Overview: ‘My Yr Overseas’ an exhilarating coming-of-age journey by means of Asia
“My Year Abroad” by Chang-rae Lee Photo: Flusskopf
Do you miss fun Eating in restaurants and staying out all night singing karaoke? Go anywhere at all? Well, you’re in luck – Chang-rae Lee’s comic novel “My Year Abroad” is ideal quarantine read, a vicarious escape that reminds us how hedonistic life can be.
This coming-of-age story revolves around Tiller, a young New Jersey college student who is an eighth Asian, a “low yella” who walks through life with “near whiteness” and a blatant lack of purpose or belonging goes. While he was earning some money to finance his studies abroad, he met Pong, a magnetic Chinese-American entrepreneur who irrevocably changed his fate by inviting him on a business trip through Asia.
In a classic Bildungsroman there is often an emotional loss that sends the protagonist on a search. In Tiller’s case, his mother abandoned him and his father, and Tiller never fully recovers. When someone asks him why he seems so desperate, he thinks, “The simple answer, of course, was that I was motherless.”
It is the lack of a mother figure that makes Tiller so vulnerable and attracted to her confidence in the adults around him. He reflects on the charismatic Pong: “I liked being swept away in the wave of his wake.” It doesn’t hurt that Tiller sees himself as average and Pong sees more. In a particularly remarkable karaoke scene, Tiller, who swears that he cannot carry a melody, sings “When I Was a Boy” by Electric Light Orchestra at the end and silences the room with his perfect voice.
“My Year Abroad” alternates between Tiller’s exciting and harrowing journey through Asia and the following year, in which he and Val, a depressed woman of 30, and her son, two people living under Witnesses, form a kind of family American suburbs found shelter, which he fell in love with on his return home in the food court of Hong Kong airport.
Chang-rae Lee, author of “My Year Abroad” Photo: Michelle Branca Lee
There are so many nested stories here that the novel is in danger of being undone at almost every turn, and any recap of the different storylines in this book would make it sound absurd.
I suspect that while Lee was writing this book, Lee doubted he could pull it off, but this action-packed yarn barely manages to hold together. The book is crammed with so many moments of pain and pleasure – a gruesome scene with a human-sized mortar and pestle and enough food to make you feel about to vomit – that you end up feeling like a bender and from at the same time go off one.
These numerous wild adventures make it almost easy to overlook the more striking line: this Tiller, a white-paced Asian who grew up in a boring American suburb, can only discover himself on a trip to Asia and through his relationships with Asian men. Throughout his career, Lee, a Korean who now teaches at Stanford University, has always explored topics of cultural assimilation and alienation, and this story is no exception.
At the beginning of the novel we see a young man who does not see himself in his surroundings, and while Tiller learns a lot about himself on his trip to Asia, he also discovers that he does not belong there either. It is only after his return to the American suburbs, which are permeated with new knowledge about himself, that he finds a sense of home when he builds a mixed family with Val and her son.
While this book is hilarious and terrifying at the same time – we see everything from suicide attempts to surreal sex acts – it ends up being a moving saga of family and loss embedded in what reads like a romp. Ultimately, Lee managed to create this rare type of novel that is both devious and worth reading.
“My year abroad”
From Chang-rae Lee
(Riverhead; 496 pages; $ 28)