The Expatriates, Janice Y. K. Lee, author, Ann Marie Lee, narrator
This story is told in alternating chapters featuring each of the three main characters. It is read well, with expression and enunciation that is without reproach. The soft spoken narrator expertly characterizes the personalities of the three main females in the story without getting in their way with her own interpretation. She does equally well with ancillary characters, male and female.
One of the women, Mercy, is unmarried and in her twenties. She is a Korean American. She graduated from Columbia University in New York City but was unable to find a job there, although her well-connected American friends seemed to have had relatively no problem. Another woman, Margaret, is older. She is a landscape architect, quite comfortable financially. She has three young children. The third woman, Hilary, is wealthy in her own right. She is childless, although she and her husband have tried unsuccessfully to begin a family. She had hoped a child would salvage their faltering marriage. The two married women have come to Hong Kong for what they hope will be a good career opportunity for their husbands. The third has come to find her own job and, hopefully, alter the trajectory of her life. The book explores the minds of these expats who have decided to pick up stakes and relocate to Hong Kong. Why do they do it, how does it affect their relationships, careers, lifestyle, futures, mental health, and children? Do they adjust well to the change, resent it, perhaps fight it?
Hilary and Margaret met while vacationing in Thailand and now they meet at social events. They move in the same circles. Hong Kong is a small community when it comes to expats and they all know each other and know about each other. They belong to the same clubs, dine in the same restaurants, and shop in the same stores. They all have help waiting on their every need. Margaret and Hilary are living the good life. Often, the children are as spoiled as their parents; so used are they to being catered to that they soon expect it without any sense of gratitude. The culture in Hong Kong seems to exist to serve the needs of their guests, regardless of how selfish and even unnecessary those needs may be, i.e. as described in the book, a young child fully capable of eating on his own, is being fed by someone so he can continue to play on his device.
Margaret and Mercy met while on a boat, seated next to each other. Mercy is outspoken, often saying and doing things that seem a bit outlandish and unacceptable in a social and/or private setting; she seems a bit naïve, but Margaret finds her refreshing. Mercy has been described by others, throughout her life, as being without “book”, without a real future, as someone who will never marry, who will rarely achieve anything worthwhile, and she believes that her destiny is preordained and that she will not easily find success. As a result, when she fails to fit in or succeed, she blames it on her fate. Margaret, mostly unaware of Mercy’s shortcomings, decides to offer her a job. She asks if she would be willing to help her with her children, to enhance their lives with experiences they can’t get if they become preoccupied with TV or their tech devices, as so many other children do in Hong Kong.
When Margaret takes Mercy along with the family on a trip to Korea, she becomes the catalyst for a disastrous event. One brief careless moment impacts all three women with devastating consequences, and as their lives unwittingly intersect, their futures are altered. When Mercy returns to Hong Kong, by a strange confluence of events, she meets David, Hilary’s husband, which further complicates all of their lives.
The story draws the reader in emotionally and intellectually as it tackles the meaning of responsibility, relationships, marriage, motherhood, martyrdom, unbearable loss, adulthood, and the importance of making responsible decisions. Marriages are tested by trauma and loss. The bonds that unite couples under different kinds of stress are examined and thoughtfully explored. It examines the many different levels of parent/child relationships and of mother/daughter bonds. The loyalty of a mother to a child is dissected as is the responsibility of a parent and caregiver. Is there a need to suffer after a tragedy, after a failure? How long is it necessary to continue to suffer, to hold on to the pain and guilt before one can feel happy again?
The author paints most of the male characters negatively, as arrogant, immature, and competitive. They have a tendency to show off in an environment that encourages it. It paints the women as shallow, lovers of material possessions who talk only of frivolity, vacations and places to dine and parties to attend. The men, women and children expect to have their every need catered to by a servant of some kind. Men have lost their moral compass because they are catered to so openly and completely.
I found the conclusion of the book to be disappointing, unfulfilling and unrealistic. Until then, the book was engaging. I am not certain that anyone who lived through the series of events these characters did, would be able to forgive and forget, to move on and accept their nemeses as Mercy, Margaret and Hilary did, although one seemed less deserving of exculpation than the others. One seemed to have almost willfully and selfishly because of her own naivety or stupidity, perhaps, brought down the wrath of “G-d” upon them, but the author found it in her heart to forgive her. Since the author was born in and lived in Hong Kong, she does know more about the culture in which the circumstances of the book played out, and I imagine she had justification for her ending.