The Leavers presents the stories of two generations whose very different life experiences are strongly influenced by the country and culture in which they were born and raised. After Peilan moves from China to the United States and gives birth to Deming, both mother and son are Chinese American.
For Deming, being born and raised primarily in the United States dominates his sense of identity, and his mother’s concerted efforts to live as an American shape his idea of home. The impact of his early years in China with his grandparents seem to fade with age. Once she became Polly, his mother had experienced a mental break from China, but she underestimates the strength of its emotional pull on her. This attachment resurfaces with her father’s death.
The idea of home as connected to both place and family becomes increasingly important for Deming after his mother leaves, and he moves from the Bronx to upstate New York and becomes Daniel.
A major difference from his mother’s experience was that she chose to leave her former home—although pressured by desire to avoid an imposed marriage—while the son must abide by the choices others make for him as long as he is a minor.
In adulthood, Daniel discovers that he needs to understand China as a cultural home, and while he doubts that he will personally accept another country as his emotional home, he is driven to learn his family history—including what compelled his mother to abandon her homeland.