A Journey of Self-Discovery

Through his works, Korean-American writer Chang-Rae Lee has established quite a prominent literary reputation for grappling with the Asian-American migration narrative. His first two novels, Native Speaker and A Gesture Life, were vivid depictions of the struggles that Asians confront as they assimilate into the labyrinths of American society. All of Lee’s works were critically praised. Each was lauded for its outstanding qualities and has even received several accolades. One of his works, The Surrendered (2010) was even a finalist for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Currently sharing his creative expertise at Stanford University as the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor of English, Lee has cemented his status as a foremost name in literature.

In 2021, Lee made his literary comeback with My Year Abroad, seven years since his last published novel, On Such a Full Sea (2014). At the heart of Lee’s sixth novel is Tiller. A “college-age kid”, Tiller recently moved to a town he simply referred to as Stagno. He moved in with his girlfriend, Val, a “thirtysomething mom”, and Victor, Jr., her eight-year-old son. Val, who Tiller met at the Hong Kong Airport, became a part of the witness protection program after turning in and testifying against her mobster of a husband. Tiller being her partner, has inevitably joined her in her exile. Stagno provided the anonymity they needed: “It’s so ordinary that no one too special would ever choose to live here, though well populated enough that Val and Victor Jr. and I don’t stand out.”

The circumstance behind the encounter between Val and Tiller started to make sense as the story moved forward; a separate storyline started to emerge. Over a year before moving in with Val, Tiller was a promising student at a liberal arts college. He was living with his single father in his house in the fictional suburban town of Dunbar, New Jersey; the town was reminiscent of Princeton. His mother left him and his father when he was still younger. Tiller also had a tenuous relationship with his father. He dropped out of college and started taking on a job as a caddy at a local golf club. It was while caddying that Tiller crossed paths with Pong Lou. This chance encounter would alter the trajectory of Tiller’s life.

“Here was a pool of nirvana. A fount of heaven. I was startled, amazed, almost giddy for how incredibly difficult it was to push down into it. For a moment I thought my hand was getting crushed. But it wasn’t that. It was more like I had finally found the one perfect lock to the long wandering key of my fingers, my palm, my arm. I was reaching into the heart of the earth, except a heart that was cold, colder than any ice or stone.”

~ Chang-Rae Lee, My Year Abroad

Pong is a Chinese immigrant and a chemist who was working for a prominent pharmaceutical company. On the sly, Pong was an entrepreneur who owns food-related businesses all over Dunbar. His charisma draws people; he is friends with almost everyone. He also saw potential in Tiller, which surprises Tiller. Tiller was portrayed as an average student. Notwithstanding how very low Tiller’s self-esteem was, Pong took him under his wing as his apprentice: He enlisted Tiller’s help because of an ability that he surprisingly possessed: he has the ability to identify flavors that can make a product more addicting. Tiller’s ability was a missing piece that Pong was looking for. Pong was able to gain Tiller’s confidence and ensnare convince him to join him on a business trip abroad to promote Pong’s latest health drink, Elixirent.

Thus commenced Tiller’s year abroad. Lee regaled his readers with vivid details of Tiller’s outlandish adventures and misadventures in major East Asian metropolises. Tiller’s year abroad was a whirlwind of activities, ranging from a surfing trip to Oahu to a yoga competition against tiptop instructors to gorging on robatayaki in Shenzhen. Tiller got to experience how to live in luxury, something that was beyond his wildest imagination. While kowtowing to the whims of the rich Pong referred to as his investment partner, Tiller got to scuba dive in an aquarium. In between his adventures are excessive luxury shopping, indulgences in drugs and alcohol, and other forms of thrills. It was a kaleidoscopic journey that was brimming with different and new experiences.

In a nutshell, these different forms of pleasures that Tiller experienced captured the excesses of human consumption. Lee led the readers down hallways only a very select few can walk. These are hallways only the privileged are allowed to navigate. To a young man of Tiller’s humble upbringing, it was a surreal, fantastical experience. Through the high-rolling lifestyle of the rich, Lee also underlined the extent people, especially the rich, are willing to spend in order to satisfy their appetites, whether it is physical, literal, spiritual, or wellness. They are willing to spend exorbitant amounts to fill up voids in their existence. They believe that their money can buy anything. Drum Kappagoda, one of Pong’s investment partners was among them. The psychology of the rich was something that Pong understood too well, something he relied on to formulate an elaborate marketing scheme to sell jamu, an Indonesian tropical fruit drink that possessed “healing qualities.”. Unbeknownst to the innocent Tiller, he has become part of this ploy.

Living among the rich was an eye-opener for Tiller. They were drowning in luxury and were living in caprice. Their endless consumerism was driven by capitalism which also pushes many to slave away in order to fulfill and satisfy the whims of the privileged. Everything was under the command of the rich. Tiller was treated not differently. At one point, Tiller found himself relegated to the Kappagoda kitchen following Pong’s departure. He was forced to work as a slave making chili paste under the supervision of Chillies, the Thailand-born ethnically-Chinese despot-like cook who ruled over the kitchen. Any request for contact outside elicited punishment. When Drum’s daughter, Constance, took to liking Tiller, he found himself on another hot spot.

“For you did sometimes get the sense that all the purposeful bodywork and wellness visioning and special diets were just different means of damming off life’s incessant shittiness. Was that what better living was? To put up a bulwark, a hard border? Wouldn’t they enventually fail?”

~ Chang-Rae Lee, My Year Abroad

In a way, Tiller’s story was a reversal of a theme that Lee is more commonly known for. Rather than reading about a migrant’s experience in the United States, we read a migrant’s son’s experience in his homeland. Was it any different? The simple answer was no. Tiller, who was ethnically one-eighth Chinese, experienced various forms of subtle discrimination while abroad. It is a ubiquitous experience for the children of migrants who had to grapple with discrimination on both sides of the ocean. Sure, Tiller possessed traces of his ancestry but it should at least account for something. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. These subtle commentaries on race and identity were enriched by the exploration of familiar East vs West tropes. Bloodline and provenance are also prominent leitmotifs.

Tiller’s year abroad was a mixed bag that was slowly turning into his own odyssey. He was starting to learn more about himself. At the start of the story, he was portrayed as average but his trip abroad showed that he was more capable than he thought he was. On a random karaoke trip, he discovered that he can and that he can carry a tune. It was a pleasant surprise. He can also do yoga and he can tolerate a fair amount of pain. He can also make curry and he can make love for long periods. With the story narrated through Tiller’s perspective, we also gain glimpses of his psychological profile. We read about a character who has abandonment issues. He longs for a semblance of a father figure and he saw it in Pong. His various dalliances with older women underscored his mother complex. He easily warms up to women who take care of him because, at a young age, his mother left him, leading him to unconsciously search for various forms of matriarchal love in the company of others, some even matronly women.

Alternating with Tiller’s adventures abroad were details of his current life with Val and Victor Jr. The domesticated setup contrasted the whirlwind of the year abroad. This distinct storyline explored other subjects, the most prominent of which is mental health. With its different layers, My Year Abroad is a broad and lush story that was complemented by Lee’s vivid and precise writing. It was one of the novel’s finer points. Without a doubt, he has the knack for capturing various scenes and situations to the minutiae. His prose has a descriptive quality to it that managed to capture scenes, places, and situations with specificity. Food permeated the pages of the book.

However, it was this specificity that adversely affects the story’s immersive facet. On its own, Lee’s writing was astounding. However, the novel’s several layers, at times confusing, undermined its overall impact. Tiller’s year abroad was at the same time fantastical and tedious that it came across as implausible. With many things happening, it was a challenge conjuring the situations Tiller found himself in. Some of these situations lacked believability. The novel was also populated by a motley crew of characters, providing it a distinct texture. However, the randomness of these characters added to the farfetchedness of the novel. The amalgamation of these scenes reached a denouement when Tiller and Val finally crossed paths at a foreign airport.

“I guess if you think about it too much, if you acknowledge the truthfulness of your feelings like Pong said, the loves of our lives are so precious that it’s impossible not to mourn every waking moment, even as it’s happening. In certain cases, you can’t help but flee.”

~ Chang-Rae Lee, My Year Abroad

As a character, Tiller was bland. He was lacking dynamics and was subservient to those around him – Drum, Pong, Constance. The female voice was also greatly underrepresented in the story. They were either subservient, like Drum’s daughter Constance and Pong’s mother, or were physically or mentally absent, like Tiller’s own mother and Val. This further exposed the novel’s lack of character development. The plot, on the other hand, was thin and tended to meander.

In hindsight, My Year Abroad was Lee’s attempt to appeal to younger readers. While the period was never explicit, the novel’s time device was interjected through internet slang such as IMHO or the mention of contemporary mediums like the podcast. Still, the plot was slow to move forward. Lee let loose in his newest novel, but its overall impact was not towards what he designed the book to trudge. The novel was too loose in fact and it meandered. Despite its blunders and weaknesses, My Year Abroad was able to make the readers part of Tiller’s journey abroad. One positive message that can be sifted from the hodgepodge was how believing in someone can bolster their self-esteem. After all, not everyone has the confidence that Pong has. It takes nurturing to make it flourish.

Parts-bildungsroman, parts-social commentary, parts-adventure novel, My Year Abroad was a labyrinthine work of prose that explored several seminal themes such as race, identity, mental health, the migrant experience, and, most prominently, our growing culture of consumerism. Tiller’s outlandish year abroad has underlined Lee’s knack for description and depicting vivid images. He also has sophisticated prose that worked well in his earlier works. However, this sophistication was undermined by the integration of different, and at times unnecessary elements and plot devices.

And although I didn’t perfectly fit in this latest of Pong’s pan-Asian lineups there was also nothing to say I couldn’t someday belong, for as his loyal protégé and new friend, I felt I was being rekeyed, my notches bearing a freshened edge, brighter and more defined, ready for serendipitous use.

~ Chang-Rae Lee, My Year Abroad
Ratings

57%

Characters (30%) – 17%
Plot (30%) – 
13%
Writing (25%) – 
19%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
8%

It was back in 2016 that I read my first two novels by Chang-Rae Lee, Native Speaker, and A Gesture Life. I barely had an iota on who he was back then but these two novels took my breath away. They made Lee earn a new fan in me. I have always wanted to read more of his works but unfortunately, it took me five years to read my third novel by Lee. When news of his newest work, My Year Abroad filled my timeline, I was giddy in anticipation. The novel’s premise immediately captured my interest and luckily enough, I was able to obtain a copy of the book a couple of weeks after its release. It was disappointing when the book failed t0 live up to my expectations. There were too many things going on and the plot’s tendency to meander only distanced me further from the novel. It lacked the nuances that made me fall in love with Lee’s prose. I felt like My Year Abroad was Lee’s effort to appeal to a younger audience while still staying true to his roots. The latter was finely drawn but the rest was plodded by unnecessary details. Several pages could have been removed without prejudicing the novel’s impact and its message. Despite this less than stellar experience, I am still looking forward to reading the rest of Lee’s works.

Book Specs

Author: Chang-Rae Lee
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 477
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

Widely considered a “master craftsman” (The Washington Post), Chang-rae Lee returns with My Year Abroad, the exuberant story of a young American life transformed by an unusual Asian adventure: a provocative novel about the human capacities for pleasure, pain, and connection.

The story follows Tiller, a very average, fairly unmotivated college student from New Jersey, and Pong Lou, a wildly creative, larger-than-life Chinese American entrepreneur who sees something intriguing in Tiller beyond his bored exterior and takes him under his wing. When Pong brings him along on a boisterous business trip across Asia, Tiller is catapulted from ordinary young man to talented, protégé and pulled into a series of ever more extreme and eye-opening experiences that transform his view of the world, of Pong, and of himself.

In the breathtaking, “precise and elliptical prose that Lee is known for (The New York Times), the narrative alternates between Tiller’s outlandish, mind-boggling year with Pong and the strange, riveting, emotionally complex domestic life that follows it. Rich with commentary on Western attitudes, Eastern stereotypes, capitalism, mental health, parenthood, and more, My Year Abroad is also an exploration of the surprising effects of cultural immersion – on a young American in Asia, on a Chinese man in America, and on an unlikely couple hiding out in the suburbs. Tinged at once with humor and darkness, electric with its accumulating surprises and suspense, this is a novel that only Chang-rae Lee could have written, and one that will be read and discussed for years to come.”

About the Author

Chang-rae Lee was born on July 29, 1965, in South Korea. His family moved to the United States when he was three years old. They joined his father who was a psychiatric resident. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. In 1987, he earned a Bachelor of Arts in English at Yale University. He received a master of fine arts degree in writing from the University of Oregon in 1993. Post-masters, he became an assistant professor at the university.

In 1995, Lee made his literary debut with the publication of Native Speaker. The manuscript for his debut novel was his thesis for his master’s degree. For his debut novel, Lee won the 1995 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award and the 1996 Pen/Hemingway Award. It was also awarded the NAIBA Book of the Year Award. His second novel, A Gesture Life was published in 1999. It received the same critical appraise as his first work, winning the 2000 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. His third novel, Aloft (2004), won the 2006 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in the Adult Fiction category while his fourth novel, The Surrendered (2010) won the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. The Surrendered was also a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His 2014 novel, On Such a Full Sea, was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award. Lee’s latest novel, My Year Abroad, was published in 2021.

Apart from writing, Lee has been a professor. He taught at Hunter College of the City University of New York. He also taught creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University and was a Shinhan Distinguished Visiting Professor at Yonsei University in South Korea. In 2016, he joined the faculty of Stanford University as the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor of English. In 2021, Lee received a lifetime achievement in the Novel with an Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was also elected as a Member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.