September 26, 2023


Be Inspired By Food

On Chang-rae Lee’s “My 12 months Abroad”

“THE Business AT hand,” for Tiller Bardmon, the protagonist of Chang-rae Lee’s novel My Calendar year Overseas, is offering “jamu,” an Indonesian natural elixir. In the novel, Tiller, a 20-calendar year-old higher education scholar from New Jersey, is plucked from the streets by entrepreneur Pong Lou, starting to be Pong’s jamu gross sales assistant and jet-placing with him throughout Asia. Pong’s eyesight is to consider jamu — ordinarily handcrafted by village mongers and independently recommended for anything from colds to most cancers — and globally scale it into the next kombucha.

Jamu is critical to breaking open up the numerous themes of My 12 months Overseas, this sort of as the extractive movement of capital and labor from Southeast to East Asia, as properly as the erasure of cultural specificity in the name of health and wellness (yoga also plays a notable position). The novel is also rife with intersecting genres: it is element submit-postcolonial travelogue, in which the “twelve and 1-fifty percent p.c Asian” Tiller gets enmeshed in intra-Asian energy dynamics that force apart Western colonial histories. It is also component picaresque satire, in which Tiller unwittingly finds himself successful over Asia’s cosmopolitan elite.

As a end result, My Calendar year Overseas, Chang-rae Lee’s sixth novel, fittingly usually takes on what James Wooden has identified as “hysterical realism,” a fashion in which the novel turns into “a perpetual-motion device that appears to have been ashamed into velocity.” The novel is narrated from suburban New Jersey, but usually takes the reader from Oahu to Macau to Shenzhen to Hong Kong. The overarching narrative charts the enhancement of Pong’s jamu company, but plot is beside the position: Tiller will save Pong’s daily life while browsing in Oahu, will get 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 things, performing as the fatherly Virgil to Tiller’s Dante. Collectively, the plot serves to reproduce the mind-boggling affect of East Asian urban life, and to a lesser diploma initiate Tiller into adulthood.

Lee’s change into hysterical realism gets to be even starker when pitting My Yr Overseas against his initially two novels, Native Speaker and A Gesture Daily life, which function limited, exquisite prose and reticent male protagonists. In these two novels, as effectively as in 2010’s The Surrendered, “Asia” exists as a source of trauma that should be escaped, which is remembered through the Japanese abuse of ease and comfort women of all ages or the ravages of the Korean War. Lee’s early protagonists, who are frequently immigrants to the United States, are forced to reckon with this historic baggage amid the presently taxing knowledge of assimilation.

My Calendar year Abroad seems to be past these tropes — existing not only in Lee’s previous creating, but in Asian American literature writ massive — by de-centering “America” in favor of East Asia, whose modern metropolises are torn apart considerably less by war and communism than by the relentless sounds of bulldozers clearing the way for high-increase apartments. Equally Pong Lou and his company lover, Lucky Choi, share this lack of problem for the past, finding out the metropolitan areas they pay a visit to largely for their economic value.

My Yr Abroad, having said that, is narrated from a sleepy New Jersey town termed Stagno, the polar opposite of Asian urbanity. Tiller describes Stagno as “so ordinary that no one particular way too distinctive would ever select to live listed here.” Immediately after returning to Stagno from his travels in Asia, Tiller pauses faculty and moves in with a thirty-anything girl, Val, and her 8-calendar year-previous son, Victor Jr. In a different attribute quirk of the novel, the two Val and Victor Jr. are in witness security, hiding from Val’s gang-affiliated ex-partner.

The first 3rd of My Year Overseas fixates on Tiller and Val’s domestic everyday living, which is largely produced up of homeschooling Victor Jr., who ends up turning out to be an 8-12 months-old chef savant and launching a pop-up residence cafe. He fixes up anything from “Provençal-design and style chicken stew and potatoes au gratin” to “Peking duck risotto concluded with black truffle butter.” Exterior of childcare, Tiller and Val’s ambling times are loaded with minor other than sexual intercourse, which is explained with similarly sensual, culinary metaphors.

Tiller appears virtually unwilling to just take the reader into his “year abroad,” which also prods at the root cause why he by no means allows Val in on his time in Asia: the novel simply does not permit for his traumatic, life-altering ordeals to bubble up to the surface. Even when Tiller launches into his time abroad and once in a while jumps back again to the current second in Stagno, the bifurcated elements under no circumstances cohere, and can pretty much be browse as two separate literary jobs.

On their own, nonetheless, the “year abroad” sections can be study as a picaresque novel, a style in which a witty, scheming, and historically male protagonist fights his way up society, and in which plot and characterization acquire a backseat to freewheeling satire. Still as opposed to in picaresque novels this kind of as Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March or Henry Fielding’s The Record of Tom Jones, a Foundling, Tiller displays tiny emotional range or company. He responds to each individual of the novel’s activities with the same muted mix of shock and cluelessness. Nevertheless at the identical time, Tiller is also acutely informed of his own positionality as a white-passing male stomping close to Asia. He issues his have travel narrative as a type of cultural imperialism:

No matter, I apologize if this would seem like just one of those people sojourning gweilo [1] stories, in which some willful Western dude ventures abroad and learns the regional techniques and works by using them to get the have confidence in of the natives and in switch clearly show them how it is truly completed, say, dispatching a malign princeling though preserving a stunning serf female in the approach.

Lee overturns the hundreds of years-aged trope of the “American in Asia,” in which touring missionaries, retailers, and officers despatched back racist, orientalist reports validating spiritual, militaristic, and cultural interventions throughout the continent. In reality, Lee flips the stereotype on its head as a result of the character of Pruitt, an English-teaching backpacker expatriate. Pruitt is compelled to be part of Tiller inside a basement loaded with a significant mortar and pestle, where by they make chili paste for a Marxist, Chinese-Thai cook dinner. Consequently, if the style of postcolonial journey crafting denotes oppressed subjects reclaiming lands taken from them, Lee humorously pushes My Calendar year Overseas into article-postcolonial territory, in which the white male gaze stares up at the historically oppressed matter — in this scenario pretty literally from the subaltern.

Even so, Tiller’s racial self-consciousness never leads to revelation or behavioral adjust, and so the novel continues to drag him by its more and more Hollywood-esque screenplay. In the novel’s climax, Tiller finds himself trapped in the lair of a Sri Lankan-Chinese supervillain named Drum Kappagoda, where by he discovers that Pong has not only been peddling jamu, but also an alchemical elixir of immortality — the ultimate, dystopian endgame of the wellbeing and wellness trend. Nevertheless, the psychological reaction to this reveal is less shock and much more fatigue. As James Wooden puts it in a evaluate of Zadie Smith’s White Enamel, the “hysterical realist” novel is 1 in which the “conventions of realism are not currently being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked.” My Calendar year Abroad’s difficulty is not its absence of believability but its incessancy, which will come at the cost of the reader’s psychological attachment to the figures.

On the other hand, not like White Teeth, which Smith wrote in her early 20s, Lee fails to capture the voice of a 20-yr-old narrator. In one particular consultant passage, he writes, “The meanies went wiggy for his blues-a-billy rendition of ‘Sweet Little one o’ Mine,’ clawing wildly at his ‘Feel the Bern’ T-shirt.” With each and every invocation of terms like “IMHO,” “tyke,” “My Thing” (what Tiller phone calls his penis), and “some chick’s lululemoned crack,” Lee’s iterations of hysterical eventualities grow to be undercut by Tiller’s textual content concept simulacrum voice, furthering the psychological distance concerning Tiller and his chaotic surroundings.

These weaknesses of My Yr Abroad verify not only disappointing when put next to its expert manipulation of style, but also when thinking about the probability that a hysterical realist model (albeit a slightly additional tempered one particular) could greatest capture the absurdities of a promptly changing East and Southeast Asia. For Pong, the target of his jamu company is to “produce and bottle in an industrial park just outdoors Shenzhen and then promote all all over Asia, initial in lessen-conclusion markets like KL and Bangkok, and finally, they hoped, in tonier spots these kinds of as Shanghai and Tokyo.” In the context of late capitalism this system concurrently tends to make finish sense and reads as absurd caricature: a local Indonesian solution results in being snatched up by a Chinese American, who proceeds to mass manufacture it in South China and push it back again into Southeast Asian towns, which serve as exam runs in advance of going into East Asia, and then the West.

Searching outside the house the novel, the vertiginous rate of the Asian metropolis can be viewed as a result of up to date Shenzhen, in which much more skyscrapers are developed annually than in the United States and Australia mixed, or by a city like Seoul, in which pursuing consumer trends has been as opposed by forecasters to riding a rollercoaster. When seeking at Southeast Asia, a state like Cambodia has sustained a staggering once-a-year GDP growth of eight p.c above the final 20 a long time, with its two greatest traders staying China and South Korea.

So, relatively than detailing a trans-Pacific cultural trade, which on its surface the novel seems to do, My 12 months Abroad as an alternative places its finger on the pulse of intra-Asian flux. This is a side of modern globalization which anthropologist Arjun Appadurai characterised as “a advanced, overlapping, disjunctive order, which cannot be comprehended in terms of existing middle-periphery designs.” Lee appears to be gesturing towards this simple fact, that our entangled planet, as properly as its manifestation in Asian Anglophone literature, can no extended be parsed into an East-West binary.

At the stop of the novel, Pong is physically tortured by Drum Kappagoda for his fraudulent immortality scheme, following which he quietly disappears from Tiller’s daily life, leaving Tiller with only one remnant: his card wallet. In their past discussion, Pong states, “The dark steel 1 back links to the account we established up for the enterprise. You can use it for charges, for materials, for regardless of what you come across necessary.” Again in New Jersey, Tiller wistfully remembers Pong anytime he swipes the card, and his deep attachment to him remains tangible as a result of the movement of money.

The credit score card not only captures the novel’s focus on consolidations of cash, but also the fact that Tiller’s associations are all fifty percent-baked, no matter if it be his partnership with Pong, his absent mom, his clueless father, or Val, from whom he hides his true self. In My Year Abroad’s final several pages, Tiller presents the reader his final feelings on Pong, unable to even say his name out loud:

And him? I do not know wherever he went, whether he has a area in this planet or the future. Sometimes, when we’re out at the searching heart or grocery store, I’ll capture a glimpse of some darkish-haired figure and drift in that path, my tongue caught, my lungs bucking, and try to phone forth his name. But I can not, and it will not be him, it most possible under no circumstances will be, and I only listen to it in my head like I do my mother’s, these infinite echoes in the cave of my heart.

It is in these rare times of tranquil introspection, when Tiller takes the time to course of action his time in Asia, that My Year Overseas is at its most poignant. If only the novel permitted Tiller additional of this area, most likely the reader would come to be far more invested in the equipment of its plot, and the “endless echoes” of his frenetic existence could be felt, alternatively than glazed more than.


A new graduate of Brown College, Kion You is a freelance author based mostly in Seoul, South Korea. His crafting has appeared in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review, Rewire, and The College or university Hill Impartial.


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