The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee explores the lives of three women – all adrift in their own way – living in Hong Kong’s expat community.
Mercy is a Korean-American Ivy League grad who has been drifting ever since graduating and setting up roots in Hong Kong. Margaret is the wealthy housewife of an American executive, whose coolness masks her own disappointments. And Hilary is a wife and a mother of three trying to come to grips with a devastating loss.
I’ve long been an expatriate myself, but primarily in countries more expensive than my own, and where I’ve worked to live as part of the new culture. Perhaps because of this, I always find myself fascinated by the disturbing aspect of expatriate life in many countries, where hired help is inexpensive and middle class western expatriates begin to feel it’s normal to have an army of around-the-clock servants – or ‘helpers’ as they are called here. I enjoyed this euphemism, since ‘helpers’ implies that the women themselves were somehow participating in the work, which rarely seemed to be the case.
This worrisome aspect of expatriate life is handled deftly in this novel, as is the resulting feelings of superiority and ‘otherness’ of these expatriate groups who do not try to mix with the locals and who never really become a part of the culture in which they are living.
In this expatriate world, the foreigners all cling together in a claustrophobic, narrow world where one befriends primarily those of one’s own nationality. These were the aspects of the novel I enjoyed most.
I also enjoyed the individual voices of the three women and following their stories, although I felt the first half of the novel was stronger than the second.
An enjoyable and thought-provoking novel. I’ll look forward to reading more by Lee.