Trading the American Dream for the Promise of a New China

Lucy Tan, author of ‘What We Were Promised,’ on going back to the homeland you left

As someone who has spent their life going between two countries, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be “at home” somewhere. When home isn’t a given, it reveals itself to have many elements: language, social norms and cues, cooking methods, standardized routines for days and seasons, and several million intangibles that come under the umbrella of “this is how we do it here.” In my experience, the U.S. does and does not allow for multiple identities. On the one hand, hyphens are rampant, and more often than not the “American” part is the secondary. On the other hand, a lot of people spend a lot of time focusing on differences in others that feels less like an appreciation of those differences and more like an accusation. You look different, you talk different, where you belong — where your home is — is somewhere else.

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Lucy Tan’s new novel, What We Were Promised, explores the concept of home through husband and wife Lina and Wei, their daughter Karen, their maid Sunny, and Wei’s enigmatic brother Qiang. Lina and Wei were born in the same village in China, were promised to each other by their fathers, and left for New York after they got married. We meet them after they’ve returned again to China for Wei’s job, their daughter Karen with them for the summer from her American boarding school. After years absent with no explanation, Qiang reappears in their lives. The family changes shape again, old histories are revisited, revealed to be misunderstood. In many ways, Lina and Wei have moved back to a China that has moved far beyond anything familiar. After years working to fit in in America, they are foreigners in their homeland.

Whether it’s by choice or, terribly, if it’s not, if you do “go back” to somewhere, I think a feeling of dissonance with that place is inevitable. It’s not just that you and the place have both changed. It’s that you’re forced to examine the other pillars of your identity; they’ve been contoured by your experience away, but they are inextricably rooted to the now unfamiliar place you return to. Your understanding of your role as a woman, of your sexuality, of your socio-economic status, of your place in your generation, even of how to communicate, get a new old framing.

It’s a lot to reckon with, but Lucy Tan’s new novel does a beautiful job. Weaving together a group of characters who are reacclimating to their country, and in many ways, to one another, What We Were Promised tells a contemporary story of China, and an ageless tale of how we grapple with the notion of “home.” From my desk in Ireland, I spoke to Tan about how she conceives of “homecoming,” and how she explored her characters’ struggle to self-define. And yes, before you ask, rather appropriately, this conversation about occupying multiple identities did begin thus: “Hi. Is this Lucy?” “Yes. Is this Lucie?”

Lucie Shelly: This story brings together a lot of different identities and experiences: immigration, repatriation, China and the U.S., dual identities. Did you have an audience in mind while working on the book?

Lucy Tan: The audience that I immediately thought about reaching are the newly international Chinese and their descendants, because I haven’t seen many of their stories told.

When I think about it more broadly I also wanted readers to have an idea of what modern China is like now, and there’s not that much that’s been written in fiction that covers the time period and the place covered in my book. So that was my hope, to add to the cannon of Asian American fiction by telling the story in a more updated way in a more updated setting.

I do hope that the end product had a wider appeal than I initially intended because ultimately, it’s a story about very human experiences with family, love, and the road not taken.

LS: This did feel to me like a newly contemporary story of China and the return of ex-pats, one I haven’t read it very widely in fiction. Do you think that is in part because literature is catching up generationally?

LT: Yeah, I think so. My parents caught the tail end of the cultural revolution, and my grandparents were deep in it. I feel as though I have inherited a wealth of family stories that they were unable to share. In my parents’ generation many Chinese came to America as immigrants. They were busy trying to establish themselves and find financial stability. I think of my generation as the generation that really gets to choose what do they want to do with their careers and lives. We have the privilege of thinking: Given that I have this stability, given that my parents came here and provided these opportunities for me, what do I want to do with that? Telling my family’s stories is one of the things I want for my career.

My parents are part of a group of people who came to America in the ’80s for graduate school and achieved success and stability here. Thirty years later, families like theirs were moving back to China, whether because there were more opportunities there or because they wanted to go home. What We Were Promised is about this kind of family — one that also wants to consider how they can then reinvest in their homeland and ally themselves with that nation again.

I’m telling the story of family that wants to consider how they can reinvest in their homeland and ally themselves with that nation again.

LS: When you’re examining the changing family unit and the economics of contemporary China versus your parents’ generation, do you think there is something that fiction can illuminate more than reportage and journalism?

LT: There are so many sensationalized stories coming out of China. When I was in China in 2010, sometimes I felt like I was reading these English-language blogs reporting crazy stuff, stories that were so reductive, and seeing everything through a very Western lens. I wanted to present fuller characters than those who appear in the news — to give a voice to the kinds of people you read about in these sensational stories. I think maybe that is what fiction can do, although long-form journalism can do that, too.

LS: I agree with that. Sometimes fiction feels like it brings you one degree closer into the person.

I’ve spent my life between Ireland and the United States, and for me, the experience of leaving and returning can be a heady and conflicting emotional process: sometimes I find I’m searching for a sense of “homecoming” in a place that doesn’t feel like my home, or the inverse, I’m working to see my home with a fresh, excited perspective. But I’ve never had a language barrier, and I think a language can weave you into — or isolate you from — a culture in a very complete way. I thought you brought out something so interesting about the experience of expats and repatriation in the moments when the language changed. Can you talk about how you mixed Chinese into your text, and how you explored what your characters felt about moving between languages?

LT: I was back in China in 2010, and at that time English was especially valuable. Karen, the American-born and educated daughter, knows this instinctually, and it comes out in a scene where she uses it to her advantage. There was this idea that if you could speak English, you were a person of the world, and if you could speak Chinese you were a person of China. You were rooted there, and you couldn’t go far beyond that.

As a writer, as someone who relies very much on my ability to communicate artfully, it was a very different experience being in China where my vocabulary was limited. My pronunciation was pretty good, but there are common nouns and phrases that I don’t know, and I can’t speak formal Chinese, and I can’t read very much, so when I was there I felt myself being put in the position of an observer more frequently.

When I was trying to speak to people in Chinese about this book, it was really frustrating because I wanted to come across as someone who knew what they were doing, but I didn’t have the language skills to communicate that. It was really difficult to handle interviews by myself. I always had to have a parent there. I think that that’s definitely a big part of living abroad. For my parents too, because of the years they spent in the states, their Chinese was rusty when they went back. It took a few years for them to have full command of it again. When I think about their experience, I wonder at how that must feel to be caught between two languages and to not have one that they can use to express themselves fully.

There are certain words in Chinese that just don’t have a direct translation in English, and the same goes for English to Chinese. Often times in my family when we speak to one another, it’s Chinese littered with English phrases or vice versa. That’s part of why I used Chinese words in my book the way that I did. That fusion or lack of complete understanding as a reader of one language is not that dissimilar to what it’s like to know both languages — because neither one is one hundred percent accurate. You’re kind of caught between these two languages.

I thought I had to figure out a strict logic for when I was going to use Chinese, when I was going to explain terms in English, and when I wasn’t, but I never came up with one. Most of those decisions were guided by instinct.

LS: Moving in a slightly different direction towards the characters themselves, Qiang was the character who, even though he was portrayed as selfish, I had the most sympathy for.

LT: Oh I love that! I have heard such a range of reactions to the different characters. I think that’s a rare reaction.

LS: I really did. I think it was something about his implacable search for love wherever that might come from, wherever a safe place might be. I really felt for him, particularly when I learned his history. I’d like to talk about how he functions as a character because I’m interested in the transition in the way we perceive him: from this lone-wolf, bad boy to this child who was passed around to different parents before he was old enough to realize it. Was there anything you were trying to say there about family, or family units, or family love? How did that narrative come about?

LT: I should first say that I didn’t know from the very beginning that this was where Qiang’s story was going. Things are revealed to me as I write, but I do think the entire time I was circling around the question of “what is love?” This word that we use incredibly often that is extremely ambiguous and means something different to every person. I think that Lina is someone who has just had so much love thrown her way her entire life that she is spoiled with it. I thought that it would be interesting to have her story alongside someone who has had a lack of love from a very young age.

Qiang says to Lina at the end (spoiler alert), that she should appreciate the love that her father showed her and her mother even if it wasn’t exactly the type of love she was expecting. I think what Qiang was saying is that we don’t all love each other in the right ways and we don’t expect to be loved in the same way. Maybe happiness comes from widening your idea of what that means. I think the book in general is about coming to terms with yourself and the past and just trying to do better.

My parents’ generation came to America as immigrants, so they were busy trying to establish themselves in America and find financial stability. I think of my generation as the generation who really gets to choose what do I want to do with my career and my life.

LS: Oh I like that. Another character who had a lack of love in her life was Sunny, the family’s cleaner turned nanny. She was interesting to me because of a different parallel she shares with Lina: the arranged marriage she has to Qiang’s brother, Wei. Obviously, Sunny’s goes quite differently. Did you want to write that parallel from the beginning, or did it emerge? I wondered if it was a way of exploring how the experience of an arranged marriage differs for men and women.

LT: That was definitely part of it. It’s really sad. In so many ways there’s been progressive moves in China. Mao wrote at one point “Women hold up half the sky,” and this seemed to spur a new way of thinking, but when you fast forward decades later, Lina is still the one who has followed her husband, Wei, abroad, she’s followed him back, and now she is a stay at home mom. It’s not that she is less capable than he is by nature, so how did this happen? She’s had every opportunity. And this is a character whose father was once a professor, so he is maybe the most liberal of the entire cast of characters. When you compare her family to someone like Sunny’s family, Sunny’s are far more traditional. So there are clearer gender roles there as well.

I guess I should be easier on Lina. Those years in America were hard. A lot of her identity, too, is wrapped up in what it meant to be an immigrant and what it meant to find her way. In America, Wei was the one who was making money and making friends at work, but she was the one who was learning American culture. She was learning how to help her family assimilate as well as they could. When she carries her skills back to China and sees that the game is entirely different, that shakes her up.

So I did want to show the unfairness of expectations women are still forced to deal with today in China. The pressure to get married, the pressure to have a child — all of these emotional and physical requirements — and the idea that their potential for happiness is so tied to these requirements — is extremely frustrating to me. These pressures exist for men, too, but it’s just not the same.

LS: There are some passages about Lina and Wei trying to fit into the U.S. that beautifully captured the little moments of dissonance, for instance the detail about how odd they found holiday candy and buying the wrong kind for different occasions. But to be in an arranged marriage is a larger-scale difference. How common nowadays is arranged marriage in China?

LT: I wouldn’t say that it’s common, but if you go to a public place like People’s Square, often you will see desperate mothers of people of marriageable age trying to commune with one another. They’ll pass out flyers with their children’s stats on it because they are so anxious to get them married off. In those cases I guess you could consider them — I wouldn’t say arranged. It’s more like matchmaking. I think that parents have a stronger hand in match-making in China than they do in let’s say America, but arranged marriage is not common.

My audience is newly international Chinese Americans, which sounds very niche, but they are the people I was writing this for because I haven’t seen their stories told.

LS: I’d like to talk a little bit about Sunny choosing her name — on the one hand it could be read as an empowering moment, but it’s also a little sad to me that she has to effectively renounce her given name. I think it’s Wei that says the family, who she works for and are of course Chinese, didn’t even know her Chinese name. She still chooses to go by Sunny, which is an interesting moment.

LT: LT: I think that in a sense, Sunny is so much tougher than many of the other characters in this story, and she’s become this way because she’s learned to protect herself. I don’t know what it feels like to be permanently in a servile role days and days and days on end, but I imagine I’d want to separate the person I am when I’m at work from the person I am when I’m by myself. I imagine that Sunny treats her name like a uniform — something she can take on and off at will. By keeping her real name from her employers (and the reader), she is drawing a boundary. She’s saying, “This part of my identity you have no access to.”

LS: The last thing I wanted to ask you about is the love triangle between Lina, Wei, and Qiang. I thought it got at something so interesting about the way we can have both a clear and accurate understanding of someone, and be projecting a fantasy version of them onto the real person. You live out a reality and a fantasy with the same person.

I felt that Lina had very real experiences and feelings for both Wei and Qiang, but it was like she needed both men in order to have either reality with both individuals. Can you talk about how you evolved the love triangle? I’m particularly curious about the imbalance of information: spoiler here, but Qiang knew the whole time that Wei, the man Lina was promised to and ends up marrying, was not really his brother at all, but neither Lina nor Wei are privy to this.

LT: I do think that Lina understands something vital about Qiang, which is what makes her attraction to him more than just fleeting, more than something where she just thinks this is something in her past, but I do think there were some projections going on. There was a time when she was happy with Wei where she had moved on. It was just coming back and having their relationship be different in this new China that makes her wonder what would it have been like if she had been with Qiang. For her, part of it is that she is in this fever dream where Qiang coming back into her life may present an opportunity that she had given up on so long ago. There is some level of confusion on her part there, but it doesn’t contradict what she knows about him as a child.

While Qiang loves her, he’s moved on. He’s not going to make any big moves. When she understands the situation for what it is, I think she also understands the ways in which she has been foolish and consumed by these thoughts of possibility. Those ideas came out of problems in her own life, which are still in her power to fix.

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