.K. Lee
Title: The Expatriates
Publisher: Little, Brown, 2016
ISBN: 9781408706862
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available from Fishpond: The Expatriates



  1. That life – rich expats – is nearly the most foreign you’ve written about.


    • Yes., you’re right. It’s a totally alien lifestyle.


  2. I don’t know that the travel attitude is correct. At least among a certain socioeconomic here, travel is a very conspicuous, almost competitive sport.


    • Certainly when we travel, we notice the presence of Americans in most places, and yes, they are obviously of a certain socioeconomic group, and many of the ones we’ve talked to have been academics, perhaps because of the sort of attractions we visit (museums, art galleries etc). But still, there’s not many of them.
      But I have heard it said in many different contexts that most Americans don’t travel, and indeed I even read somewhere that one of the major universities (I can’t remember which one) was so concerned about the insularity of its students that it made it a requirement that they had to complete some aspect of their degree overseas.
      This article explores some of the reasons why it might be true:


      • I must just happen to know people who take multiple trips abroad every year. As soon as they come back, they are planning another one.


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