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How Lulu Wang's own experience as an immigrant influenced her new show 'Expats'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The new TV show "Expats" is, in a way, about adapting. The story centers around three women in Hong Kong, each adjusting to a country that's not their own. All three are adapting to a tragedy that has bound their lives together. And "Expats" is itself an adaptation. Writer and director Lulu Wang adapted the six episodes from the novel "The Expatriates" by the author Janice Y.K. Lee. Wang's own family moved from mainland China to the U.S. when she was just 6 years old. So I asked how much of that experience came up as she was adapting the novel into a show.

LULU WANG: I think it's the core for me of why I did this show. I saw that parallel in the journey of Hong Kong and what my family had experienced. It's the reason that I'm here today. So are you grateful for it? Do you resent it? I mean, there's no easy answer, but it certainly has influenced so much. And I think it's how I'm always going to create - is from that place of not really knowing where I belong and both feeling like I'm an immigrant, I'm an expat. I kind of belong nowhere and everywhere all at once.

SHAPIRO: And did the experience of working on this project and exploring the choices that these characters made make you think any differently about the choices that your own parents made?

WANG: I don't think it made me think differently. I just feel like everyone's trying to do the best that they can with the choices that they're given in every moment. And, you know, luck plays so much into it. The fact that we got a visa, you know, at the time that we did - we were in line for hours at the visa office, and the people who went in before us came out crying because their visa got rejected. And then, you know, we went in terrified, thinking that was going to happen to us. And then we got it. So we are all, in a way, people and victims and choices that come out of circumstance.

SHAPIRO: You don't only tell the story of the wealthy expats in this show. You diverge from the novel by digging deeply into the stories of the helpers, the babysitters, maids and cooks who were constantly in the background of the wealthier characters' lives. And they're expats, too. They are from the Philippines or Indonesia or Malaysia. What did you want to portray about their lived experience?

WANG: I think I just wanted to show a different perspective of this world. And what are their lives like, and what are the choices that they have or don't have? And I think that it's difficult to make a show about privilege and in a world of privilege without feeling like you're celebrating it. And that's something that I'm very conscientious of but also trying not to judge the privilege at the same time. And so by breaking out of the bubble, by kind of stepping outside of it and just having a different context, you're able to look at it differently and ask the audience to make their own judgments.

SHAPIRO: I don't want you to criticize your contemporaries, but there are so many shows about people with extreme wealth right now, from "The White Lotus" to "The Gilded Age" to "Succession." Was there any moment where you just thought, like, OK, I can't do what all those other shows are doing; I have to widen the aperture a little bit?

WANG: You know, I just don't think I - there's so much fun in it as well. I get that, you know? I get the celebration. I get the escapism. It's just not who I am, you know? Like, these women are my parents and my grandparents. You know, my parents came to this country as an ex-diplomat and a writer and editor of a literary gazette and worked in department stores, worked delivering pizzas. Like, I lived through that. So these are people who are so close to me. They're not in the periphery for me, you know? And so when...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

WANG: I think every frame is political, who you choose to center. And so, you know, if I put someone in the background that is my mother, that is my grandmother, I'm like, what am I doing? I'm betraying myself.

SHAPIRO: There are moments when an employer says to a helper, you're part of our family, or, I'm your friend, like this scene, where Nicole Kidman's character, Margaret, is talking to her family's helper, Essie, played by Ruby Ruiz.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EXPATS")

NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Margaret) Clark and I and the kids - we could never have gotten through these years here in Hong Kong without you.

RUBY RUIZ: (As Essie) It's OK, ma'am.

KIDMAN: (As Margaret) No, it's important that you know this because the kids - they love you. Of course they love you. But I love you, too. You're our family.

SHAPIRO: And it's so clear in each of these moments that as much as the employer might believe what they are saying, it is simply not true.

WANG: Yeah. No, I mean, I think it's this idea, particularly from the West, of, like, this well-intentioned, you know - like, you can see the intention behind why she's saying that. And you fully understand why Margaret wants to believe it, needs to believe it. I mean, she desperately needs Essie. And yet their relationship is incredibly complex, and there are all these power dynamics within it, subtle power dynamics. And I love seeing the different reactions because early on, when we were screening it for different audiences, there were a lot of Westerners watching it who would say, aww (ph), you know? And then...

SHAPIRO: I feel the same way about my nanny - that sort of thing.

WANG: Yeah, or just, like, oh, we're all the same - women, you know? It's just a show about women and mothers, and we're all related. We're all connected. And using feminism to undermine issues of race and class is so dangerous. And I wanted to represent that. And I love that, you know, it is a very heavy scene. It's a very emotional scene. And when we screen it for Asian American, Asian audiences, they laugh in that moment. And...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

WANG: There's something really interesting about that.

SHAPIRO: Absolutely. I wonder because you portray these wealthy women who are incredibly tortured and also women who face immense economic pressure and feel trapped in a different way. And I, watching the series, kind of went back and forth from thinking, oh, these poor rich people; cry me a river, to, oh, you know, like mo' money, mo' problems. Wealth doesn't make things any better. Where do you land on the question?

WANG: I mean, look. Having been - my life, just being on the journey that I've been on and having come from where I come from and, you know, now having some success, it's a lie to say that money isn't a huge privilege and it doesn't bring stability, security and many things that you need for a fundamental kind of happiness and just a sense of freedom but to a certain degree, you know, because it's not more money, more problems. It's more just that, like, you know, your priorities can change. And you have to consciously choose what you value and choose who you spend your time around and what brings you joy and what is important in life. And I think when you have nothing, you're fighting. And you're constantly, like, seeking. And then when you have a lot of things, the challenge is, what do you say no to? Too much choice is not always a good thing if you don't have the foundation to know what to choose or to know yourself and know what actually makes you feel whole.

SHAPIRO: Lulu Wang is the creator of the new show "Expats," now on Prime Video. Thank you so much. It's been great talking with you.

WANG: Great to talk to you, too. Thank you very much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAPSODY SONG, "ASTEROIDS FT. HIT-BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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