Chang-rae Lee’s My Year Abroad offers a darkly comedic reckoning with the violence and intimacy of Asian and American relations.1 What does it mean to write—and read—an American novel amid anti-Asian racism and hate crimes, events that are connected to a history of Asian exclusion? How might we make sense of this pattern alongside the “Asian century,” a term that indexes the supposed rise of Asia’s economic, political, and cultural influence across the globe?
Across six different novels, Chang-rae Lee has defied the boundaries of American literature, asking his readers to question deep-seated assumptions about race, migration, and transnational and global relations. In My Year Abroad—a hybrid, shapeshifting, satirical, and moving book—Lee upends a long history of the West producing and consuming the culture, people, flavors, sights, and sounds of Asia as an object of desire and fantasy. To do so, he builds on his talent for experimenting with narrative voice and novelistic form.
He also makes strange a familiar premise: a Westerner’s journey of self-discovery in the East. Lee’s “mostly white,” part-Asian narrator, Tiller Bardmon, explains: “This new spyglass is a trick, you actually have to peer through it the other way and back onto yourself to understand that it’s all about you, and always has been, particularly if you’re a semi-diasporic postcolonial indeterminate like me.”
I originally read My Year Abroad at the end of 2020. Returning to it more recently has been a strange experience of synergy and generative dissonance. For, although Lee conceived My Year Abroad well before our more recent attention to anti-Asian violence, the novel is even more compelling now, especially because it asks us to turn a sharper eye on our dangerous complacency. His task couldn’t be more urgent—these narratives of consumption are violent delights that lead to violent ends.
In the last few months, Asian American scholars and writers have responded to a series of events that have become more and more horrifying. Slurs spoken on the street or scrawled on classroom walls. Elders pushed and beaten during their daily walks. A man urinating on an Asian woman on the subway. An Atlanta shooting spree that killed eight people, six of whom were Asian American women. Data revealing that these examples are merely part of a larger story. And alongside these individual acts: a broader pattern of silence. The work I’ve read is filled with grief, frustration, worry, and anger, but also a palpable weariness in the face of patterns that we have tried to highlight and document for decades.
It makes good historical sense to turn to some form of “yellow peril” to explain this cycle. But Lee explores alternative yet related issues of fascination, desire, and consumption. In the late 19th century, American readers encountered the Far East in memoirs produced by missionaries to China and Japan; essays published in the pages of the Century Magazine or The Atlantic; and in popular romances such as Onoto Watanna’s The Japanese Nightingale or John Luther Long’s Madame Butterfly, which would later become the inspiration for the Puccini opera. Sometimes, these works were based on a writer’s actual experiences in Asia. Sometimes, they were completely fabricated, with authors using an Asian-sounding pseudonym and a set of stock images and vocabulary.2
These works of Westerners encountering “Asia” can be analyzed through Edward Said’s lens of Orientalism, Gina Marchetti’s narrative pattern, or what Anne Cheng has more recently called “Ornamentalism”: the binary construction of the East as submissive, feminized, and exotic in relation to a more dominant and masculine West.3 Asia, here, becomes neither subject nor substance but, rather, a set of styles. Asian women are hypersexualized objects of desire, devoid of personhood.4 These constructions were produced in the wake of increased trade and travel to the region; US imperial expansion and wars across the Pacific; the rise of Japan as a competing empire; and, in America, anti-Asian propaganda and immigration-exclusion laws.5
Over a century later, the context for writing about these political, cultural, and economic interactions has changed in some ways but not in others. My corner burger joint is advertising a Korean-fried-chicken burger, glazed with gochujang paste, while my social feeds are populated with kimchi recipes and frothy dalgona coffees, celebrated as new pandemic pastimes. The last few years have led to what many have called a watershed moment for Asian and Asian American cultural production, illustrated by the success of films such as Crazy Rich Asians, Parasite, The Farewell, and Minari; the global circulation of K-pop bands like BLACKPINK and BTS; and the awarding of high-impact literary prizes for fiction to Viet Thanh Nguyen, Susan Choi, Charles Yu, and Ocean Vuong.
It has been over 50 years since a coalition of student activist groups at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley organized protests that led to the development of ethnic-studies programs and departments.6 Even before COVID-19 began affecting university enrollments, these programs had been threatened by budget restrictions, crises, and a lack of commitment.
I teach Asian American literature—and while many of my students might identify as Asian American, they raise important questions during class that push at the boundaries of the term. They call attention to class disparities and inequities, and the marginalization of South Asian and Southeast Asian populations in conversations about Asian American communities. They highlight the fraught connections between Asian settlers and the displacement of indigenous peoples, the ties between the emergence of the model-minority mythology and anti-Black racism.7
My Year Abroad underscores that contemporary Asian-US relations can’t be separated into easy binaries of love or fear, inclusion or exclusion. But it also identifies consumption as a particularly important arena of inquiry. Tiller, the narrator, is a 20-year-old university student living with 30-something Val and her remarkable child, Victor Jr. (VeeJ), in “Stagno”: Bardmon’s name for a suburban, extraordinarily ordinary, forgettable location in New Jersey. Val and VeeJ are in witness protection, but we soon learn that Tiller has his own secrets.
The novel goes back and forth between Tiller’s life with Val and VeeJ and his recollection of events that preceded this life. After being raised primarily by his single father, Clark, Tiller has been surrounded by students of wealth and privilege. Before meeting Val, he attended a “small, expensive college, which small expensive college in particular doesn’t matter.” Students attending this college customarily spend a year abroad.
Tiller’s plans for a year abroad in Europe are interrupted when he meets the dynamic Chinese transnational entrepreneur Pong, who becomes a mentor of sorts. Tiller accompanies Pong to Shenzhen for a meeting with the latter’s business partner Drum Kappagoda, a “part-Sri Lankan, part-Chinese Chinese national who resides serially in luxury hotels.” Tiller finds himself swept up in a series of fantastic adventures with “circumstances too peculiar to recount,” which become not only curiouser and curiouser, but also increasingly disturbing.
Though Tiller often passes as “mostly white” and privileged, it’s clear from his references and allusions that he doesn’t quite fit into that world, nor does he fit into the world of Asian elites. Tiller notes that moving through life as one-eighth, or 12.5 percent, Asian (you might call him, he says, “Low Yella”) is “no big deal unless someone wants it to be.” Yet it’s clear from his experiences that his part-Asian-ness matters. Despite his “near whiteness,” Tiller has long been a misfit. Like the other Asian American children and teenagers scattered through his memories, he is excluded and alienated, on the B-list for invitations to weekend ski trips or birthday parties.
Many of Lee’s novels have trended realist, historical, philosophical, and they are marked by his elegant, searching prose; his fine-grained attention to detail; and his compelling yet flawed narrators. My Year Abroad begins in a realist mode, but it doesn’t stay there. In terms of plot, genre, and voice, the novel includes echoes of the picaresque (episodic escapades of a roguish protagonist); the bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel of development; and the postmodern parody or pastiche (stylistic imitation as mockery).
This generic mishmash is important precisely because Lee resists—in voice, content, style, plot, and genre—readers’ expectations of a novel by an Asian American author. There is no triumphant arc of immigrant inclusion or nationalist resistance. While the novel features grief and mourning, it is also ultimately comedic.
Even though My Year Abroad might initially seem like a departure, Lee’s career has been marked from the beginning by his defiance of categories and expectations—particularly those related to what an Asian American author should or shouldn’t write about. Here, Lee joins other writers who have defied the bounds of realist representation in order to transform the content and form of the Asian American novel. Maxine Hong Kingston, Ted Chiang, Ruth Ozeki, Karen Tei Yamashita, Ling Ma, and Gish Jen, among other Asian American authors, have purposefully created worlds and futures that bridge the divide between the fantastic and the real. (In My Year Abroad, Lee refers to “talk story,” the hybrid oral form invoked in Kingston’s Woman Warrior, and includes an embedded switch in narration that reminded me of that memoir).
The plot and character interactions of Lee’s novel become fantastically hilarious, in a way that is not a far cry from the satirical ridiculousness of works by authors such as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Miguel de Cervantes. Indeed, as the entry point into the novel, the epigraphs—drawn from Malamud’s The Natural, Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (a parody of Goethe), and Lao Tzu—create a triptych that highlights the importance of intertextual references and generic fluidity in My Year Abroad.
As in these other works, this hybridity of form is grounded in a critique of social conditions. It’s worth noting that Lee’s novel preceding My Year Abroad, 2014’s On Such a Full Sea, was also an experiment in genre: in that novel, narrated in the first-person plural, the community of B-Mor (once Baltimore) describe a dystopian future, the result of unchecked complacency related to environmental pollution, globalized labor, and race-based inequities.
Lee resists—in voice, content, style, plot, and genre—readers’ expectations of a novel by an Asian American author.
Lee’s talent for narration is perhaps the signature feature of his work. He has crafted first-person narrators and central characters who question their roles as individuals within a community or family and push against the boundaries of racialized identity and terms of belonging. His novels explore tensions between first and second (and subsequent) generations of immigrants; the erasure of Japanese and Chinese imperial aggression within a pan-ethnic Asian American framework; the class privilege of a comfortable upper-middle class.
For example: Henry Park, in Lee’s Native Speaker (1995), is described by his wife as a “B+ student of life,” an “emotional alien,” “genre bug,” “traitor,” and “spy.” Park serves as an intelligence officer gathering information about an Andrew Yang–like Korean businessman who is a potential rising star in New York City politics. The “good Doc Hata” of A Gesture Life (1999) is an estranged and elderly father living in the suburbs. He is ethnically Korean but was raised as Japanese, and he gradually reveals his guilty connection to Korean comfort women. In Aloft (2004), Jerry Battle is an Italian American who navigates a midlife crisis and his fraught relationships with his part-Korean children. The Surrendered (2010) follows June, an orphan, and Hector, the Irish American GI who rescues her during the Korean War. The novel is a sweeping epic that moves from 1930s Manchuria to 1950s Korea to present-day New York and Italy.
Lee’s ability to write in a 20-year-old’s voice in My Year Abroad is undoubtedly influenced by his years of teaching undergraduates at the University of Oregon, Hunter College, Princeton, and Stanford. Do not, however, expect mere ventriloquism, for Lee is most effective at capturing sensibility: the awareness that this generation will be responsible for mitigating the irreparable disasters created by previous generations, say, or the way that university students might find themselves preprogrammed into recommended courses of study and sets of requirements—a narrow existence that might forestall decisions, curiosity, and glimpses of other ways of life. Although his name suggests otherwise, Tiller is not a cultivator; rather, he is rudderless.
My Year Abroad opens by calling attention to the dangerous complacency that results from this ambivalence:
I won’t say where I am in this greatish country of ours, as that could be dicey for Val and her XL little boy, Victor Jr., but it’s a place like most others, nothing too awful or uncomfortable, with no enduring vistas or distinctive traditions to admire, no funny accents or habits of the locals to wonder at or find repellent. Call it whatever you like but I’ll refer to it as Stagno, for while it’s definitely landlocked here, several bodies of murky water dot the area. There’s a way that the days here curdle like the gunge that collects on the surface of a simmering broth, gunge you must constantly gunge away.
This paragraph is a return to and revision of On Such a Full Sea, a novel that begins with the line “It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore” and in which the phrase “where you are” becomes a refrain. The first paragraph of On Such a Full Sea refers to a long-ago past, somewhere “on a riverbank in China,” a location surrounded by “a haze you can almost smell, a smell, you think, you don’t want to breathe in.”
These two novelistic worlds—one, somewhere in China; the other, somewhere in the United States—are enmeshed and entangled. Instead of a crystallized Orientalist binary, Lee highlights the messy in-between of transpacific relations: the lingering and middling “-ish”; the negation of simple either/or binaries of fascination and disgust; the blur of first person and direct address; the residue that can’t be eradicated.
My Year Abroad ultimately defies tropes of Asian objectification and consumption and their relationships to power. Tiller stands out to Pong because he has “superior taste” for his age. The novel engages with taste on multiple levels, especially its connections to the sensory experience of food and the 21st-century transformations of what Pierre Bourdieu called “distinction” (the production of “taste” as a classed form of judgement).8 Lee’s descriptions revise a form of representing Asian food that Sau-ling Cynthia Wong once called “food pornography,” the extravagant, luxurious, and detailed description of mouth-watering, exotic Asian cuisine in ways that would attract a desiring mainstream audience.9
But the tastes on display in the novel aren’t fetishized as “Asian.” Instead, the plot satirizes a market of 21st-century consumers who, in the novel, are hilariously manipulated by Asian entrepreneurs. Pong owns a fast-casual empire in Dunbar, including the luxury hot-dog shop You Dirty Dog and WTF Yo!, where deluxe soft-serve yogurt is portioned and priced by the pound, so that a child’s serving can easily cost $20. Tiller, meanwhile, becomes involved with a venture-capital scheme involving an Indonesian health drink called “jamu”—poised to become the next coconut water.
Taste, in this novel, is also connected to Lee’s desire to present a “bodily experience.”10 The Asian characters in My Year Abroad are desiring subjects. This is especially important given the long history of representing Asians, and especially Asian women, as hypersexualized yet without interiority, inscrutable or without feeling. There is a lot of sex in My Year Abroad, and it isn’t romanticized. Lee’s Val (and other women, particularly Constance, the rich daughter of a wealthy Asian scion), exceed their initial characterizations as exotic butterfly women, threatening dragon ladies, or women in need of a savior. Tiller subscribes to these plots and fantasies when he first encounters these women, but he is invariably proven wrong.
Instead, Lee’s female characters both do and don’t need Tiller; they both are and aren’t accessible to him. Lee seems to want to tread especially carefully in these moments. Constance seems like a lost opportunity—one that Lee is tangibly aware of (with Tiller wondering what Constance’s talk story would be).
Underscoring the limits of one-dimensional representation, Lee crafts a multisensory novel. He is attentive to other registers and cultural forms, including visual art and painting but especially music and sound. His prose is playful, filled with literary, sonic, and musical echoes. These are illustrated, for example, by a series of puns. A reference to Wordsworth’s “child is the father of the man” appears in the context of a never-mentioned but allusively present hum of Yusuf / Cat Stevens’s similarly punny Tea for the Tillerman. That album featured songs (“Father and Son,” “On the Road to Find Out,” “Where do the Children Play,” “Hard-headed Woman,” “Into White”) that could easily serve as the novel’s hidden soundtrack. As a bard-man, Tiller Bardmon tells a multisensory tale that is constantly entwined with others.
It’s a testament to Lee’s skill as a writer that he’s able to weave together these disparate elements, though the risk of such an approach is that readers might sometimes wonder at his purpose. The novel should make you laugh, and it will. But it’s also meant to make you uncomfortable, because you, like Tiller, don’t quite know where the journey ends. Nevertheless, Lee somehow avoids trite messaging (it’s not a spoiler for me to tell you that, in the end, it isn’t just the journey that matters).
As we approach a glimpse of what Tiller might have discovered during his year abroad, Lee asks us to inhabit forms of anxiety and ambivalence. In recent weeks, I’ve found myself returning to the novel’s engagement of this in-between. It’s the tension between what lies on the surface and what lies simmering underneath—what you can and can’t see, hear, feel, or reckon with; what you do and don’t desire; what you know and don’t know—that is the novel’s profound contribution to reckoning with the intimacies and violence of 21st-century life.
This is where real life differs from fiction—in stories, as Lee writes, “the endings are ones we can handle, even if they aren’t so happy, because they let you linger, they let you go on, sustaining you with morsels of wonder and hope.”
Alongside this novel, you might be interested in the following:
- Maxine Hong Kingston, Woman Warrior (1976) or Tripmaster Monkey (1990)
- Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)
- Gish Jen, The Resisters (2020)
- Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (2020)
- Ellen Wu, The Color of Success (Princeton University Press, 2015)
- Eating Asian America, edited by Robert Ji-Song Ku, Martin Manalansan, and Anita Mannur (NYU Press, 2013)
- Kandice Chuh, The Difference Aesthetics Makes (Duke University Press, 2019)
- Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Duke University Press, 2015)
- Bong-Joon Ho, Parasite (2019)
- SKY Castle (2018–19)
- Yusuf / Cat Stevens, Tea for the Tillerman (1970)
- Rina Sawayama, “Tokyo Love Hotel” (2020)
- My phrasing here borrows from Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (One World, 2021). ↩
- This phenomenon has continued into the 21st century; see Hua Hsu, “When White Poets Pretend to Be Asian,” New Yorker, September 9, 2015. ↩
- See Edward Said, Orientalism (1978; Penguin, 2003); Gina Marchetti, Romance and the Yellow: Peril Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (University of California Press, 1994); Anne Anlin Cheng, Ornamentalism (Oxford University Press, 2019). ↩
- See Celine Parrenas Shimizu, The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene (Duke University Press, 2007). ↩
- On anti-Asian propaganda, see Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (University of California Press, 2001); on immigration-exclusion laws, see Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, rev. ed. (Princeton University Press, 2014). ↩
- There are many examinations of the development of Asian American studies as a field; for two accounts, see Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and Flashpoints for Asian American Studies, edited by Cathy Schlund Vials (Fordham University Press, 2018). ↩
- On the model-minority mythology, see, e.g., Ellen D. Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Princeton University Press, 2015). ↩
- Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, translated from the French by Richard Nice (Harvard University Press, 1984). ↩
- Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance (Princeton University Press, 1993). ↩
- Andrew LaVallee, “He Can’t Carry a Tune, but Chang-rae Lee Has a Song to Sing,” New York Times, January 31, 2021. ↩
This article was commissioned by Nicolas Dames.