Q & A with Janice Y. K. Lee

The praise is rolling in for The Expatriates (Penguin Books, 2016), the recently-released, second novel by Hong Kong-native, former Hong Kong Mom and now New Yorker, Janice Y. K. Lee (janiceyklee.com). While her debut best-selling book, The Piano Teacher (Penguin Books, 2009) was set in 1940s and 50s Hong Kong, The Expatriates, has a present-day HK backdrop and centers around three American women struggling with marriage, motherhood and settling into the new, very foreign life of an expat. The Expatriates is a must-read for every Hong Kong Mom. Book clubs — start your engines.

The Expatriates and The Piano Teacher are available on Amazon.com and other major booksellers.

You’ve said that you’ve lived life both as a native in Hong Kong and an expat here.  How do these experienced differ?  

I was born and raised in Hong Kong but I’ve never considered myself a true local because I am not Chinese. And I lived as an “expat” as an adult and parent, although I wasn’t really an expat either, because I had grown up in Hong Kong and still have family there.  So, for me it’s really the difference between being a child in Hong Kong and the life I lived as a mom and adult in the past ten years, which were of course very different.

What is unique about the HK expat experience? And how heavily did you draw on your own experiences here for the storyline?

Hong Kong is unique because it is, in my opinion, one of the easiest and most welcoming places to be an expat. Because there are so many people coming and going all the time, it’s easy to slot in and make friends.  Leaving is always hard because you are leaving friends.  It’s also fairly easy to get around just knowing English so, there’s also that convenience.

In regards to the book, the characters are imagined but the setting of the book is very much the world I inhabited: The South Side, the American Club, motherhood. And I always hasten to tell people that, of course, these women are but a small sliver of the expat population.  I’m telling the story of three very specific women.  So there’s no one that will recognize themselves in these women but they may recognize a lot about the world they are in.

You recently decamped for New York — do you feel like an “expat” there?  Or would you consider yourself a “New Yorker” now?

It’s been so frenetic that I don’t know!  I lived in NY for a long time after college so it also feels like coming home, much as it did when we moved to Hong Kong in 2005.

What do you miss about Hong Kong?  What don’t you miss?

I miss Ippudo and La Taste on Stanley Street.  I miss hiking and the Pulse!  Of course, I miss my friends and family the most.  I don’t miss the pollution.

Any tips you can offer Hong Kong Moms on how to smooth the transition from one country to another for young children?  How about for yourself?

First of all, relax.  When I went to Hong Kong, I had a baby and a toddler and was still a relatively new mother so, I had a bazillion questions about bottles and diapers and what was or wasn’t available locally.  Mothers raise babies all over the world so it gets done.  But also, make friends and join a baby group.  They will be your lifelong friends.

How did you find the community of moms in HK?  Is there a similar network in NYC?

The mom community was amazing… so supportive and helpful, especially Hong Kong Moms.  I always marveled at connections made and the extraordinary things that were occurring on that Facebook timeline!  There were definitely times when the comments made me laugh out loud.  A lot of humor and good is there.  I think it is because of the size of the community and the size of the population — all quite manageable.  When I moved back to New York, I went looking for a similar community and found one called UES (Upper East Side) Mommas, which is really good and supportive as well.

What advice can you offer a busy mom who has dreams of becoming an author?

Read a LOT.  There is no substitute.  And remember each book gets written one sentence at a time.

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