Boasting hidden secrets and family troubles, What We Were Promised does that and more, as Lucy Tan explores familial and cultural expectations. At first glance, a secret love affair that leaves a woman broken as she boards an airplane in 1988 from China to America captures the reader’s attention, but when the story advances to modern-day Shanghai over twenty years later (2010), an intricate web of lies unfolds. Multiple perspectives converge to unravel the mysteries of the Zhen family, of which Lina now belongs. Caught between love for two brothers, Lina’s backstory and the secrets of her family history are explored through all three characters as Tan expertly transitions between past and present to tell the story of two very different women, both of whom have been separated from the expectations and traditions of filial piety in China.
This review contains minor spoilers and quotes from the book.
On the outside, Lina has everything – a lavish home in Lanson Suites, an upscale Western resort, and housing complex in Shanghai; an education in English; an abundance of wealth; a successful husband and intelligent daughter. For some, wealth and a complete and total lack of true responsibility is a dream, but for Lina, it wasn’t a choice. Her husband Wei’s success has landed him a prominent position as a marketing director for the Medora Group, a Western company that has opened its doors to marketing in China, but it has invalidated Lina’s education in favor of a more lavish lifestyle. Although her and Wei once worked as a team in the United States shortly after their arranged marriage – Wei in graduate school and an early career in market analysis, Lina in teaching Chinese and raising a daughter – the expatriate life in Shanghai has changed the family dynamic and Lina’s ambitions, as her language abilities serve no purpose in China where Chinese is a given and English is already flourishing due to the influx of foreigners.
With no prospect of a profession, a daughter studying abroad in the United States, and a home in an upscale resort complete with housekeepers and ayis (women who serve as in-house nannies), Lina contemplates purpose in her life and marriage. Although she has learned to love her husband, her past calls to her, not only in her former love interest Qiang, who just so happens to be Wei’s younger brother, but in the cultural expectations of family, especially when Qiang suddenly makes an appearance in the Zhen household after twenty years without a trace.
In delving into Lina’s adolescence, Tan offers insight into the harsh realities and expectations of work ethic and success – success in school and intense study sessions before and during examination hell in which Lina and Wei prepare for the future by taking harsh college entrance exams; the pressures of leaving home to fulfill family desires and dreams, as Lina is expected to do when Wei is accepted for graduate school in the United States; the pressure of fulfilling family debt and ensuring a safe future by marrying into a good family, as Lina experiences firsthand when she is promised to Wei as a small child.
It is in these recollections where the story begins to converge with Sunny, a woman who works initially as a housekeeper for Lanson Suites and the Zhen household before being accepted as their ayi. From marriage expectations to filial piety, Sunny offers an in-depth glimpse into Chinese cultural expectations. Traditions such as arranged marriage, carrying on the family line through children, and even performing nightly “husbandly duties” tie the women together.
After a failed arranged marriage in which she struggled to become close to her husband and was suddenly left a widow due to an accident, Sunny is considered the burden of the family as she does not embody the role of the woman as the dutiful wife and mother – in fact, she has no interest in marriage or children of her own. Her desire for freedom and worth sends her to Shanghai after an exceptional opportunity to work at Lanson Suites arises. Despite the freedom of living in the city, Sunny’s honor and duty ensure that she remains connected to her family, making her the opposite of Lena in terms of living, as Sunny sends a large portion of her earnings home, choosing to live in cramped group housing instead of embracing the independence she desired in moving to the city.
As Sunny and Qiang become a part of the Zhen household, the entire family experiences change. Mysteries are uncovered, secrets are unveiled and discussed, and unexpected changes in lifestyle all occur in tandem, forcing the characters to examine their position in the world. Communication between long-lost family members, friends, and new acquaintances help to push Lina and Sunny in the right direction, urging them to make necessary changes in lifestyle to embrace their individuality and desires.
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?
– excerpt from Lucy Tan’s What We Were Promised
It is in the moments when Sunny and Lina’s narratives converge that concepts of otherness arise as well. As both women have left the expectations of their families behind and explored new lifestyles, they have taken on new and often difficult identities. For Lina, who grew up in a small farming town only to move to the States and back to the bustling urban in-between that is Shanghai, her identity is conflicted; she’s not Chinese or American, but instead she’s an outsider – an expat that doesn’t quite fit in and is at first judged quite harshly for her change in lifestyle by the faculty of Lanson.
Sunny, on the other hand, is given an entirely new identity when she enters Shanghai – she’s no longer a small-town girl who struggled to meet her parents’ expectations of family, going so far as to abandon her name (as Sunny was a title blindly chosen due to the shape of the letters on her first day at work) for a successful profession.
The housekeeping staff at Lanson Suites 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 for a housekeeper was to be forgettable.
– excerpt from Lucy Tan’s What We Were Promised
Full of shocking family secrets, touching moments of romance, and thought-provoking commentary on identity, familial piety, and cultural expectations, Lucy Tan’s debut novel is a compelling exploration of family life across social boundaries. Through Lina and Sunny, Tan makes it clear that outward appearances mean nothing as she explores the cultural, social and political differences not only between the United States and China but between rural and urban centers within China itself.