Writing about resilient Chinese women in my new novel “Tomorrow in Shanghai”
By May-Lee Chai
A friend of mine once complained to me about the accent hierarchy at the big tech companies where she worked. “They like all kinds of European accents – British accents, French accents, even Australian or South African accents, but not Chinese!” she commented on her various employers.
My friend was born in China and came to the United States for her higher education, going through a green card and finally citizenship. She noted that many Silicon Valley executives like having Chinese nannies, the thought process being that it is better for their white children to learn to speak a different language at an early age and avoid the difficulty of to study a difficult language when they were older. . “It’s very strange,” she said, “how much they don’t like adults with Chinese accents in their businesses.”
Strange might be one way to characterize it. Racist could be another. Classist too. For these privileged executives, it was one thing to imagine a Chinese native as their helper, quite another as their peer.
For my new collection of short stories, “Tomorrow in Shanghai”, I wanted to explore these questions of class in a story centered on a Chinese nanny. I had researched the return of nanny culture in China, where women from rural areas were hired in cities as nannies by wealthier women. Once a common occurrence in pre-1949 China, the practice had been banned under Mao. But nannies have made a strong comeback in reform-era China, alongside income inequality, unequal access to education and the need for working women in cities to help with raising children and other household chores. Gender norms (i.e. patriarchy) meant that women bore this burden disproportionately.
After years of research, I was ready to start writing history when the pandemic hit. As San Francisco entered partial lockdown mode in March 2020, the Next Door app exploded with nanny ads. There were two kinds: families who abandoned their nannies because they were leaving the city for more rural states (or second homes) and tried to help their former employees find new jobs, and families who sought desperate for live-in nannies to weather the covid storm with them. .
Next Door can be disgusting at the best of times, and it was positively toxic right now. I started taking screenshots of Nanny’s messages and sending them to friends so we could gape in shock and horror together.
I was surprised that people really referred to their nannies as “Nanny” rather than their first names. I was shocked at the sheer volume of tasks they expected Nanny to do: from childcare from school to extracurricular activities to teaching modules (as many schools have become virtual). Regularly. nanny seekers said they did not expect their nannies to act as housekeepers, but then described duties they described as ‘only light housework’ and ‘keeping the children’s rooms clean and “vacuuming lightly” which were very clearly domestic work. I was amazed at the number of children at a young age already diagnosed with food allergies requiring Nanny to prepare separate snacks for each child in the same family. One family even wanted Nanny to train their baby to sleep at night after watching their toddler during the day!
I considered putting my nanny story in Silicon Valley during the pandemic because there was definitely a lot of drama inherent in these inequitable households. I would be able to explore issues of class and patriarchy any way I wanted.
However, before I could start writing, the anti-Asian attacks began. The more Trump used inciting hate speech like the “kung flu” or the “Chinese virus,” Asians, including me, were attacked by our fellow Americans who saw us as somehow responsible for the coronavirus pandemic. Nowhere was safe. Even here in San Francisco, there were daily attacks. A 94-year-old Vietnamese grandmother was stabbed, an 84-year-old Thai grandfather was pushed and killed.
One incident caught my attention because the 75-year-old Taiwanese woman who was attacked was able to defend herself. After a young man punched her, Xiao Zhen Xie picked up a board and smashed her young attacker in the face. However, when paramedics arrived they first took the man to hospital and left her crying on the Market Street side. In an extraordinary act of grace, she then donated nearly a million dollars raised for her by horrified donors to charity.
I couldn’t help but think of those older Chinese women who had worked their whole lives to be attacked in this cowardly and vicious way.
I wanted to write a story that salutes their courage, their work ethic, their resilience.
However, as new attacks unfolded, including the murder of 6 Asian women working at Atlanta-area spas, I found myself dreading writing about this current painful moment in fiction.
Around this time, as I was considering how best to write my story, China released footage of the lunar rover named Jade Rabbit-2 (Yutu-2) probing the so-called “dark side of the moon”. I had watched the launch live on Twitter back in 2018. The images it now sent back sparked my imagination.
I had been following the Chinese space program for years, and suddenly I realized how I could handle writing my nanny story. The current situation was too fresh, too painful to be interpreted as fiction, but I decided to set the nanny’s story in the future, a hundred years from now a Chinese space colony. The distancing in time and space allowed me to explore these questions of patriarchy and classism from the point of view of a Chinese woman from the countryside, gone to work as a nanny in town. But rather than having to describe the horrific attacks of the present, I could envision a setting that allowed me to explore the resilient spirit of womanhood.
And that’s how I came to write “The Nanny” about a Chinese migrant working on Shanghai’s new colony on Mars. That way, I could write a story centered around a resourceful working woman while countering the ugly, dehumanizing hate speech and attacks of our current pandemic.
May-lee Chai is the author of the American Book Award-winning collection of stories Useful Phrases for Immigrants and ten other books, including the upcoming one (August 2022) ‘Tomorrow in Shanghai and other stories‘. His award-winning short prose has been widely published, including in The New England Review, Missouri Review, Seventeen, The Rumpus, ZYZZYVA, Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, and San Francisco Chronicle. A recipient of an NEA Prose Fellowship, Chai is an Associate Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.
“Tomorrow in Shanghai” explores multicultural complexities through the lens of class, wealth, age, gender and sexuality, always following the nuanced, knotty and complex exchanges of interpersonal and institutional power. These stories transport the reader, in different ways: to rural China, where a city doctor harvests organs to fund a marriage and a future for his family; on vacation in France, where a white mother and her mixed-race daughter cannot escape their strained relationship; inside the unexpected romance of two Chinese-American women living abroad in China; and finally, to a future Chinese colony on Mars, where an aging working-class woman lands a job as a nanny. Chai’s stories are essential reading for an increasingly globalized world.
You can follow May-Lee Chai on Facebook and Twitterand learn more about his books via his website.