The Vertigo of East Asia: On Chang-rae Lee’s “My Year Abroad”

July 6, 2021   •   By Kion You

My Year Abroad

Chang-rae Lee

“THE BUSINESS AT hand,” for Tiller Bardmon, the protagonist of Chang-rae Lee’s novel My Year Abroad, is selling “jamu,” an Indonesian herbal elixir. In the novel, Tiller, a 20-year-old college student from New Jersey, is plucked from the streets by entrepreneur Pong Lou, becoming Pong’s jamu sales assistant and jet-setting with him across Asia. Pong’s vision is to take jamu — traditionally handcrafted by village mongers and individually prescribed for anything from colds to cancer — and globally scale it into the next kombucha.

Jamu is key to breaking open the many themes of My Year Abroad, such as the extractive flow of capital and labor from Southeast to East Asia, as well as the erasure of cultural specificity in the name of health and wellness (yoga also plays a prominent role). The novel is also rife with intersecting genres: it is part post-postcolonial travelogue, in which the “twelve and one-half percent Asian” Tiller becomes enmeshed in intra-Asian power dynamics that push aside Western colonial histories. It is also part picaresque satire, in which Tiller unwittingly finds himself winning over Asia’s cosmopolitan elite.

As a result, My Year Abroad, Chang-rae Lee’s sixth novel, fittingly takes on what James Wood has called “hysterical realism,” a style in which the novel becomes “a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity.” The novel is narrated from suburban New Jersey, but takes the reader from Oahu to Macau to Shenzhen to Hong Kong. The overarching narrative charts the development of Pong’s jamu business, but plot is beside the point: Tiller saves Pong’s life while surfing in Oahu, gets his forehead marked with menstrual blood by a prostitute in Macau, and churns out Thai chili paste in a Shenzhen dungeon. Pong Lou, a Chinese immigrant described as a “sort of jamu” and “human tonic,” steadies these disparate elements, acting as the fatherly Virgil to Tiller’s Dante. Collectively, the plot serves to reproduce the overwhelming affect of East Asian urban life, and to a lesser degree initiate Tiller into adulthood.

Lee’s shift into hysterical realism becomes even starker when pitting My Year Abroad against his first two novels, Native Speaker and A Gesture Life, which feature tight, elegant prose and reticent male protagonists. In these two novels, as well as in 2010’s The Surrendered, “Asia” exists as a source of trauma that must be escaped, which is remembered through the Japanese abuse of comfort women or the ravages of the Korean War. Lee’s early protagonists, who are generally immigrants to the United States, are forced to reckon with this historical baggage amid the already taxing experience of assimilation.

My Year Abroad looks past these tropes — present not only in Lee’s past writing, but in Asian American literature writ large — by de-centering “America” in favor of East Asia, whose contemporary metropolises are torn apart less by war and communism than by the relentless noise of bulldozers clearing the way for high-rise apartments. Both Pong Lou and his business partner, Lucky Choi, share this lack of concern for the past, studying the cities they visit mainly for their economic value.

My Year Abroad, however, is narrated from a sleepy New Jersey town called Stagno, the polar opposite of Asian urbanity. Tiller describes Stagno as “so ordinary that no one too special would ever choose to live here.” After returning to Stagno from his travels in Asia, Tiller pauses college and moves in with a thirty-something woman, Val, and her eight-year-old son, Victor Jr. In another characteristic quirk of the novel, both Val and Victor Jr. are in witness protection, hiding from Val’s gang-affiliated ex-husband.

The first third of My Year Abroad fixates on Tiller and Val’s domestic life, which is largely made up of homeschooling Victor Jr., who ends up becoming an eight-year-old chef savant and launching a pop-up home restaurant. He fixes up everything from “Provençal-style chicken stew and potatoes au gratin” to “Peking duck risotto finished with black truffle butter.” Outside of childcare, Tiller and Val’s ambling days are filled with little other than sex, which is described with similarly sensual, culinary metaphors.

Tiller appears almost unwilling to take the reader into his “year abroad,” which also prods at the root reason why he never lets Val in on his time in Asia: the novel simply does not allow for his traumatic, life-altering experiences to bubble up to the surface. Even when Tiller launches into his time abroad and occasionally jumps back to the present moment in Stagno, the bifurcated parts never cohere, and can almost be read as two separate literary projects.

On their own, however, the “year abroad” sections can be read as a picaresque novel, a genre in which a witty, scheming, and historically male protagonist fights his way up society, and in which plot and characterization take a backseat to freewheeling satire. Yet unlike in picaresque novels such as Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March or Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, Tiller exhibits little emotional range or agency. He responds to each of the novel’s events with the same muted combination of surprise and cluelessness. Yet at the same time, Tiller is also acutely aware of his own positionality as a white-passing man stomping around Asia. He questions his own travel narrative as a form of cultural imperialism:

Regardless, I apologize if this seems like one of those sojourning gweilo [1] stories, in which some willful Western dude ventures abroad and learns the local ways and uses them to gain the trust of the natives and in turn show them how it’s really done, say, dispatching a malign princeling while saving a beautiful serf girl in the process.

Lee overturns the centuries-old trope of the “American in Asia,” in which traveling missionaries, merchants, and officers sent back racist, orientalist reports validating religious, militaristic, and cultural interventions throughout the continent. In fact, Lee flips the stereotype on its head through the character of Pruitt, an English-teaching backpacker expatriate. Pruitt is forced to join Tiller inside a basement filled with a massive mortar and pestle, where they make chili paste for a Marxist, Chinese-Thai cook. Thus, if the genre of postcolonial travel writing denotes oppressed subjects reclaiming lands taken from them, Lee humorously pushes My Year Abroad into post-postcolonial territory, where the white male gaze stares up at the historically oppressed subject — in this case quite literally from the subaltern.

However, Tiller’s racial self-consciousness never leads to revelation or behavioral change, and so the novel continues to drag him through its increasingly Hollywood-esque screenplay. In the novel’s climax, Tiller finds himself stuck in the lair of a Sri Lankan-Chinese supervillain named Drum Kappagoda, where he discovers that Pong has not only been peddling jamu, but also an alchemical elixir of immortality — the ultimate, dystopian endgame of the health and wellness fad. However, the emotional response to this reveal is less shock and more fatigue. As James Wood puts it in a review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, the “hysterical realist” novel is one in which the “conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked.” My Year Abroad’s problem is not its lack of believability but its incessancy, which comes at the cost of the reader’s emotional attachment to the characters.

However, unlike White Teeth, which Smith wrote in her early 20s, Lee fails to capture the voice of a 20-year-old narrator. In one representative passage, he writes, “The meanies went wiggy for his blues-a-billy rendition of ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine,’ clawing wildly at his ‘Feel the Bern’ T-shirt.” With each invocation of terms like “IMHO,” “tyke,” “My Thing” (what Tiller calls his penis), and “some chick’s lululemoned crack,” Lee’s iterations of hysterical scenarios become undercut by Tiller’s text message simulacrum voice, furthering the emotional distance between Tiller and his chaotic surroundings.

These weaknesses of My Year Abroad prove not only disappointing when placed next to its skilled manipulation of genre, but also when contemplating the possibility that a hysterical realist style (albeit a slightly more tempered one) could best capture the absurdities of a rapidly changing East and Southeast Asia. For Pong, the goal of his jamu business is to “produce and bottle in an industrial park just outside Shenzhen and then sell all around Asia, first in lower-end markets like KL and Bangkok, and eventually, they hoped, in tonier places such as Shanghai and Tokyo.” In the context of late capitalism this plan simultaneously makes complete sense and reads as absurd caricature: a local Indonesian product becomes snatched up by a Chinese American, who proceeds to mass manufacture it in South China and push it back into Southeast Asian cities, which serve as test runs before moving into East Asia, and then the West.

Looking outside the novel, the vertiginous pace of the Asian metropolis can be viewed through contemporary Shenzhen, in which more skyscrapers are built annually than in the United States and Australia combined, or through a city like Seoul, in which following consumer trends has been compared by forecasters to riding a rollercoaster. When looking at Southeast Asia, a country like Cambodia has sustained a staggering annual GDP growth of eight percent over the last 20 years, with its two largest investors being China and South Korea.

Thus, rather than detailing a trans-Pacific cultural exchange, which on its surface the novel appears to do, My Year Abroad instead puts its finger on the pulse of intra-Asian flux. This is a facet of contemporary globalization which anthropologist Arjun Appadurai characterized as “a complex, overlapping, disjunctive order, which cannot be understood in terms of existing center-periphery models.” Lee seems to be gesturing toward this fact, that our entangled world, as well as its manifestation in Asian Anglophone literature, can no longer be parsed into an East-West binary.

At the end of the novel, Pong is physically tortured by Drum Kappagoda for his fraudulent immortality scheme, after which he quietly disappears from Tiller’s life, leaving Tiller with only one remnant: his card wallet. In their last conversation, Pong says, “The dark metal one links to the account we set up for the business. You can use it for expenses, for supplies, for whatever you find necessary.” Back in New Jersey, Tiller wistfully remembers Pong whenever he swipes the card, and his deep attachment to him remains tangible through the flow of capital.

The credit card not only captures the novel’s focus on consolidations of capital, but also the fact that Tiller’s relationships are all half-baked, whether it be his relationship with Pong, his absent mom, his clueless father, or Val, from whom he hides his actual self. In My Year Abroad’s last few pages, Tiller gives the reader his final thoughts on Pong, unable to even say his name out loud:

And him? I don’t know where he went, whether he has a place in this world or the next. Sometimes, when we’re out at the shopping center or supermarket, I’ll catch a glimpse of some dark-haired figure and drift in that direction, my tongue caught, my lungs bucking, and try to call forth his name. But I can’t, and it won’t be him, it most likely never will be, and I only hear it in my head like I do my mother’s, these endless echoes in the cave of my heart.

It is in these rare moments of quiet introspection, when Tiller takes the time to process his time in Asia, that My Year Abroad is at its most poignant. If only the novel allowed Tiller more of this room, perhaps the reader would become more invested in the machinery of its plot, and the “endless echoes” of his frenetic life could be felt, rather than glazed over.

¤

A recent graduate of Brown University, Kion You is a freelance writer based in Seoul, South Korea. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review, Rewire, and The College Hill Independent.

¤

[1] gweilo is a Cantonese slang term for Westerner.