February: “My Year Abroad” by Chang-rae Lee

My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee

Our February 2021 Book of the Month

Babysitter night was my favorite night of the week when I was a pre-teen. It was the only night I could eat with abandon and steal cookies from the heavily guarded cookie jar. My brother and I would then watch SNL, Love American Style, or Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Our February Book of the Month, My Year Abroad, by Chang-rae Lee is babysitter night in a book. The infamous line from Monty Python, “And now for something completely different.” is a fitting description. I recently saw a special about the show and it was fascinating how, without my awareness, the program was making social commentary about British society. My lack of awareness never kept me from laughing and being caught up in the ridiculous situations. My reading of My Year Abroad mimicked my watching all of my banned tv shows. It was smart, silly and actually saying something if I chose to think about it. As I wrote this I pondered if years from now I will view my pandemic book picks through a different prism. Then I realized the only thing that matters is how my choices feel now, as I read in isolation, along with the rest of our country. Chang-rae Lee is a great writer with a mastery of language and a warm and thoughtful soul that bleeds through all of his work, regardless of genre. I decided to go along with him on this picaresque and I recommend you do as well.


From the award-winning author of Native Speaker and On Such a Full Sea, an exuberant, provocative story about a young American life transformed by an unusual Asian adventure – and about the human capacities for pleasure, pain, and connection…

Tiller is an average American college student with a good heart but minimal aspirations. Pong Lou is a larger-than-life, wildly creative Chinese American entrepreneur who sees something intriguing in Tiller beyond his bored exterior and takes him under his wing. When Pong brings him along on a boisterous trip across Asia, Tiller is catapulted from ordinary young man to talented protégé, and pulled into a series of ever more extreme and eye-opening experiences that transform his view of the world, of Pong, and of himself.

In the breathtaking, “precise, elliptical prose” that Chang-rae Lee is known for (The New York Times), the narrative alternates between Tiller’s outlandish, mind-boggling year with Pong and the strange, riveting, emotionally complex domestic life that follows it, as Tiller processes what happened to him abroad and what it means for his future. Rich with commentary on Western attitudes, Eastern stereotypes, capitalism, global trade, mental health, parenthood, mentorship, and more, My Year Abroad is also an exploration of the surprising effects of cultural immersion — on a young American in Asia, on a Chinese man in America, and on an unlikely couple hiding out in the suburbs. Tinged at once with humor and darkness, electric with its accumulating surprises and suspense, My Year Abroad is a novel that only Chang-rae Lee could have written, and one that will be read and discussed for years to come.


Chang-rae Lee is the author of five novels: Native Speaker (1995); A Gesture Life (1999); Aloft (2004); The Surrendered, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and On Such a Full Sea (2014) which was a Finalist for the NBCC and won the Heartland Fiction Prize. His novels have won numerous awards and citations, including the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, the American Book Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, ALA Notable Book of the Year Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Literary Award, the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award, and the NAIBA Book Award for Fiction. He has also written stories and articles for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time (Asia), Granta, Conde Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, and many other publications.

© Literary Affairs, 2005-2024. All Rights Reserved.