Writing about Resilient Chinese Women In My New Novel “Tomorrow in Shanghai”

By May-Lee Chai

A friend of mine complained to me once about the hierarchy of accents in the big tech companies where she has worked. “They like all kinds of European accents–British accents, French accents, even Australian or South African, but not Chinese!” she remarked about her various employers.

My friend was born in China and came to the U.S. for grad school, working her way through a green card and finally citizenship. She noted that many executives in Silicon Valley liked to have 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 struggle of studying a difficult language when they were older. “It’s very strange,” she said, “how much they dislike adults with Chinese accents in their companies.”

Strange might be one way to characterize it. Racist might be another. Also classist. For these privileged executives, it was one thing to imagine a Chinese native as the help, another as their peer.

For my new collection of short stories, ‘Tomorrow in Shanghai’, I wanted to explore these issues of class in a story that centered a Chinese nanny. I had been doing research about the return of nanny culture in China, where women from rural areas were hired in cities as nannies by wealthier women. Once a common phenomenon in pre-1949 China, the practice had been banned under Mao. But nannies returned en force in reform-era China along with income inequality, unequal access to education, and the need for working women in the cities to have help with child-rearing and other housework. Gender norms (i.e. the Patriarchy) meant women disproportionately shouldered this burden.

After years of research, I was ready to start writing the story when the pandemic hit. As San Francisco went into partial lockdown mode in March of 2020, the Next Door app exploded with nanny ads. There were two kinds: families abandoning their nannies because they were leaving the city for more rural states (or second homes) and trying to help their former employees find new employment, and families desperately seeking live-in nannies to weather the covid storm with them. 

Next Door can be gross under the best of times, and it was positively toxic at this moment. I started taking screenshots of Nanny posts and sending them to friends so that we could gawk in shock and horror together. 

I was surprised that people really did refer to their nannies as “Nanny” rather than by their given names. I was shocked by the sheer volume of duties they expected Nanny to perform: from shepherding children around from school to after school activities to teaching pods (as many schools went virtual). Routinely. nanny-seekers stated that they did not expect their nannies to act as maids but then described duties that they labeled “only light household chores” and “keeping the children’s rooms clean” and “light vacuuming” that were very clearly maid work. I was amazed at the number of children at a young age already diagnosed with food allergies requiring Nanny to make separate snacks for each child in a single family. One family even wanted Nanny to sleep train their infant at night after watching their toddler during the day!

I contemplated setting my nanny story in Silicon Valley during the pandemic as there was certainly a lot of drama inherent in these inequitable households. I’d be able to explore issues of class and patriarchy as I’d wanted.

However, before I could start writing, the anti-Asian attacks began. The more Trump used inciteful hate speech like the “kung flu” or “China 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 shoved and killed.

One incident caught my eye because the 75-year-old Taiwanese woman who was attacked was able to fight back. After a young man punched her, Xiao Zhen Xie picked up a board and smashed her youthful male attacker in the face. However, when the paramedics came, they took the man to the hospital first and left her crying on the side of Market Street. In an act of tremendous grace, she later donated the nearly $1 million raised for her by horrified donors to charity.

I could not stop thinking about these older Chinese women who’d worked their whole lives only to be attacked in this cowardly vicious way.

I wanted to write a story that saluted their courage, their work ethic, their resilience. 

However, as more attacks occurred, including the murder of 6 Asian women working in Atlanta-area spas, I found myself dreading writing about this present painful moment in fiction. 

Around this time, as I was contemplating how best to write my story, China broadcast images from the lunar rover named the Jade Rabbit-2 (Yutu-2) probing the so-called “dark side of the moon”. I had watched the launch live on Twitter in 2018. The images that it sent back now sparked my imagination.

I’d been following China’s space program for years, and suddenly I knew how I could bear to write my story about the nanny. The present-day situation was too fresh, too painful to render as fiction, but I decided to set the story of the nanny in the future, a hundred years from now on a Chinese space colony. The distant setting in both time and space allowed me to explore these issues of patriarchy and classism from the point of view of a Chinese woman originally from the countryside, going far away to work as a nanny in the city. But rather than having to describe the horrific attacks of the present, I could imagine a setting that allowed me to explore the woman’s resilient spirit. 

And that is how I came to write “The Nanny” about a Chinese migrant woman working on the New Shanghai Colony on Mars. In this way, I could write a story centering a resourceful working woman while countering the ugly, dehumanizing hate speech and attacks of our present pandemic.

Author May-Lee Chai | Image by Bob Hsiang Photography

May-lee Chai is the author of the American Book Award–winning story collection Useful Phrases for Immigrants and ten other books, including the forthcoming (August 2022) Tomorrow in Shanghai and Other Stories‘. Her prize-winning short prose has been published widely, including in the New England Review, Missouri Review, Seventeen, The Rumpus, ZYZZYVA, the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, and the San Francisco Chronicle. The recipient of an NEA fellowship in prose, Chai is an associate professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University.

‘Tomorrow in Shanghai’ explores multicultural complexities through lenses of class, wealth, age, gender, and sexuality—always tracking the nuanced, knotty, and intricate exchanges of interpersonal and institutional power. These stories transport the reader, variously: to rural China, where a city doctor harvests organs to fund a wedding and a future for his family; on a vacation to France, where a white mother and her biracial daughter cannot escape their fraught 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 Twitter, and learn more about her books via her website.