By March 2020, there was no denying that the mysterious virus that had ravaged the city of Wuhan—and placed large parts of China in varying levels of quarantine—had arrived in the United States. Curious to know what we could expect from life under lockdown, The New Yorker’s editor David Remnick interviewed Peter Hessler, one of the magazine’s contributors who was teaching in Chengdu that year, about how everyone there was adjusting to this new reality. At one point, Hessler remarked how funny it was to see delivery men carrying a 100-inch-screen TV up to his upstairs neighbor’s apartment; funnier still—they were wearing masks! In China, there was this “whole mask fetish,” Hessler chuckled, “which also serves absolutely no point at all.”
In all fairness, this was the message that leading health professionals in the U.S. were telegraphing at the time, but what always struck me about that message was its deeper implication, namely that the health measures being undertaken by governments in Asia were unscientific, laughably so. These were the same health measures that mean that people in China can now lead relatively normal lives while the rest of us are locked inside for what could very well be another year.
How the West perceives Asian medicine is something I thought about often when reading Chang-rae Lee’s My Year Abroad. Lee’s novel is about many things—globalization, wealth inequality, racial identity, disordered families, themes he has visited in various iterations in his previous works, including his Pulitzer prize–nominated debut, Native Speaker (1995)—but when it comes down to it, the plot of his newest book actually hinges on an Indonesian health drink. My Year Abroad is narrated by a 20-year-old American college student named Tiller Bardmon who, to make extra money over the summer, ends up caddying a golf game for Pong Lou, a charismatic Chinese entrepreneur who owns a string of restaurants in Dunbar, New Jersey (a barely fictionalized Princeton, where Lee taught Creative Writing until 2016). Pong easily convinces a restless Tiller to travel to Shenzhen, China, to help him and his associates pitch investors and set up production for “Elixerent,” a mass-market version of jamu, the Indonesian health tonic. Tiller, it turns out, will be shown off to potential partners in Asia as a representative of the drink’s “potentially largest demographic: younger whites.” Because the truth is, there is incredible demand for Asian medicine, as long as it remains in its proper spaces: yoga studios, wellness expos, and health stores that style themselves as West-skeptic for wealthy white consumers.
Elixerent itself thus serves as the perfect vehicle for the globalization story Lee is trying to tell, one where “East” and “West” have been flattened out and replaced by a global capitalist elite trying to help one another make money, unbothered by whatever culturally reductive narratives have to be employed in the name of branding. And it is not just Asia that is for sale—Tiller watches as Pong leans into Silicon Valley rhetoric and plays up his American STEM degree: “I could tell from his rhythm and tone and posture that he was bringing everything to bear, his many flowing and integrated identities, speaking as this diasporic Chinese and new-epoch American, the PhD chemist and the globalist entrepreneur.” That is also how Pong becomes the center of the novel, a glowing orb that hypnotizes Tiller into readily agreeing to traveling halfway around the world to sell overpriced juice. It seems that at least part of the appeal of Pong for Tiller (who is white and one-eighth Korean) and for everyone around him, is Pong’s ability to create a persona that is, like his tonic itself, perfectly calibrated to respond to people’s craving for a kind of westernized East or easternized West, the precise blend formulated to whomever he is serving.
We first meet Tiller while he is living in a nondescript working-class New Jersey town called Stagno with an older woman named Val who, along with her son, Victor Jr., is in the witness protection program. Tiller was en route home from his mysterious and harrowing “year abroad” when he met Val by chance at the Hong Kong airport. At the airport food court, Val tells Tiller about her husband, Victor Sr., who has gone missing and is now presumed dead. Months earlier, she tells him, she was confronted by FBI agents who detailed “her husband’s dealings with a gang of New Jersey-based Tashkentians that involved Mongolian mineral rights, faux sturgeon eggs, and very real shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, which were supposedly part of an ISIS-offshoot-offshoot’s plan to enrich themselves and arm potential client cells in Western Europe.” That Tiller feels so at ease moving in with Val under these circumstances (at one point fending off a hitman from the Balkans) hints that whatever happened during this year abroad, it created the conditions for this 20-year-old college student to feel unfazed by activities that might invoke the RICO Act.
The narrative goes back and forth between Tiller’s present day in Stagno and his past year in Shenzhen helping Pong hawk Elixerent. The latter includes classic fish-out-of-water adventures in Huaqiangbei, Shenzhen’s commercial district, where Tiller and Pong whizz around on hoverboards amid stalls selling “memory chips, smartphone screens, LED lights, vitals-tracing wearables … drones and Bluetooth speakers.” They also binge-drink their way through Macau, which Tiller describes as a “seaside Asian Las Vegas” filled with “grand casinos and shopping promenades all done up in a rococo vernacular for the Chinese nouveau riche extreme.” Yet, despite the blinding LED lights and other wonders of capitalist sublime, Tiller’s attentions remain fixed on Pong. Midway through, Tiller promises the reader that the book they are reading is not one of those “sojourning gweilo stories, in which some willful Western dude ventures abroad and learns the local ways and uses them to gain the trust of the natives and in turn show them how it’s really done.” Instead, he is just there, he swears, as a loyal servant to Pong, “doing whatever he asked me to promote the flow of his commerce.”
Pong and Tiller are united by similar traumas (missing mothers, emotionally detached fathers, living in a mostly white town in New Jersey that allows for just a “quorum of colored people”), and at times it seems like Tiller just wants to be taken care of. He compares himself at one point to Pip from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (another success-wary novel): “[M]aybe I was the forlorn Pip, unknowingly awaiting a patron whose mere presence would fire up this rusted piston of a world and rocket me forth on its newly struck axis.” Ultimately though I think the attraction, from Tiller’s end, is rooted in a desire to feel more reconciled with his racial identity, to feel more Asian than “twelve and a half percent,” as he complains. When one of Pong’s investors approaches him about staying on in Asia as a sales agent (with regular trips to yoga studios in Europe), Tiller is elated to remain “in the ever-humming generator of Asia, where more and more I felt I should embed. Wasn’t I a distant cousin returned, if now a few concentrations less removed, the tide of the Bardmon in me receding?”
In reality, the life that Pong introduces him to in China feels like a manageable version of Asianness for Tiller only because it is encased in the world of extreme wealth, roped off from any possibility of experiencing racial discrimination or economic exploitation. What Pong offers is the chance for Tiller to feel close to Asia while staying in a luxury resort in the hilly outskirts of Shenzhen, where white yogis from the U.S. and Western Europe have convened to sample jamu. They say things like, “Stillness opens our hearts to a love and acceptance that cannot be sought but instead accrues to us, one breath at a time,” and Tiller giddily follows along, opening his heart to this familiar version of the foreign.
My Year Abroad is not so much about what we seek from places far away as about how capitalism markets the idea of “far away” in the first place. Indeed, Elixerent’s ultimate promise was not necessarily better sleep or less acid reflux but the chance to experience another part of the world from a safe, FDA-approved distance. Likewise, before his stint in Shenzhen, Tiller was initially supposed to travel abroad through a university-run program in Europe, where he planned to gather with other students looking for “cultural and professional experiences that were life-changing but hopefully not too much.”
It is only when Tiller steps outside the world of the very rich (in a shocking twist late in the novel), that anything “life-changing” happens to him in China. It is his brush with the other side of globalization—sweatshop labor—that forces him to reckon with another world and way of being in it. Fittingly, it is this experience that proves to be for Tiller just the tonic.