By Lucy Tan
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After years of chasing the American dream, the Zhen family has moved back to China. Settling into a luxurious serviced apartment in Shanghai, Wei, Lina, and their daughter, Karen, join an elite community of Chinese-born, Western-educated professionals who have returned to a radically transformed city.
One morning, in the eighth tower of Lanson Suites, Lina discovers that a treasured ivory bracelet has gone missing. This incident sets off a wave of unease that ripples throughout the Zhen household. Wei, a marketing strategist, bows under the guilt of not having engaged in nobler work. Meanwhile, Lina, lonely in her new life of leisure, assumes the modern moniker taitai -a housewife who does no housework at all.
She is haunted by the circumstances surrounding her arranged marriage to Wei and her lingering feelings for his brother, Qiang. Sunny, the family’s housekeeper, is a keen but silent observer of these tensions. An unmarried woman trying to carve a place for herself in society, she understands the power of well-kept secrets. When Qiang reappears in Shanghai after decades on the run with a local gang, the family must finally come to terms with the past and its indelible mark on their futures.
From a silk-producing village in rural China, up the corporate ladder in suburban America, and back again to the post-Maoist nouveaux riches of modern Shanghai, What We Were Promised explores the question of what we owe to our country, our families, and ourselves.
It wasn't the plane Lina feared, but the sky above the airfield. Acres of space unbroken by trees or buildings made Lina nervous. They made her feel as though she would float away.
From where they stood in the Shanghai Hongqiao airport terminal, Lina and Wei watched the planes move around the tarmac. Men in reflective jumpsuits directed traffic with semaphores, but it seemed a miracle the huge machines weren't crashing into each other without physical barriers to stop them.
"What do you think?" Wei asked, pressing his fingers against the glass.
"It reminds me of a funeral," Lina said. "Like in American films. Those big, shiny cars. What do you call them?" It was an odd word; she had just learned it. "Hearses. The planes look like a fleet of hearses."
"That's no way to think of it," Wei said, his smile waning.
Lina hadn't meant to be gloomy, only meant to say that she was impressed by the carriers' power, their solemn elegance. They looked like the kind of vehicles that would take you someplace you would never come back from.
When they finally boarded the plane an hour later, the first thing Lina noticed was the smell of foreign cigarettes—a lighter, sweeter scent than Chinese tobacco. She didn't know for sure what American cigarettes smelled like, but the scent matched her idea of America, the way long legs matched blond hair. She gripped her husband's hand as he led the way down the aisle.
"Let's just enjoy ourselves," he said. "Here, give me your bag."
They had lucked into a row of three empty seats. Wei helped Lina buckle into the middle one, but before he could return to his own by the window, she stopped him.
"Wait. Switch with me."
If she was going to leave, she would say a proper good-bye to her home country. It felt wrong that her final glimpse of China would be of Shanghai, a city to which she was a stranger, and not her little house in the suburbs of Suzhou or the warm, tree-lined campuses of Wuhan. Not looking down at the one person whom she had not truly been ready to leave. Lina felt calmer now that the evening was growing dark, the wash of blue like a safety net thrown across the sky.
Soon, the pilot's voice came over the PA system, and then the plane started to move. Wei took her hand. He wanted this to be an experience they shared together, but she could not share it with him. Would not. These last moments she'd save for herself, to grieve the passing of a future that would never play out. She couldn't help it; Qiang's face flashed across her mind, and instead of fighting it, as she had been for the past few days, she let herself hold on to it, even closed her eyes to help herself remember. A dusty room filled with sunshine. Her breathing heavy from climbing the stairs, and all around her, the sound of mulberry leaves being torn apart by tiny mouths. Qiang leaning in close, his hair in his eyes, lifting a silkworm to Lina's face.
"It's perfectly safe," Wei said. "I promise." His voice sounded as though it came from hundreds of meters away.
She focused on thoughts of the lake. The breeze coming in both cold and hot at the same time. The shadow of a boy leaping from the water's edge, his back shiny and curved like a blade.
The plane began to lift. As Lina's center of gravity changed, she was pressed flat against her chair. Outside, the ground slipped from view. They were gaining speed, and soon they would be far away. Far enough to cross time zones, the concept of which still made Lina's head spin. In China, a person's day might start with the sun a little higher or a little lower than that of his countrymen, but their lives were all marked by the same clock, no matter how far apart they lived. America had six time zones. Lina's father called it the land of dreams, and so it seemed. For what other country would aspire to occupy the past, present, and future, all at the same time?
One day you'll walk into a suite and find doors closed to you—the second bedroom, the study, the many closets. We had guests over, Taitai will say. We went ahead and tidied a little ourselves. But that won't explain the jade missing from the display case or her designer shoes gone from the entryway. In the master bedroom, someone will have done your job, badly. A bureau cleared, its contents stuffed out of sight; the bed made so that the sheets still hang loose from the mattress. Taitai will stay in the next room with the baby. She will not come out until after you've gone, but for once, she'll be listening to you—listening for the sound of your feet. With fewer rooms to clean, you'll finish up quick and wheel the cart back through the service entrance to the laundry hall. That's when you'll take out your phone and text your loved ones the news: you're about to be accused.
When Sunny had heard this speech from Rose on her first day of work, five years ago, she hadn't thought much of it. She'd assumed it was just an old housekeeper's attempt to scare her new partner, a way of saying I know what's what and you know nothing. Sunny was expert at knowing nothing. Where she'd come from, she'd spent more than a year as a professional odd-jobber, a forever-apprentice hired out by her parents for gigs around her hometown. She'd fixed motors with the handyman and skinned vegetables for restaurant stews. She'd washed laundry and delivered cargo—rubber tires and concrete slabs and dead chickens in need of plucking—on a bicycle, her load sometimes a few hundred pounds more than her own weight. In every job, she had been trained by someone like Rose, a person too old to learn new skills and who craved recognition for the ones she already had. This kind of trainer expected Sunny to learn quickly and yet resented her for doing so. Sunny was tired of being a novice. She was determined to be great at something, and cleaning homes was as good as anything else. Na, it would be different here. Full-time job. No end date.
Rose had led Sunny down the hall to the changing room, listing the shortcomings of the hotel and serviced apartments. The guests and residents were wealthy and therefore very particular. Management was unfriendly, at best. They hired English speakers for the front desk, and those employees looked down on the rest of the staff. Worst of all, though, were the accusations of theft. They were easy to make and difficult to defend against. Any one of the maids could be replaced faster than you could fry up an egg for mei guo lao breakfast. There wasn't any shortage of migrant labor.
"Where is your hometown?" Rose asked, opening a locker and retrieving her uniform from its shelf.
"Hefei," Sunny replied. The outskirts, she didn't say. Rose looked Sunny up and down, her expression making it clear that she understood exactly where she was from—the distinction wasn't necessary.
"Another one from Anhui Province. You will find many friends in this city." As she spoke, Rose pulled on a khaki-colored tunic, black cotton trousers, and standard-issue cloth shoes. She was in her forties but looked older. Her hair was shot through with silver, and the skin on her face was pocked as an orange rind. With practiced twists of her wrists, she rolled up the sleeves of her tunic and adjusted her collar so that it sat comfortably on her shoulders.
Sunny had put on her own uniform before leaving the house that morning, but she had ridden from Hongkou to Lujiazui on her motorbike, and by the time she had arrived at the hotel the entire back of the tunic was drenched in sweat. In the air-conditioned changing room of Lanson Suites, she felt the polyester's damp weight. Sweat had stiffened her bangs in flat strokes across her forehead.
"Where are your stockings?" Rose asked when she caught Sunny pressing a swollen heel against the metal lockers. "Xiao gu niang," she called her, even though Sunny was nearing twenty-nine, had not been a girl for some time. "You're lucky to have been partnered with me. Some country girls learn quick; others are back on the job market within a week. We'll see which kind you are." From inside her cubby, Rose pulled out a pair of nude-colored hose and handed them over.
Each of the housekeeping supplies had its own place on the cart. The bottom shelf held cleaning fluids, towels, and toilet paper, which Western residents used with incredible speed. The top shelf was filled with boxed soaps, tissues, pouches full of needles and coils of colored thread, plastic combs with teeth too fine for thick Chinese hair like their own. With these, they stocked only the short-term hotel rooms—the permanent residents preferred toiletries imported from abroad. When the cart was ready and both women fully dressed, Rose reached into a cabinet and pulled out a plastic bin full of name tags. "Here," she said. "Pick one."
Sunny couldn't read English but did not want to ask Rose for help. This moment felt too important, too private. Years later, she would remember digging through the bin, not knowing what she was looking for, but knowing it was right the moment she found it: S-u-n-n-y. There was something balanced and generous about the shape of that S, and she liked the way the double n's looked like the u turned upside down. The letters reminded her of a row of children playing leapfrog. She especially liked that the tag was still in its plastic wrapping. It meant that no other maid had used it before, that she would be the first S-u-n-n-y to sweep Lanson Suites' floors. That was something she had been looking forward to when she arrived in Shanghai—an identity all her own.
In the five years since her first day at Lanson Suites, Sunny had developed a way of moving about the residents' homes that was quiet and deferential. She had learned each family's habits and customs—the direction in which they stacked the dishes on the drying rack, the stuffed toys that were loved enough to have a permanent spot on top of a child's bed—and by attending to these details, she had her own means of communicating with these families. She wanted them to see that she was a person who took pride in her work, who would go out of her way to make their lives run smoothly.
The housekeeping staff at Lanson Suites always went by their English names, even though none of them spoke English. Chinese names were too difficult for foreign residents to pronounce and carried too much meaning to be revealed to the Chinese speakers. When characters in a name were combined, they produced a complex of feelings and images. That was no good; the best thing for a housekeeper to be was forgettable. Better to take on the blankness of American names. Choose well—a flower, a tree, a month—and its prettiness might make you also seem faultless. They liked to think that giving themselves the right names could prevent them from being accused of stealing, but they knew it wasn't true. Having an English name would not improve a person's language skills, and without the language, they would always seem like intruders.
As a child, Sunny never imagined that she would end up in Shanghai. She was here because it gave her a life different from the one she didn't want, one that would have been a matter of course in Anhui: more odd jobs, a second marriage, children, and restless old age. She had gone to extra lengths to protect her position, which was why, on the day Sunny was finally accused of theft, it came to her as a shock.
"I'm just reading what I see here," the hotel manager had said, pointing to his clipboard. "Zhen Taitai told us there is no doubt the bracelet was taken by the cleaning staff. You and Rose were the only two with access to her bedroom these past four months, so until we find the bracelet, we'll have to run security checks on you. Nightly."
Sunny was glad that at least both of them were being accused; Rose had been accused before. At the end of their shift that evening, Sunny followed Rose to the back of the service hall, where they unzipped their bags and laid them on the table. The regular security guard wasn't in, so the hotel manager's son had taken his place. He was sixteen and seemed to be only pretending to know what he was doing. He picked open packets of tissue, unscrewed thermoses, and fingered the contents of their coin purses. When a text came through for Sunny, he even paused to read the message on the screen.
"Enough," Rose said. She had two sons of her own, could sharpen her voice to make boys listen. The hotel manager's son dropped the phone back into Sunny's purse, where it lay glowing mutely into the fabric lining. She had been worried, earlier, about the next part, the part where he touched them. But his hand strokes over their bodies were quick and embarrassed. Sixteen, after all. In a place like this, with its badges and uniforms, it was easy to forget that their greater age could still be an intimidating factor.
When it was over, they were the only housekeepers left on the premises. Their shift had ended just as the sun set on the compound, covering the grounds in rose and gold, stretching shadows back as far as they would go. The service hall opened onto a stone path that led around the back courtyard and through a small sculpture garden, where European conquerors stood dumbly on their stone foundations, trapped in the darkening green. Past Lanson Suites' painted iron fence, high-rises leaped up out of the ground, their glassy walls catching the last of the evening light. And though it wasn't visible from where she stood, northwest of these was the iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower—two reddish-purple spheres, one above the other, held high in the sky by cylindrical stanchions.
The first time Sunny had seen an image of the Pearl Tower was six years ago, when she was still living at home. On an errand to Hefei's city center one day, she'd come across a trinket shop that carried postcards. As she was flipping through them, one postcard in particular caught her eye—a photo of the Bund at night. Sunny's eyes had immediately been drawn to the Pearl Tower's alien presence. How unlike the drab, boxy buildings in Hefei. In that evening shot, the tower was lit, and each of its two orbs shone like a disco ball.
It hadn't struck her as odd to see souvenirs of another city sold in Hefei. After all, Hefei was a city full of other cities' leftovers—overstocked furniture, yuandan bags, and name-brand watches that were too expensive for anyone but tourists to buy. It was a city full of people who did not have the connections, start-up costs, or the guts to move to Shanghai, Guangzhou, or Beijing. Even its pollution was secondhand. Smog blew in every May and June from the surrounding lands, where farmers burned their crops in preparation for the next harvest year. Third-tier city though it was, Hefei was where Sunny had been wanting to move before luck swung her way. A year or two after stumbling across that postcard, Sunny got word that a neighbor's cousin who had been working in Shanghai had gotten pregnant and was giving up her position at a luxury hotel. Sunny knew she had to act. She begged three months' salary from her parents and took it to the neighbor's doorstep. Put me in touch, she'd said. Qiu ni—introduce me. It had been out of character for Sunny to behave so rashly, to offer up all that money in the slim hope of landing a job. But never before had anything called to her the way that the Pearl Tower had. What she wanted most of all was to live in a place where she could look up at the sky every day and see something beautiful and more permanent than herself, the people she knew, and their own sorry circumstances.
Now the Pearl Tower was far from the flashiest building in the city. Over the past few years, Shanghai's skyline had become crowded with lights and spires, and each had been designed to look grander than the last. Right there in the center of the photos was Lanson Suites Hotel and Residences. In the evening, its towers were all lit up like neon keyboards laid on their sides.
"That little dog-fart kid isn't nearly as bad as any of the older guards," Rose said. "I hope they keep sending him."
The two of them ducked through the side gate, came out onto Binjiang Road, and turned in the direction of the riverbank. They had an evening ritual of strolling along the boardwalk before heading back to Lanson Suites, retrieving their scooters, and going home. The boardwalk had recently been built and few people knew of its existence, aside from the hotel residents, who never took advantage of it anyway.
"They think we envy them so much, those taitai," Rose said. "As if we'd wear their boring jewelry. With all that money, you'd think they could afford better style."
"Have you seen this bracelet?" Sunny asked. "What does it look like?"
"If it's the one I'm thinking of, it looks cheap. Beaded, not even a solid chunk of ivory. I don't see how it could be worth much."
When she first started working at the hotel, Sunny had shyly admired the women who lived inside it. Up close, they were even more exotic than they seemed from far away. Everything about them was smoother and more flawless, from their ironed blouses to their creamy skin. She'd watched these women sit at their vanity tables and apply layers of ointments with light pats into their cheeks and necks, as if molding their features into place. It was hard not to compare them to the other finery in the household that required polishing and preserving, and enough time had passed for Sunny's admiration to turn into contempt. These women were less useful than their furniture.
Zhen Taitai was one of the worst types of resident to work for. She herself was lazy but had ruthless requirements of her staff. There was usually a day's worth of dishes to be washed when Sunny arrived and Taitai would stand behind her to watch as she did them. She looked almost apologetic then, as if to say she couldn't help it, it was her job to guard the porcelain just as much as it was Sunny's to wash it.
The husband, Boss Zhen, was all right. He kept mainly to his study, a place so crammed with his personal and work items that it seemed against his nature to spread out. Sunny liked that he used cheap notebooks, a brand meant for students. They were filled with large, looping English words and the cross-hatchings of geometric shapes. There was a franticness to his handwriting that wasn't obvious in his person. His physical demeanor was measured and his speech economical. A few weeks ago, one of the clubhouse café servers claimed that he had seen Boss Zhen on TV and that in those few minutes on-screen, he had said more than the server had ever heard him say in all the years he'd been working at the hotel. But you didn't need to see him on TV to know he was important. He had a serious manner that even Zhen Taitai went out of her way to accommodate. When her husband was home, Taitai occupied herself by fussing around the kitchen, fixing snacks and dirtying dishes. But during the day, she was left alone to attend to the rest of her self-appointed duties—rearranging furniture according to whim and imagining scenarios in which her belongings were taken by the hotel staff.
Some girls did take things. They knocked lipsticks from vanity countertops into empty buckets, bundled loose cash up with the dirty bedsheets. But the things they stole were so minor. The worst Sunny had ever heard of was a woman who'd pinned little stud earrings to the band of her bra. The trick, the woman had said, was to take only one earring and then wait a month before taking the other. By then, the owner would have assumed she'd lost the first and not look too hard for the second.
Sunny had only done it once. A couple of years ago, a Polish woman had almost had Rose fired for scrubbing the toilet with the same brush she used to clean the sink. After Sunny heard, she stole a bag of brass buttons from the back of the woman's utility closet. That weekend, Sunny and Rose met on the Bund and pitched them into the river, one by one, until they had all found homes in the shit-silt of the Huangpu.
"So," Rose said now, turning to Sunny brightly as they walked along the river. "Have you thought anymore about my proposal?"
"I don't know," Sunny said. "Meeting a stranger—"
"He isn't a stranger! He's my husband's coworker's son. He's not from Anhui, but close enough nearby. I forgot where. Your ma will like him."
Sunny laughed. "I guess my ma's opinion is the only one that matters."
"Aiya, you know what I mean. You'll like him too. Hardworking. Over one point eight meters. Both legs the same length, feet in good working condition. What's not to like?"
"Give it up, Rose. I'm too old."
"If you're old, I'm a mountain." She yanked on the hem of her shirt in a way that settled the matter. "You know, my cousin had a child at thirty-five. Perfectly healthy. Big, fat boy. Head like a watermelon."
Sunny had been married once before. The match had been brief and loveless, arranged because both were past the usual marrying age. She had put marriage off as long as possible, telling her parents that she wasn't ready, that she hadn't met anyone she liked enough to spend an entire life with. But the truth was, she had never had any real intention to marry. She kept waiting for the wanting to begin as it had for her sister and her friends. She thought maybe the desire to be married would be released like a hormone within her once she reached a certain age. But it never happened. She still couldn't understand why anyone should want to move in with a near stranger, call his parents hers, and live so close to home while feeling a world away. All for what? To produce children neither family could afford? It simply didn't add up.
When Sunny reached twenty-seven, the people in her village began calling her unnatural, and this was a kind of talk her parents couldn't bear. They didn't openly say they would kick her out of the house if she did not marry, but they certainly implied it. Your brother already has one baby, they said. When the next one comes, who knows if there will be room for you?
By the time Sunny finally gave in, all the most promising men had been paired off with other women and there was little choice in husbands. The one her parents decided on was named Wang Jian. He was twenty years old with a sweet face and one leg half an inch shorter than the other. The limp didn't affect his capacity for fieldwork, his parents had assured hers—it had only affected his ego a little. Over the six months that Sunny had lived with him as his wife, she discovered other ways in which he was abbreviated. He had a habit of stopping midsentence when he was speaking to her, as if suddenly remembering that he barely knew Sunny at all. She couldn't get used to this guardedness, though she was guarded herself. In the small, single-room hut off the Wang family's farm that the two of them shared, he liked to sleep facing the wall, his shorter leg curled beneath him.
Wang Jian hadn't seemed any more enthusiastic about the idea of marriage than Sunny had, but he was filial and good-natured. Like Sunny, he had married to make his parents happy. This silent but mutual understanding that their relationship was forced allowed them to become used to each other. She didn't mind that one of his legs was shorter than the other. She liked his strong torso and the gentle way he responded to her in bed. Sex with him was unlike the two experiences she'd had before him—a whole lot of jostling with men who treated her body as nothing more than warm flesh.
What everyone was waiting for was a baby, but Sunny didn't want a baby. Raising one seemed too difficult a project for two people who still sometimes behaved like strangers. Her sister and cousins assured her that a child would give her marriage purpose and raise her position in the Wang household, but Sunny could not justify bringing a human being into the world simply to improve her own life. Before bed every night, she inserted into her body a diaphragm that she had picked up from one of the city hospitals. When, four months into their marriage, Sunny still had not conceived, Wang Jian's parents became worried that she was barren. They began asking about her menstrual cycle and feeding them both medicinal herbs. Whether Wang Jian could tell the difference between rubber and flesh, Sunny never knew, but if he did know the diaphragm was there, he said nothing about it.
One day, about six months into their marriage, Wang Jian took off from work to go to town in search of bike gears. On his way home, he was walking along an unmarked dirt path when a cargo truck came up behind him. He'd startled when he saw it coming so fast out of nowhere, tried to run, and fell. Onlookers said that the truck hit him with such force that it sent his body tumbling off the path. He continued to roll downhill until he was caught in a stand of trees, like a piece of driftwood. The truck hadn't stopped.
After Wang Jian's death, Sunny couldn't stop picturing the accident. What a way for a life to end, especially for a person who had seemed only half alive to begin with. Sunny wasn't an idealist, but she had always thought that each human life was due some measure of fulfillment or understanding before its end. Wang Jian was proof against that. She felt guilty for dreading the marriage as much as she had and guiltier still that the occasion of his death had ended up improving her own life. With Wang Jian gone, his parents had little use for Sunny, whom they had never truly been able to welcome into their family. Preferring to grieve alone, they let her go home.
Sunny's life before getting married had been no different than the lives of a million other girls raised in the countryside, but for her it had been enough. She was depended upon, and that was a powerful feeling. Though she'd been a budding spinster, no one could say that she hadn't made herself useful. Sunny had been a cook, a vegetable seller, a confidante to her siblings, and an interpreter of Nainai's demented babble. She'd found a way to get the cousins to school and the chickens fed en route. She'd also been the one to organize the books—to enter the li of grain they harvested into the ledger via shorthand only she could understand. And while she had no official say in family decisions, her parents trusted her opinion enough that it counted for something. More, in any case, than it could ever have counted for at her in-laws' house.
For a while, Sunny was welcomed back into their old routines. But one day, her mother pulled her aside.
- Longlisted for the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize
- On Sale
- Aug 6, 2019
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Back Bay Books