My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee

Review :

  • Suchitra Sonalkar

My year abroad by Chang-rae Lee is about the immigrant experience and its related challenges but what sets it apart from any other book of the same theme, is it’s detailed, philosophical, many layered and multi nuanced plot. The book published in April 2021 has received positive reviews and extensive press coverage upon its release.

The author Chang –rae Lee a celebrated, prolific Korean-American novelist is a professor of creative writing at Stanford university.

Today’s presenter, Satish and Mohini’s daughter Sonal Khot lives in New York and is a former finance professional and currently a consultant for non-profit organizations .A graduate of Princeton University, she is an avid reader and an active member of more than one book club in New York city. Her presentation was flawless and brilliant. On a Zoom platform, across continents, at the end of the presentation there was a palpable sense of a standing ovation.Indeed a memorable and unforgettable experience.

After briefly introducing the author, Chang-rae Lee, with whom she had chatted when she reviewed the same book for another book club, Sonal Khot took us through this immense 470 page book in an incredibly simple and straightforward manner.

She did this with the help of ten laid out slides. The book itself runs in two parallel time lines, but after introducing us to the overall plot in the first slide ,she shifted to 9 other slides which were laid out in a chronological manner, This made it possible for the entire audience to follow the plot as it unfolded..

The plot is busy with lots of detailed descriptions, many events and people which add to its intrigue. Tiller Bardmon a 20 year old college student lives through this exciting, harrowing and sometimes quite incredible experience.

It starts with him setting off on a year’s break from college, what should have been a routine trip to Europe .takes an unexpected turn when he meets Pong Lu and his associate Lucky Choi on the golf course when he is caddying for Mr.Pong.

Mr.Pong is an immigrant with a success story and incredible connections He is also very generous and soon Tiller picks up from him the hidden talents of the food business, the Mandarin language and people’s skills. Lucky Choi on the other hand is described by Sonal, as a world crushing gambler and investor. Pong and Lucky invite Tiller on a trip to Asia to mass market energy drink called Jamu. Tiller immediately accepts the offer.

The trip begins and Tiller is soon living an extremely high end good life which in fact disturbs him as he experiences the limits of excesses, especially on the surfing stopover in Hawaii. More of these excesses in the extreme are in wait as he arrives in Shenzhen and Macau and Tiller cannot but inevitably compare it to the staid solid life in Dunbar.

Some more characters are introduced into the plot at this stage .Drum Kappagoda who is a mafia style business magnate and his daughter Charlotte, a strong, silent, stocky woman who is immediately attracted to Tiller. Drum is also impressed with Tiller’s karaoke skills and soon all the characters end up at Drum’s vast and remote countryside estate outside of Shenzhen.

At the estate, Drum and Lucky and Pong are busy in meetings with high end yoga studios to whom they hope to market ‘Jamu”. This means Charlotte and Tiller are left to themselves.

But then Pong and Tiller leave and Tiller gets left behind as collateral. At this point the darker side of the plot starts revealing itself. Tiller discovers that Drum’s primary focus is to find a remedy for his terminal illness. He thinks that the illness would be cured if he were to be able to produce an ancient Chinese medicine using Arsenic and Mercury. Pong on the other hand holds a PhD in Chemistry and Drum is hoping to be able to produce this remedy with the help of Pong in his own laboratory on the estate. But Pong and Lucky are delayed in their return and at this point the book takes a culinary  turn with Tiller being reduced to bonded labour in a kitchen where a new character ‘Chilies” is introduced as the estate cook. Tiller goes through an arduous time of pounding and grating chilies and vegetables to the point of tears.

It is at this time that Sonal Khot comes through as the master reviewer that she is and leaving the audience in suspense about the further happenings on the Drum estate and the escape of Tiller, she takes us to a new slide where Tiller is walking into the Hong Kong Airport .Here he meets Val and VeeJ, the other important characters in the book. All he has on him after leaving Drum’s villa is his carbon steel knife and the credit card Pong gave him.

He is soon helping out Val and her son VeeJ, who are having difficulty with their credit card. Turns out Val is on the run and going into a witness protection programme after giving up on her husband who was engaged in fraud and is now missing and presumed dead. VeeJ on the other hand is an 8 year old fat brat. They get friendly and before we know it Tiller joins Val and VeeJ in their new home which is set up in a town called Stagno.

In this new life, of secrecy under the witness protection programme, Val starts home schooling VeeJ and helps him discover his talent and interest in cooking. This helps VeeJ in becoming less bratty and the father and son are soon running a small pop up restaurant. At the same time, they soon start assimilating in the neighborhood and get friendly with people who are facing their own challenges.

All this while Val is facing her own challenges and Tiller fears that she may be contemplating suicide. His fears are confirmed when he realizes that there is a pattern to the nails she has been hammering on the garage wall seemingly to vent her frustrations .In the climax occurring in the bathtub, Tiller manages to save her, firstly by pleading on VeeJ’s behalf and then with the help of his knife jimmying the lock on the bathroom and cutting off the power cord with which Val would have electrocuted herself in the tub.

At this time, Sonal proceeded to wrap up the presentation, by revealing the climax at Drum’s estate and Pong’s story. Pong’s is an interesting immigrant story in itself. She then also reveals the gruesome punishment that Lucky underwent while being watched by Pong and Tiller. The weird end of Drum, drowning in a giant vat of arsenic and then the final escape of Tiller.

The last slide is the outcome of the entire happenings in Val’s life leading him to understand the value of work, his reconciliation with his father, his acknowledging the role of the absence of his mother in his life, his embracing of life in the form of a kitchen garden and finally the importance of gathering people around oneself.

The book itself is very complex and is woven into an intricate tapestry. The individual threads are often very vivid and at times being extreme and over the top in their colours. Lee as an excellent story teller has placed different stories for different readers and yet in bringing them all together and weaving them into this one book, seems to have pulled off the impossible.

To my question why  Lee who has had older people as narrators in his earlier books, has used a young narrator this time ;Sonal replied that the young narrator was an absorber as the other characters are larger than life particularly Pong and the bratty kid VeeJ with his many talents and even Lucky who is a bit scary..All these characters could be written about only by someone as old as Lee giving the message that you need to find happiness wherever you can find it, without worrying about the conventionality of it all. Indeed a very profound observation for a young reviewer as Sonal.

On the question about Stagno being a misnomer, Sonal felt that it became a misnomer. The original idea was for the three of them to hide. They home schooled VeeJ and ordered everything in. They had to be careful as they were under a witness protection programme. But suddenly and unexpectedly Stagno opened up to them and they to Stagno.

Bindu Kulkarni’s question about whether the book was autobiographical, Sonal responded that there are certainly parts of Chang-rae Lee in the book. First of all there is the bit about his being an immigrant and assimilating into the mainstream. Then the very important theme in the book is food, cooking and palate, something Lee enjoyed himself. Thirdly he himself is fascinated with China and has undertaken several trips there.

To Mohini’s questions of what Sonal thought was the one strong overriding theme that came through under the several layers of this book, Sonal pointed out that there were perhaps one or two important themes. One certainly was identity and gave the example of the Asian part of Tiller that comes alive in his taste for spicy food and karaoke .Another was the rise of China versus the west. Sonal highlighted this by talking about Shenzhen but she really drove home the point by sighting the lackadaisical attitude of American liberal art students by reading out a paragraph from the book itself.

Finally Sonal concluded that the primary message of the book was about embracing life and partaking in life’s grand buffet. And learning who you are and what you need and what makes you happy from those experiences .And maybe  that means from being a 20 year old college drop out to being a father figure to a kid who’s only 10 or 12 years younger than you. But if that’s what fulfills you and if a woman 15 years older gives you happiness, well that’s home. Sonal summed up the presentation by saying that it was indeed her favorite book of the year.

Nityaasha Foundation