Crystal Z Lee’s debut novel, Love and Other Moods, begins—as one does—with a lavish wedding à la Crazy Rich Asians. Chinese-American Joss Kong is marrying ultra-wealthy Tay Kai Tang at a swanky Shanghai hotel with an audience of friends and family that speak a variety of Chinese dialects and English with a variety of accents. There’s a Who’s Who of designer and luxury goods on everyone in the wedding party and on every guest. But any comparison to the popular rom-com basically ends there. Love and Other Moods is instead a coming-of-age story of Asian expats and returnees, and how they learn to navigate Shanghai and their significant others’ families, many of whom are modern on the outside yet still caught in the past on the inside.
This is “expat fiction”, but here many of the main characters are Chinese hai gui:
Translated literally, it meant “ocean” and “return”, or “overseas returnee.” It was also a homonym with “sea turtle.” The slang referred to those Chinese who left the motherland for a foreign education, then returned to contribute to China’s workforce… Hai Gui held a socially esteemed position, possessing the desirable trait of being foreign enough but still retaining the essence of their Chinese-ness.
Naomi is American with a Japanese mother and Taiwanese father. Single after breaking up with her fiancé, she finds a job working for an upscale Shanghai marketing company. She’s also in Shanghai because her best friend Joss plans to settle in the city for good after marrying Tay.
On a flight from Beijing to Shanghai, Naomi meets Dante Ouyang, a native of Nanjing who emigrated to England at the age of eleven back in the late 1980s. Now he’s back in China to work in his architecture firm’s Shanghai office. In the first of many times when plot informs history and vice versa, Lee uses Naomi’s family background and her relationship with Dante to mirror Chinese-Japanese tensions going back to World War II. As one can imagine, Dante’s parents are not pleased their only child is dating a Japanese-American woman.
Joss, like Dante, is also a returnee. Her father had emigrated from Shanghai to Hong Kong to the United States; Joss returns to the city of her father’s birth when she becomes engaged to the wealthy Tay. Tay’s parents don’t seem to object to their son marrying Joss, but Dante’s family continues to ignore the fact that their son is dating Naomi.
It seems all too convenient that Dante’s father was a child in Nanjing during the 1937 atrocities so that he would have first-hand memories of that time and would hold it against Naomi. Along with this conflict, Lee covers most of the controversial issues in China of the last sixty years, including the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, one-child policy, leftover women campaign, adoption, Christianity in China, and US celebrities’ support of Tibet. This doesn’t hold the plot hostage, but can in parts seem a little forced.
Given the nature of these expats, the nature of the expat problems they encounter are different from those in most West meets East fiction. Rather than a work visa problem, for example, Naomi is denied entry back into China after a work trip to Indonesia. She had entered China on her Taiwanese travel card rather than her US passport, for which she would need to annually apply for a work visa. In a moment of forgetfulness, she hands the immigration officer her American passport. Rather than forgiving this error, the immigration officer advises Naomi to fly to Hong Kong and re-enter China the following day even though Naomi is already late for a work meeting.
Naomi flashed the officer her most charming smile and pleaded with her to overlook her hu tu, her carelessness. “It won’t happen again,” Naomi promised. She really hoped the officer would give her a break and just let her in. The officer sighed and shook her head. “I wish I can help, but jin tian suan ni dao mei,” You are just unlucky today.
The world of Love and Other Moods assumes relatively free-flowing transit, both physically and socially, between the Chinese diaspora and China itself, something that has almost entirely disappeared due to rolling lockdowns and travel bans. But the political wariness that also crept into relations may mean that liaisons between contemporary Joss Kongs and Tay Kai Tangs may take some time to recover, if at all.