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Welcome to #ReadWithMC (opens in new tab)—Marie Claire's virtual book club. It's nice to have you! In June, we're reading author Naoise Dolan's debut book, Exciting Times (opens in new tab)—a novel about an Irish millennial expat in Hong Kong who finds herself in a love triangle with a male banker and a female lawyer. Read an exclusive excerpt, below, then find out how to participate in our virtual book club here (opens in new tab). (You really don't have to leave your couch!)
I'd been sad in Dublin, decided it was Dublin’s fault, and thought Hong Kong would help.
My TEFL school was in a pastel-towered commercial district. They only hired white people but made sure not to put that in writing. Like sharks’ teeth, teachers dropped out and were replaced. Most were backpackers who left once they’d saved enough to find themselves in Thailand. I had no idea who I was, but doubted the Thais would know either. Because I lacked warmth, I was mainly assigned grammar classes, where children not liking you was a positive performance indicator. I found this an invigorating respite from how people usually assessed women.
Students came for weekly lessons. We taught back to back, besides lunch. I became known as the resident Lady Muck for stealing away between lessons to urinate.
“Ava, where were you?” said Joan, my manager—one, holy, and apostolic, which there was money in being, though not Catholic since there wasn’t—when I returned from a toilet break. She was one of the first Hongkongers I’d met.
“It was five minutes,” I said.
“Where are the minutes coming from?” said Joan. “Parents pay for sixty per week.”
“What if I end the class slightly early?” I said. “Then start the next one slightly late. Two minutes from one, two from the other.”
“But that’s two from the start and two from the end of the middle class.” Joan tried to gesticulate, but found it difficult to mime a three class sandwich as a two-hand person. She abandoned the endeavor with a tart sigh like this was my fault.
I needed to take it to a higher power.
Our director, Benny, was forty and wore a baseball cap backwards, either to look like he loved working with kids or to stress that he was his own boss and dressed to please no one, not even himself. Hong Kong–born, Canadian-educated, repatriated, and thriving, he owned a dozen other schools and—evocatively, I felt—an Irish seaweed company. He spoke of this last as “back” in Connemara, a place neither of us had been, though I supposed that enhanced the poetry of it. The buck stopped with him, a reflection of his general distaste for parting with currency.
When Benny came at the end of July to pay me, I said I was thinking of leaving.
“Why?” he said. “You’ve been here a month.”
“I need to go to the toilet between classes. I’ll get a UTI if I don’t.”
“You’re not quitting over that.”
He was right. Aside from anything else, I hadn’t quit over their racist recruitment policy, so it would have been weird to leave just because I couldn’t piss whenever I wanted.
I knew I’d do anything for money. Throughout college back in Ireland, I’d kept a savings account that I charmingly termed “abortion fund.” It had €1,500 in it by the end. I knew some women who saved with their friends, and they all helped whoever was unlucky. But I didn’t trust anyone. I got the money together by waitressing, then kept adding to it after I had enough for a procedure in England. I liked watching the balance go up. The richer I got, the harder it would be for anyone to force me to do anything.
Just before leaving for Hong Kong, I sat for my final exams. While they were handing out the papers, I counted how many hours I’d waited tables. Weeks of my life were in that savings account. For as long as I lived in Ireland, and for as long as abortion was illegal there, I’d have to keep my dead time locked up.
That evening I used most of the money to book a flight to Hong Kong and a room for the first month, and started applying for teaching jobs. I left Dublin three weeks later.
The week I started, they told me the common features of Hong Kong English and said to correct the children when they used them. “I go already” to mean “I went,” that was wrong, though I understood it fine after the first few days. “Lah” for emphasis—no lah, sorry lah—wasn’t English. I saw no difference between that and Irish people putting “sure” in random places, it served a similar function sure, but that wasn’t English either. English was British.
From Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan. Copyright 2020 Naoise Dolan. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
If audio is more your thing, you can listen to the exclusive excerpt, below, and read the rest of the book on Audible (opens in new tab).
Audio excerpted courtesy HarperAudio from Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan, read by Aoife McMahon.
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Rachel Epstein is an editor at Marie Claire, where she writes and edits culture, politics, and lifestyle stories ranging from op-eds to profiles to ambitious packages. She also manages the site’s virtual book club, #ReadWithMC. Offline, she’s likely watching a Heat game, finding a new coffee shop, or analyzing your cousin's birth chart—in no particular order.
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