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Authors: Janice Y. K. Lee

The Expatriates

BOOK: The Expatriates
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An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2016 by Janice Y. K. Lee

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

ISBN 978-0-698-40493-9

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


For Joe, of course


arrive practically on the hour, every day of the week. They get off Cathay Pacific flights from New York, BA from London, Garuda from Jakarta, ANA from Tokyo, carrying briefcases, carrying Louis Vuitton handbags, carrying babies and bottles, carrying exhaustion and excitement and frustration. They have mostly been cramped in coach; a precious few have drunk champagne in first; others have watched two movies in business class, eating a ham-and-Brie sandwich. They are thrilled, they are homesick, they are scared, they are relieved to have arrived in Hong Kong—their new home for six months, a year, a three-year contract max, forever, nobody knows. They are fresh-faced; they are mid-career, hoping for that crucial boost up the ladder; they are here for their last job, the final rung before they’re put out to pasture. They work at banks; they work at law firms. They make buttons, clothing, hard drives, toys. They run restaurants; they are bartenders; they are yoga teachers; they are designers; they are architects. They don’t work. They are hoping to work. They are done, done, done with work. They arrive in January, after Christmas; they arrive in June, after the kids get out from school; they arrive in August, when school is about to start; they arrive whenever the company books their ticket. They come with their families or with their wives or their boyfriends, or resolutely single, or hoping to meet someone. They are Chinese, Irish, French, Korean, American—a veritable UN of fortune-seekers, willing sheep, life-changers, come to find their future selves.

These days, they always come by air, disgorged from the planes that encircle Chek Lap Kok airport. The new expatriates wait in line,
somnambulant in the fluorescent light, with their pallid skin and greasy hair, wondering if jet lag will ever be less horrendous. They present their passports, clear immigration, collect their bags, and emerge from the terminal to scatter—disappearing into the Airport Express train; queuing up for double-decker buses, taxis; stepping into the back of black Mercedes sedans bearing the emblem of the Mandarin Oriental, doors opened by white-capped chauffeurs. They are swept away and driven along the highway, so clean, so new, past villages that are just remnants of what was there before all the buildings went up, those giant complexes built to house the ever-burgeoning local population, those people who will be their colleagues, their employees, their employers, their drivers. All the expats disperse, are quickly absorbed into their new home, each quickly becoming just one more face in the crowd.

The new expatriates are tired. They have arrived, but they are not sure to what. The immediate journey has ended, but the longer one has just begun. They rest their heads on the window of the bus, on the leather headrest in the car, on the velour of the train seat, on the way to their bed in Chungking Mansions, at the YWCA, at the Four Seasons, at a friend’s house, at their serviced apartment, at the house on the Peak that has been leased for them. They quiet the children, they drink a bottle of water, they drum their fingers on the seat. Hong Kong flashes frantically by. The road stretches long before them. They are exhausted. Their eyes close, and they dream of what lies ahead.


. A baked, butterflied baby dragon, spread-eagled, spine a delicate slope in the pan. A phoenix, perhaps, slightly charred from its fiery rebirth, sprinkled with sugar, flesh caramelized from the heat. That’s what she wants to eat: a mythical creature, something slightly otherworldly, something not real. A centaur. Yes, the juicy haunch of a centaur. Mercy lies in bed, not quite asleep, not quite awake, sheets crumpled around her, feeling the gnawing hole in her stomach, relishing it, savoring it.

The sun streams in through her small, smudged window. By the looks of it, it must be past 11:00 a.m., a time when most people—respectable people, people with jobs—have been at work for several hours and may already be contemplating what they should eat for lunch.

She can hear the muted sounds of the streets below. Sheung Wan, an area too quickly being discovered by the rent-hikers—those young, industrious careerists in their well-cut suits and shiny leather shoes who leave at eight thirty in the morning with wet hair and sheaves of papers shoved in briefcases. They have discovered this relatively cheap neighborhood, a short walk from Central, and have succeeded in slowly gentrifying it. The rent-hikers live among aging locals who view their encroachment with bemused silence. Every morning they pass the crazy charwoman in the lobby who barks incomprehensible Cantonese invectives at them as they walk through, fingertips pecking on their phones, pretending not to notice. These superbly energetic men and women have tried to get the charwoman replaced, started a petition, which was photocopied and slipped under Mercy’s door for her signature, but all their
efforts have come to naught. The crazy woman stays all day and night, sitting on her plastic stool, bucket and mop beside her, shouting at them and at herself. It is believed she lives in a little room off the lobby, but no one has been able to ascertain the truth. No one has ever seen her do any cleaning, or leave, or come back. It’s one of those Hong Kong mysteries, where she might be the landlord’s demented aunt, a homeless person who has made the lobby her home, or indeed an insane millionaire who owns the building. All this conjecture and information is conveyed through messages posted in the elevator. Then suddenly one day, a direction to an online message board, to which they all migrate, leaving the wall in the elevator mercifully blank. All that remains of the shrill, slightly hysterical dialogue is a strip of yellowing Scotch tape on the plastic wall.

Mercy is hungry. She should eat. But she wants to eat a centaur’s thigh, roasted over a bonfire, turned on a spit by fairies, their sparkly little faces perspiring from the heat. She is certain she will not find this when she ventures out into the small, tight streets around her. They are filled instead with equally improbable things: shiny cow innards; disembodied pigs’ heads with floppy ears, stacked up in bloody piles; dried seahorses in burlap sacks. She does not find the food grotesque, instead is bewildered by how one begins to eat such items, existing as they do in such peculiar and indeterminate forms, or indeed, alive, or in quantities that would feed a village.

When she gets up, she determines, she will turn on her space heater to warm the chill of the December air. She will take out a head of organic Boston lettuce from her little refrigerator and pull apart the leaves, soak them for ten minutes, then transfer them into a spinner, where they will be centrifuged, and the sandy water discarded. She will toss the leaves in a wooden bowl with a micro spray of olive oil, a drop of balsamic vinegar, the insanely expensive balsamic vinegar that she bought at the gourmet store, so viscous it drips in a slow, thick stream. A tomato. A Persian cucumber. These will emerge, pristine, from her tiny refrigerator, chilled, perfect. She will slice them thinly
and fan them into beautiful patterns, a vegetable mandala, courtesy of the mandoline, a feast for the eyes. She will hand-crumble Parmigiano Reggiano onto the top, and then, from on high, she will brandish the mill and grind coarse crystals of pink salt from the Himalayas into fine, sparkly shavings that will float, like snowflakes, onto the pale green surface of her salad.

She will bring the salad to the table by her bed, which she will have set with a scalloped linen placemat she bought on a trip to Hanoi, with a matching napkin, and a glass with a bottle of Fiji water just next to it, ready for pouring. She lives in a two-hundred-square-foot studio, but she does not have to live like a savage.

Mercy will sit on the bed and take up her instruments: her heavy silver fork and knife, stolen from Gaddi’s restaurant on a memorable night in better times. The lettuce, slightly glossed with oil, will yield as she presses the tines of her fork into it, the hole bleeding a slightly darker green as she breaks the cells of the leaf, violent death in its own microscopic way. From there, she will lift it into her mouth, a light sliver on her tongue for an instant before her teeth grind it into a small, slippery pulp that will slip down her throat. She will swallow. She will cut another piece. She will put it in her mouth and chew again. Swallow. Drink water. Drink more water. Spear another leaf. Repeat.

It is important to do things right. Otherwise, when you live alone, it can devolve very quickly. Stand on ceremony. Observe the rites. That’s how you get through the day.



. The house sits atop a sloping meadow, and the clients want to flatten out the land and make an English garden—totally wrong for the landscape and the surrounding area. It is woodsy and natural there in rural Connecticut, where they are. She wonders why they didn’t buy a tidy, flat plot of land near potato fields instead, or a suburban house in Darien—a tabula rasa, where they can put up high hedges and rose gardens in symmetrical rectangles and live out their Anglophilic fantasy undisturbed by the illogical terrain of the hills. They have friends in the area, they said. That is why they bought in Litchfield. But this is not her problem. Her problem is persuading them to listen to the land.

It sounds pretentious or mystical, but it’s true: The land dictates what will happen to it. So it is not a problem in the end. A lot of clients try to have their way, but eventually, always, they have to yield. If not to her, then to nature. No one has enough time or money to bend nature to his will. Nature is patient, can wait for centuries.

Margaret leans over the desk, wielding her ruler and pencil. This is the part she loves most, the clean beginning, when it is only her and the land and the blank paper, all possibility, no problems. She has her drawings spread around her. She always starts by hand and ends up on the computer.

The problems come later, when concept collides with reality and human nature.

A stone fruit orchard on the east side of the garden. This will appease them. She sketches in some trees. These clients will buy them
mature. So much easier. So much more expensive. An allée of trees will provide shade for an afternoon promenade. It is part of her job to idealize life, to proffer a gracious, perfect existence in its most optimistic aspect. She knows all too well that soon the constraints of reality, budget, and deadline will alter her plan until it’s almost unrecognizable. She also knows that this particular project will never get off the ground. This is not a real project. These are friends of friends who forwarded her photos and surveys and asked for her opinion. She’s doing this as a favor for her friends, and she suspects that they suggested her so she will have something to do, to fill the hours, to try to still her mind. Still, she loses herself in the work.

They arrived three years ago in Hong Kong, Clarke and Margaret Reade, with their three children. He is with a U.S. multinational, she says if anyone asks, which they always do. The sound of that term always gives her a frisson: anonymous, vaguely threatening, nationalistically contradictory in terms. It reminds her of when she reads in the paper about companies with names like Archer Daniels and Monsanto, names she has only vaguely heard of but that own everything that touches people’s daily lives, like toothpaste and children’s aspirin and milk.

But here they always just ask, Which one? as everyone here works for a U.S. multinational. They don’t see anything funny about the term. And she tells them M_ D_. Oh, yes, they say, do you know John McBride and Suzie? From Winnetka? I think John works in sourcing? So he’s up in the Pearl River delta a lot? They natter on and on while she wonders if she’ll ever find anyone who understands. So many people here seem hermetically sealed, as if they live in Hong Kong but are untouched by it. They live in an almost wholly American section of the former British colony, now China, and are only inconvenienced sometimes by the lack of good tomatoes or how hard it is to find a really good hamburger.

She looks up. It is noon. A gift when time passes and she is unaware. She has a lunch in town in an hour, and she has to get ready.

It is with a party planner, of all people. Clarke is turning fifty, and she wants to throw him a big celebration but has no idea how to do it and, really, no inclination either.

She showers, thinking about all she has to do. This is the last day of school before the Christmas holiday, they have a dinner party to go to tonight, and then they are leaving for vacation the next day. Suitcases need to be packed, children readied. Dressed, with wet hair, she leaves, bidding good-bye to Essie, her Filipina helper, flags down a taxi on Repulse Bay Road, slides into the plasticky backseat, fastens her seat belt. Loud Cantopop fills the interior of the cab.

“Four Seasons Hotel, please,” she says. “Can you turn down the radio?”

He nods. The taxi flag goes down. They careen around corners; she holds on to the handle on the side, thighs sliding on the vinyl. Outside, despite the December date, all is green and sky and sea. They drive through the Aberdeen tunnel to emerge on the other side, where gray office buildings crowd the skyline. Margaret is reminded again how life on the South Side is the suburbs and Central, the town.

Priscilla is thin and blond, with a mess of clattery bangles down her sinewy, tanned forearm. They jangle as she lifts her arm to shake hands with Margaret in the cavernous lobby of the Four Seasons. An enormous Christmas tree looms above them. Priscilla’s hair is expensively highlighted, with strands of gold.

“Nice to meet you, Margaret.” She smiles. Chiclet teeth.

“Nice to meet you too,” Margaret says. “Thank you for coming.”

“Of course.”

They go to the coffee shop, order drinks. Priscilla doesn’t know, Margaret realizes. She doesn’t know about G. Okay. She recalibrates to this. She doesn’t know how she knows if people know her story or not, but she always does.

“Have you lived in Hong Kong long?” asks Priscilla.

“Three years now. And you?”

“Six. Do you like it?” Expats always ask one another that, after they declare their time, often with a searching look.

“I do,” Margaret says. “I do.”

“Good,” Priscilla says. “I hate it when people complain all the time about being out here. They miss the most ridiculous things. Like Safeway or a special type of diaper. I just want to say, look around!”

Margaret is taken aback by the woman’s vehemence.

“Sorry,” Priscilla says, noticing. “I just think you should try to be happy where you are and not complain all the time. People here have the most extraordinary lives, and they focus only on what they’re missing.”

“I suppose so.”

“What brought you here?” Priscilla asks, gesturing for the waiter.

“The usual. Husband.”

“And you work as well?”

“Used to. Not so much anymore.”

“What kind of work?”

“Landscape architecture. I design gardens for people.”

“How lovely.”

“Yes, it can be.”

“Hard to do here in Hong Kong, though. No one has any land.”

“Yes, but everything’s over e-mail now anyway, although I barely work anymore. Although China could be interesting.”

“Yes, China, of course.”

They both stop to ponder its enormity and possibility, as happens thousands of times every day in Hong Kong, where China’s proximity and power is both celebrated and feared.

Margaret tenses, waiting for the next question. She has cultivated a very accurate sense of when it might come in an introductory conversation.

“And children? Have any?”

She looks down at the menu. “I’ve never been here. What’s good? I’m starving.”

Priscilla takes it in stride. “The chopped salad, the Hainan chicken. Everything is good here.”

“Oh, lovely. Chopped salad!”

They murmur the conversational inanities and order from the waiter.

“So how does this work?” she asks, after they have ordered. “I’ve never used someone like you before.”

“You tell me what you want, I try to make it happen.”

“You can guide me, though.”

“Of course. This is for your husband’s fiftieth, is that right?”

“Yes, in May.”

“Any ideas on themes or what he’d like?”

“Half-life?” She laughs, but Priscilla does not. “Mid-century?”

Priscilla has taken out a big yellow pad on which she writes “Clarke Reade’s 50th birthday” with a Sharpie. She looks up, all business. Margaret wonders why she always thinks everything seems absurd. Like it seems absurd to write the client’s name and event on a yellow legal pad. With a Sharpie. No one else seems to find it the least bit strange.

“Thoughts?” Priscilla tries again.

“I haven’t the slightest idea, I’m afraid,” Margaret says. “Is there something you can suggest?”

After going over possible themes and venues and dates, they get the check. Margaret opens her bag, unsure of the protocol, but Priscilla waves her away. As they take leave of each other, Priscilla asks again. “Do you have children?”

Margaret gathers her jacket from the back of the chair, where she has hung it.

“Yes,” she says. “They’re at TASOHK, you know, the American school.” She nods, looks away, past Priscilla and her bright smile.

And that’s it. She has survived the moment. She walks quickly to the glass doors of the hotel lobby and pushes through to the cool air outside. She gulps and breathes.

BOOK: The Expatriates
11.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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