What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan

In the first chapter of this book, I learn a surprising fact about China – it has one standard time zone, despite it spanning five geographical time zones! How confusing is that?

Luckily this book, despite its interweaving stories of an expat family, a long-lost brother, and a housekeeping staff-turned-ayi, isn’t confusing at all.

Sunny is from rural China. She works as a maid cleaning rooms and serviced apartments at a hotel in Shanghai. Her name isn’t Sunny of course – it’s just a name tag she picked out of the bin, finding something that seemed right about the name, although she couldn’t even read it herself.

“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.”

One of the apartments that Sunny cleans belongs to the Zhen family, an expat family returned to China after a decade in the US. Lina and Wei have had a long history, having been betrothed since they were young. Wei works long hours at his advertising job, Lina is one of the many taitais in the hotel – “ladies of luxury who could not be called housewives because, aside from cooking the occasional meal, they did no housework at all”.

Wei’s long-lost brother Qiang, contacts them out of the blue after 22 years, and comes to visit. What exactly does he want? Why did he disappear all those years ago? And it turns out that Qiang and Lina have had a history of their own.

I’ve read quite a few books by Chinese authors but this one is written from a very different perspective of a returning Chinese family. Their move from China to the US and then back to China was such a contrast – from a young couple with no money to spare, entertaining themselves by wandering into drugstores and looking at all the goods on display and not being able to buy anything, to becoming a well-off expat family living in a fancy apartment, owning Rolex watches and expensive jewelry. It was a bit hard to like Lina though, although I felt like we had plenty in common in that I am an immigrant to the US myself and while Singapore isn’t such a huge contrast from the US with all its shopping malls and what not, there were all these very “American” things that fascinated (and sometimes frustrated) me. Like the way our first apartment had an open kitchen and this combination cooker hood/microwave over the stove – how was one to get rid of all the cooking smells if that was all?

“American kitchens weren’t designed for wok use, Lina complained. She had tried the American recipes and decided people here didn’t know what real cooking was. All that boiling and baking? Those were safe ways of preparing food. Oil was meant to be splattered on walls, the wok lid held in front of your body like a shield. Cooking, she said, was an act of love and creation. Danger should be somewhere in the mix or it didn’t count. You had to put yourself on the line; you had to sweat. Chinese cuisine required more energy and a higher flame.”

What We Were Promised is a story of contrasts. Sunny’s qunzu fang, a room she shares with five others and which reeks of boiled cabbage and urine vs the large and luxurious jasmine-scented Lanson Suites she cleans. The silk factory where Lina’s father worked vs the skyscraper in which Wei’s office is located. Rural vs city life, rich vs poor.

In case you can’t tell by now, I loved this book and I am just so excited to see what else Lucy Tan writes.

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Is it too late to join #NonFictionNov ?

 

 

 

 

Week 1: Your Year in Nonfiction So Far (Hosted by Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness)
Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

 

So far this year I have read 15 nonfiction books, 9 of which were audiobooks. That may sound like a decent number, but it’s really not, as it’s only 7.5% of my total so far this year! And as for why most of them are audiobooks… I don’t have a long commute and when I’m in the car with the kids (that is to say, a good part of my day) I let them listen to audiobooks of their choice (current fave is the Wings of Fire series). I listen to audiobooks when I’m taking a walk and prefer to listen to nonfiction books, which are easier to pick up again after some time away. Oh and in the past year or so I’ve been crocheting and audiobooks are the best thing to crochet with.

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

In terms of my nonfiction reading, I read mostly memoirs and a few science nonfiction. My favourite nonfiction is I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong, which really opened my eyes to the fascinating world of microbes! As for favourite memoir, it’s hard to pick really! I enjoyed Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, partly because it was set in South Africa, and Shaun Bythell’s Diary of a Bookseller, a sweet and funny read by the owner of Scotland’s largest secondhand bookshop.

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

I really don’t read as much nonfiction as I want to but I think in the past couple of years I’ve been more attracted to science-related nonfiction.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

Book recommendations! And also inspiration to read heaps more nonfiction! I’m currently on the look out for a true crime read, in order to finish the Popsugar challenge!

Thanks for reading! And feel free to throw all kinds of nonfiction reads my way.

#ripxiii Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien

A fun cosy foodie mystery series set in an Asian mall in Ohio. The main character is a young woman working in her parents’ Chinese restaurant (thanks to a bad breakup, a lost job ie desperation and bills to pay). She delivers the mall owner’s usual lunch order only to find later that he had a fatal allergic reaction to the shrimp in it – where was his epipen? Who would want him dead? Lots of fun to read & I especially liked the setting!

#ripxiii – Death Notice by Zhou HaoHui

An action-packed crime thriller set in China that sold more than 1 million print copies and is now published in English. The killer styles himself as an avenger of unpunished crimes, calling himself Eumenides & sending out death notices listing their crimes and date of execution. This is the first book in a trilogy has a complicated plot & sometimes stilted dialogue but it was a pretty exciting page turner!

I read this for RIP XIII

RIPXIII – Tangerine by Christine Mangan

I wasn’t expecting this plot line. I thought it would just be a more generic expat story and what attracted me was its setting – Morocco. Instead it has echoes of The Talented Mr Ripley, an obsessive friendship told in alternating viewpoints. Dark and twisted, this book was a bit uneven and I wish the women were more distinguishable and the Morocco setting utilized more. Still, a decent read. .

Unthinkable: What The World’s Most Extraordinary Brains Can Teach Us About Our Own

A science journalist’s interest in rare brain disorders takes her around the world as she meets people with lycanthropy, audio hallucinations, Cotard delusion or Walking Corpse Syndrome (ie thinking you’re dead). I listened to the audiobook, read by Thomson herself, & I felt all the earnestness and hard work that she poured into her research as well as her fascination for the subject.

Recently read: Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend

A middle grade fantasy filled with a hint of danger & darkness (Morrigan Crow is a Cursed Child, blamed for local misfortunes, doomed to die on her 11th birthday), plenty of charm & humour (a giant talking cat does the housekeeping). Also there are trials to get into the Wondrous Society and even after I’ve finished the book I still haven’t the faintest idea what the society is about, but I’d love to join it any day (where’s my invitation?)