An American Goes Abroad, Chaos Ensues
In "My Year Abroad", Chang-rae Lee satirizes the trope of an American finding enlightenment in Asia
“I won’t say where I am in this greatish country of ours,” begins Tiller, the 20-year-old narrator of My Year Abroad. Tiller views himself as an utterly mediocre college kid, one who grew up in the affluent suburbs of New Jersey and is about to start his semester studying abroad. However, he finds himself swept up by Pong Lou, a Chinese immigrant entrepreneur that takes Tiller under his wing for a whirlwind business trip around Asia. My Year Abroad juggles two narratives: one of Tiller’s globe-trotting adventures with Pong, and one showing the aftermath of those adventures, as Tiller finds himself settling into a suburban American lifestyle with Val, an older woman with a questionable past, and her young son Victor Junior.
Reading My Year Abroad feels like watching a master juggler at work; Lee, the author of five other novels, highlights his accomplished literary skills within this kaleidoscopic, dynamic narrative. He tackles 21st-century “hot button” topics with aplomb, often within the span of a paragraph: globalized consumerism, class systems in the US, mixed-race identities, Western perceptions of the East, the constant commodification of culture—like our obsession with “healthy” lifestyles, wellness drinks, and yoga—and mental health issues, only to mention a few. Not only that, Lee’s prose is a similarly high-powered balancing act, alternating between anything from laugh-out-loud satire to intense emotional pathos. My Year Abroad plays on the traditions of past canonical American writers and adventure novels, while also re-defining and making fun of what it means to be an “American” traveling abroad in the 21st century.
Jae-Yeon Yoo: While reading, I kept picturing Tiller as a “millennial Holden Caulfield” figure, with his balance of flippancy and vulnerability—except, of course, that My Year Abroad deals with race, consumerism, and globalization in a way that Catcher in the Rye does not. How did you decide this was the voice to tell this particular story?
Chang-rae Lee: Well, I’m glad you mentioned that, because Tiller’s narration was something that was actually a secondary conception. You know, my original idea was to tell the story either through third person narration or through Pong’s voice. Pong was the character I started out with, and he was the inspiration for the book. His character is loosely based on an acquaintance of mine, and other newer immigrants that I’d met, people who are very resourceful—a lot of pluck, brains, entrepreneurship, all that kind of stuff. But after a while, I asked myself: why am I so interested in Pong? I guess I was equally interested in my appreciation of someone like Pong and, in some ways, my desire and need for someone like Pong. I came to this country when I was three years old; but even though I started out as an immigrant kid, of course I’ve settled—over the years, I’ve become established, I work at these long-standing cultural and academic institutions. I kind of lost that… I don’t know, that verve or zest, that kind of yearning and ambition. So, maybe that’s why I was enraptured by the idea of Pong.
So I sort of fell back on the idea that, no, I need to tell someone else’s story, who’s trying to break out of a rut. Someone who’s trying to live life a little bit more on a larger scale, and to feel that pop and spark about life again. Just describing that, I immediately thought, “Oh, would it just be a contemporary, middle-aged person?” But then I thought, “No, actually I think I’d like to tell the story of a kid, maybe a millennial, or just on the cusp of that.” Who is himself feeling very stuck in ordinariness. And so I decided, okay, I’m gonna let myself try. I always try things before really committing to them with a novel, and I tried out his voice for a couple of chapters and I liked it. So I thought, “You know what? I’ll just go with it.”
Then the other thing that probably influenced me is that I have two daughters in their early 20s. I’d just been seeing them and their friends hanging out. I picked up a lot of certain kinds of mannerisms, styles of thought, and expression. And I thought Tiller’s 20-year-old voice could maybe keep up the energy of the novel, rather than telling the story of some middle-aged guy who’s down on his luck. [At the same time,] I hope that he’s got enough sense of reflection about him that it’s not just all “push push push, energy energy energy!” I didn’t want it to be a straight-up adventure story or picaresque story. There are elements of that, but I had no interest in just writing that kind of story. I thought, okay, maybe I could come up with a strange little combination here of a coming-of-age story, but also maybe kind of a midlife crisis story.
JY: The satire in this book was so smartly done. How was it to write an intentionally “funny” book? Do you think satire and humor are integral to this narrative?
CL: In my other books, I have not been funny at all. But I think my wife will tell you that I’m actually a fairly humorous guy, and maybe this is the first book in which I kind of let that part of me come out. In my life, not as a writer, I would say I’m much more like Tiller and always have been. And it always surprises people, because my other books are focused on fairly serious themes. [Readers] would always be surprised that I wasn’t, you know, really stern and brooding and ponderous and all that, because I’m not really that way at all. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to write like this, but (laughs) I found my voice, I guess.
JY: Actually, I know you said that My Year Abroad doesn’t deal with as serious of issues as your other books, but I thought that Tiller’s satire allowed the novel to tackle some really serious and problematic issues in our world today. American consumerism and capitalism, obviously, but also various stereotypes like this privileged college kid’s “year abroad,” or this white American guy who teaches English all across Asia. Some of the novel’s satire is very funny but also some of it’s pretty horrifying; I’d love to hear more about the stereotypes and cliches you were thinking of as you wrote this piece.
CL: I was definitely trying to look intentionally at certain stereotypes, the ways we look at each other and make assumptions. [One of the characters] Pruitt, for example, is sort of that classic white guy backpacking through Asia. But at the same time, I didn’t want him to be a total caricature and just a target. I did want him to have his own humanity, desires, and consciousness, even if he’s trapped in a lot of tropes. Tiller also talks about his own part-Asianness, the way people treat him. The book is not centrally focused on that, but I definitely wanted certain strains of a certain kind of worry and anxiety, through Tiller, about his hybridity. I wanted him to reflect on his privileged place in the world, his lackadaisical attitude—a sense of comfort and security, or wanting nothing bad or wild to happen in his life.
I didn’t want the book to be only satirical, because I do think that with Tiller there is a deep, deep core of this affection and sadness in his life; [Tiller’s] yearning isn’t just about wanting crazy experiences. And obviously, there’s satire about consumerism. I guess I wanted Tiller to be caught up in a lot of the things that are going on today, in my view, that are kind of backward and wrong—to poke fun at, you know, like the whole “wellness” trend. But I also wanted to recognize these are things that we need, or at least live within. Even if you know they’re 70% kind of silly, or wrong.
JY: Speaking of satire about consumerism, I was fascinated by the book’s take on our current societal obsession with “wellness,” such as how you make yoga and jamu [a health drink], central plot points. Could you elaborate more on what you were hoping to critique?
CL: Well, it’s not a huge concern in the novel, but I did want to poke gently at how furiously we in industrialized nations pursue “wellness” and “calm”; of course it’s inevitable, given how infirm our modern lives are, overtaxed as we are with information and consumerism and junk diets. It’s not that yoga and health drinks are silly pursuits—they’re perfectly wonderful and worthwhile, but I think we tend to go overboard in our hope that these things can save us, make us whole, when it’s systemic and structural stresses and deficiencies in our society that are the root causes of our ills, and why we need all these supplements.
JY: In that vein, globalization, late-era capitalism, and thoughtless consumerism are themes that clearly drive these characters and plot. I’d love to hear if you had any more thoughts on how we’ve come to commodify and fetishize certain cultures, identities, etc. in our era of globalized capital.
CL: Globalism has given all of us incredible reach, as we can access an almost unlimited range of cultural information and production, but I’m not sure that capacity has really translated into more sense or wisdom. Especially about an originating culture, even if we think we know something more about it, say, through an “authentic” curry recipe. It’s so easy now to sample, to taste, and yet I wonder if it’s all surface, a kind of costumery to don, for shallow pleasures. I suppose I wanted my hero Tiller to have to endure his travels as much as delight in them, in the hope that he’d find out something deeper about the world at hand and himself.
JY: Absolutely. I think these ideas of shallowness versus depth really come across in the novel. Could you talk more about the societal representation and vision of “culture”—both American and Asian—in My Year Abroad?
CL: In Tiller, who is “1/8 Asian,” I felt I had a protagonist who could function as a kind of go-between for East and West, as he could bring up as well as engage and embody all sorts of cultural types and practices. He’s not sure himself, of what he is, where and how he fits, but like all of us he’s heavily larded with positive and negative stereotypes about business-savvy Asian men, “seductive” Asian women, Westerners in Asia, et cetera. I enjoyed putting him and us through the paces, however cringy or retrograde or weird they were, in the hope of some little bit of enlightenment at the end.
JY: One throughline in both narratives was the importance of food; food, of course, is also an integral part of the “wellness” lifestyle we were just discussing. I’d be curious to hear more why food plays such a crucial role in tying this novel together—between Pong’s fro-yo shop, which is how Tiller initially gets involved with Pong’s enterprises, and Victor Junior’s burgeoning chef career.
CL: I was thinking about what kinds of things Tiller could get interested in. In my conception, he starts out as, frankly, a little bit flavorless. He doesn’t have this urge to savor things, and everything’s kind of vanilla for him. Pong literally introduces him to flavor. I originally thought food was just one part of Pong’s businesses—the fro-yo shop, the hot dog shop, whatever. But then I realized that I wanted to get into the corporal experience of what Tiller’s gonna go through. Because to me, it’s so important—not just with Tiller and Pong, but in general—that life’s not just intellectual, even for those of us who spend all day trying to think cerebrally. It makes no sense to me. Maybe it’s the way I grew up, maybe it’s my own love and associations and connections with food, but I cherish life so much when I can taste things—literally and figuratively. That’s when I feel most alive, that’s when all the cognitive stuff, intellectual stuff, and everything else all seem to fall into place. Otherwise, it’s kind of airless and bloodless; it just doesn’t feel real to me.
I wanted something there for Tiller to sink his teeth into. Then, at the same time, have that sink its teeth back in. So he does have to taste the world, but there comes a responsibility with that, and a maturation process. The world wants to taste you back—what are you willing to risk, how far are you willing to go? Maybe that’s the more philosophical side of food for me. Aside from just liking food, it’s the idea that we are food for the gods; we’re food for fate and history. We don’t like to think of it that way. We like to think we have control, that we are the ones who are at the helm. We are the ones tasting, choosing, curating. But in fact, it’s really much the other way round.
JY: Yes. I think if this past year has shown us anything, it’s that we’re still figuring a lot of things out, and we’re at the mercy of a lot of different things outside our control.
CL: Right, exactly. And so I thought that this [cooking and eating] could be a way not just for fun and crazy stuff to happen [in the novel], but also of learning, a way of understanding who we really are. So it made sense to me to make Victor Junior this prodigy child chef. And I just like the flow and the energy of them being so Epicurean.
JY: Jhumpa Lahiri writes about how your work has continued to re-define the “Great American Novel.” To conclude, do you have any thoughts on how My Year Abroad engages with—or subverts—this idea of the “Great American Novel”?
CL: Certainly My Year Abroad could be read as another “American innocent heading abroad” novel, to discover “newness” and exotic peoples and practices to thereby force a reckoning and gain a deeper measure of “wisdom.” Yet all along, I think the novel also can’t help but question that enterprise, lampoon it, and maybe enact its own destruction, just as what nearly happens to Tiller. So maybe this is where we are now, when things have shifted, the privilege of perspective most of all, so that he’s the one being examined, he’s the object of inquiry.