After a yoga retreat from hell somewhere between Shenzhen and Dongguan, twenty-year-old Tiller Bardmon meets single mother Val and her eight-year old son, Victor Jr at the Hong Kong International Airport’s food court. Val and her son are returning to the United States after visiting her family in Kowloon, yet when she tries to pay for their food she finds her credit cards don’t work and she has no cash. Tiller spots them the money and Val whisks him away to an empty table, confiding in him before he can tuck into his xiaolongbao.
Something fell away from her wide, sweet face and she proceeded to tell me how some months earlier she had detailed for federal agents every last facet of her husband’s dealings with a gang of New Jersey-based Tashkentians that involved Mongolian mineral rights, faux sturgeon eggs, and very real shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, which were supposedly part of an ISIS-offshoot-offshoot’s plan to enrich themselves and arm potential client cells in Western Europe.
This may seem like a mouthful, but it soon becomes par for the course in Chang-Rae Lee’s new novel, My Year Abroad. It might well be Lee’s most ambitious book and perhaps the most fun he’s had writing. As with this passage introducing Val, the narrative seems all over the place, but that’s the beauty of the book and the means by which Lee shows how closely knit the United States and Asia have become through immigration, commerce, travel, food, and pop culture.
Tiller goes on to move in with Val and Victor Jr in their witness protection town somewhere on the American Eastern Seaboard that Lee names Stagno, as in stagnant. Despite their age difference of more than a decade, Tiller and Val connect in part because they are both 1/8 Asian, he part Korean, she part Chinese. While the couple tries to balance a normal life for Victor Jr in witness protection, which involves homeschooling and visiting playgrounds while most kids are still in school, Tiller flashes back to his PTSD-inducing trip to Southern China and how he ended up there. The scenes in China don’t begin until midway through the 470-page novel, but the first half is so entertaining that there doesn’t seem to be much of a rush to arrive at that point.
While Tiller is on summer vacation from his unnamed, expensive, but not elite, small liberal arts college, he caddies at a local golf course in his hometown, the made-up Dunbar, New Jersey, a town that seems awfully similar to Princeton. There he meets a chemist and entrepreneur named Pong Lou. Pong sees the best in people and soon takes Tiller on as a protégé in his latest business venture, a cure-all elixir—called Elixirent—made from the Indonesian jamu, or traditional medicine made from herbs, roots, and other natural products.
There is nothing holding down Tiller, neither his Dunbar life nor his college career. His mother disappeared when Tiller was in second grade and his father checked out soon after that, present in Tiller’s life but not involved. When Pong asks Tiller to join him on a business trip to market Exilirent to a yoga guru who runs a retreat center somewhere between Shenzhen and Dongguan, Tiller sees no reason to say no. Soon after their arrival in Shenzhen, Pong, Tiller, and yoga guru Drum Kappagoda partake in karaoke. Drum grabs a mic and starts to croon (fittingly) to “Hotel California”. Tiller finds the song cliché, but ends up reflecting on the past and present.
I got kind of sick of the song, just the way you would with pink champagne on ice if you had it too often, but hearing that long twelve-string guitar opener made me picture my parents sitting in the living room with big goblets of white wine and not talking but not too unhappy, just marinating in the hi-fi. Everybody got real quiet now, too, anticipating those three drumbeats, as Drum started to sing. His singing voice was a bit scratchy, like Don Henley’s, though lower, and rougher, which I liked immediately and maybe even better than the original, his voice not needing the scroll, as every sentient being in the known universe somehow knows every last one of the words.
Like the song, Tiller’s foray into Drum’s yoga compound starts to resemble the Hotel California, where people can check out anytime, but can never leave. Lee refers a couple times to the Bruce Lee film, Enter the Dragon, and the sections of the book set in Southern China also take on an eerie resemblance to that movie.
Pong, like Tiller and many of the characters in the book, lost his mother at a young age, a theme in the story. Food also plays a large role, not just in Asia, but also in Dunbar and Stagno, to the extent that it could be easy to conclude that Lee wrote this book to show how commonplace Asian food has become in the United States. But that would not cover the overarching message of the book, that Western and Eastern cultures have come together in many more ways. During Tiller’s early days in Southern China, he contemplates the people he’s met there so far, most of whom have ties to the United States through children studying there or from previous studies of their own, and what this means for China’s and the US’s place in the world.