An interview with Janice Y. K. Lee, author of The Expatriates

Like The Piano Teacher, THE EXPATRIATES is set in Hong Kong. As a writer, what draws you in about this city?

I love Hong Kong and have spent a little over half my life there.   People view it as this world city, which it is, but that’s only one of its many facets. It is an amazing melting pot of cultures and experiences that, extraordinarily, still manages to have the feel of a small village, at least if you live there.  For me, there is the additional push and pull of home. You want to be there; you want to leave.  Like New York, there is always a tide of new arrivals, and those leaving.  I’ll always have Hong Kong with me.

Did you do any research to prepare to write THE EXPATRIATES? Or did you draw mainly on your own experience?

I didn’t have to, which was a different experience from my first novel, The Piano Teacher, which was set during WWII in Hong Kong.  As I came to realize that these women lived in the same world I lived in, I find myself growing very thoughtful about this place I inhabited.  I was a constant observer in my own life, trying to see patterns and behaviors.  In a way, it was easy, because I just needed to live my life, but I wanted to be considered and fair to all of the people who were also living in this world.

As American expatriates in Hong Kong, Margaret, Mercy, and Hilary share some concerns, but they are very different women. THE EXPATRIATES alternates among their stories and points of view. Which character did you find easiest to write? Which was the most challenging?

I found a bit of myself in each character.  Poor, hapless Mercy.  I felt for her, and felt I could have been her in another, parallel life.  And Margaret is the mother, the one who has children throughout the book, so I have lived some aspect of her life.  Hilary, I also felt I knew.  She didn’t have children while everyone around her was reproducing like mad.  It must be off-putting and frightening at times.  Margaret and Hilary inhabit a more similar world than the one Mercy lives in.  For Mercy, I had to imagine what it would be like to come to Hong Kong as a twenty-something, but I thought it might be a bit like moving to New York as a twenty-something, which I did know something about.  I think human experience is more universal than we might think, even when people are from vastly different cultures, different generations.

In many ways, THE EXPATRIATES is about loneliness and alienation, and about how the women feel like outsiders even as others might consider them the ultimate insiders. Do you think that the insular expatriate community is a useful lens for thinking about how people feel this all the time, in many different settings?

I am always surprised by how often you might find that someone you thought had it all, had it all figured out and was completely together was actually having a complete meltdown on the inside.  We are all, by our too-human nature, so self-involved that we necessarily experience life from our own perspectives, but wow, is there a lot going on all around if you pay attention.  Say, Clarke’s 50th birthday party, there were so many stories going on in that room, just about the characters we grew to know.  There are thirty other novels that could have been written about any of the other people who were there.  This is a long and roundabout way of saying that everyone who is living life in a thoughtful way feels like an outsider, I think.  I have always felt “outside” and I think that is a good thing.  It gives me perspective and distance. The expatriate community is a microcosm of society, in many ways, so it is a good lens to view what is happening on a larger scale outside.

As we see in the book, so-called “trailing spouses” of business people in Hong Kong are thrown into a completely different world when they arrive—a world of drivers, nannies, housekeepers and leisure that leaves them with lots of spare time. As you’ve observed it, how does this change a trailing spouse’s sense of self?

If you take it in the most positive way, it allows you to have more time—that most precious of resources.  All the labor of taking care of the house, washing all the sheets and towels your baby threw up on, preparing meals, grocery shopping, having someone to receive all packages—all of that is subtracted from your life, leaving you free to… what?  And therein lies the rub.  What do you do when you discover 8 extra hours in your day? Who do you want to become?  I’ve seen people change drastically during their time as an expat, sometimes to become more free, evolve into someone completely different, and sometimes to become even more who they were when they arrived.  It’s an opportunity to grow, and to change, away from the constraints of what is your “normal” life but everyone reacts differently to the experience.

Motherhood, in THE EXPATRIATES, becomes a central, defining purpose for women, for Margaret and Hilary in particular but also for their friends and acquaintances. What happens, then, when a woman can’t conceive or faces a family tragedy?

Motherhood has been such a transformative and intense experience for me.  In the past thirteen years, everything has been refracted through the lens of motherhood.  It is central to my life.  So, I wrote this book while I was in the throes of that.  What struck me was how final it was.  Once you have a child, you are a mother.  That is it.  However you get this child: birth, adoption, whatever, when you do, you pass through this door and you cannot return from this new world.  A mother is a mother whether she loses her child or not.  For women without children, I think it must be awfully tiresome to be around mothers!  There is a large and vibrant part of society that doesn’t have children, but luckily they have a lot of other things to occupy their time with.  Although since they themselves, since everyone, has mothers, I think they would find something in this book to connect with.

You lived in Hong Kong as an expatriate for ten years. Can you talk about the experience of moving abroad and being part of the expatriate community, and about your recent decision to return the United States? 

When I moved to Hong Kong, I wasn’t your typical expat because I was returning “home” to a place I had grown up and where I still had family.  So I didn’t go through the typical settling-in pains because I had a lot of local knowledge.  Still, I had to make friends, find a place to live, find schools for my children.  I loved my time in Hong Kong.  I made friends who I will remain close to for our entire lives, had wonderful experiences, experienced so much of Asia.  I liken it to college in terms of how formative it can be.  Because you are together for a temporary period, everything is heightened and intensified and there is also the sense that it is not “real life.”  Real life is waiting for you back “home.”  And that is why we decided to move back.  I wanted my children to start their lives in what I thought was the right place for them, long-term, as Americans.

What were the biggest challenges you encountered in the writing of this novel? The biggest pleasures?

The biggest pleasure was… I really can’t say.  Writing is difficult.  The biggest pleasure was probably finishing!

How was writing a novel set in the present day different from writing historical fiction (like The Piano Teacher)? 

Research is really wonderful because it allows you to work without writing.  I cannot direct my writing at all.  It comes in fits and starts, so with The Piano Teacher, whenever I would get stuck I would head off to the library to research and read and some interesting fact or historical detail would usually loosen a knot in my head, or knock something loose.  WithThe Expatriates, whenever I got stuck, I just had to wait to get unstuck.  I would find inspiration and solutions in everyday corners of my life, but never know when that was going to happen.  So I had to learn to be patient.  Both books took around five years to write and I think that’s my gestation period for a book, regardless.  These stories unspool slowly and I’ve learned to wait for them.