The Expatriates is a contemporary work, set in the the privileged bubble of the Hong Kong expat community. Initially the three main characters, Mercy, Margaret and Hilary seem rather self-involved – wrapped up in the often trivial details of the lives of Americans living in Hong Kong. I admit to taking a deep sigh at that point, thinking of how unlikely it was that I would enjoy reading about women living in a different country but not wanting to really be a part of that country – rather staying in their “particularly homogeneous enclave of expatdom” – living in the part of town that had the most Americans and centering your life around adherence to your nation’s own holidays and customs – finding “yourself somehow more American than ever.” It becomes quickly apparent that each woman though, is more motivated by central traumas and griefs than by their expat status, and the story continues with strong themes of family, loss and identity.
All three main characters deal with grief while being away from their home country. Mercy, a recent graduate is a rather at-drift graduate who has never felt as though she has belonged to any particular group or community. Being a Korean-American living in Hong Kong but without regular work, her story reflects the struggles of those without a strong sense of identity. She feels as though she doesn’t really belong anywhere – and this is exacerbated by not being as wealthy as her friends. Hillary seems a peculiar woman – ‘test’driving’ an orphan whom she is considering adopting. She is offended when this is pointed out as being rather inappropriate. But it does make sense that her character would be in this situation. Finally, Margaret, a mother of three who is drowning in grief, while trying desperately hard to keep things normal for her children.
Lee weaves these stories together, moving the women around each other’s lives. The setting of the Hong Kong-based expatriate community provides an interesting backdrop, and allows the circumstances of the stories to play out. But, tellingly, their problems are in some ways universal and could happen anywhere. The location here helps mostly to reinforce how isolated they each feel.
I really enjoyed this book. There is a continuing consciousness of the artificial separateness of expat and local. Towards the end I became very concerned about the characters and felt that the story sat with me for some time. A worthwhile read.
Review by Emma Wong-Ming
written by Janice Y.K Lee
Published by Little, Brown