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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "A Sheltered Woman" by Yiyun Li

Issue: March 10, 2014

Story: "A Sheltered Woman"

Author: Yiyun Li

Seems like this is the New Yorker's tri-annual "old Chinese lady" story. While I have absolutely nothing against "old" people (especially because I'm gradually becoming one), or Chinese people, or ladies, stories about old Chinese ladies generally do not raise my pulse. However, I'm glad I maintain the fortitude to push through my lunkheaded-ness in approaching these types of stories, because there is something really, really engaging and instructive to be found here.

The story follows a month in the life of Auntie Mei, a Chinese nanny living in San Francisco, where she cares for the infant children of well-off Chinese immigrants for the first months of their lives. She also cares for the new mothers just as much, schooling them in the ways of motherhood and nursing them back to full strength.

In this story, Auntie Mei has encountered Chanel, a young mother who seduced and became pregnant by her much-older husband in order to spite her own parents. Chanel does not love her child and does not want to be a mother. This rankles something within Auntie Mei and brings back all sorts of ghosts and demons in Mei's own past, a past in which deeply repressed women (her mother and grandmother) destroyed or upset the lives of their men. Mei is tempted to stay with Chanel and "Baby" longer than her usual month, an act which would break her self-imposed rule of only spending precisely one month with each newborn for whom she cares. She ultimately does not, however.

To me, this story is about emotional discipline and about why we do the things we do for a living. Auntie Mei has a whole host of demons she drags around with her, led by her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother left her infant mother and did not return for 25 years. Her mother exiled Mei's father and as a result she never met him. Pile on top of that the complexes, hang-ups, and relationship issues that accrue from just being a human being, and you would excuse Mei for being (pardon my French) a littl f**ked up.

Mei, however, has found a place in society and has "found her work," as they say in the bible. Although she never had children of her own, she helps young mothers and cares for infant, one-month-old children. Go figure! But seriously...the really important point here is not that Mei cares for infant one-month-olds, but that she maintains a self-imposed "curfew" of leaving each job after one month. She does not even like to care for the sibling of a child for whom she's already taken care of as an infant, or to ever see those babies again. It's as if she has a precise quantity of love she can give per baby, and no more.

The reason for this is revealed a bit later in the story, as Mei finds herself becoming closer and closer to "Baby," and resenting Chanel more and more. Mei starts to consider staying on a bit longer with this family and caring for the baby longer, but then she starts indulging herself in a familiar (to her) fantasy of running away with the baby and living "on the lam." At that point, she knows the legacy of her repressed female ancestors is kicking in and that she must, as always, stick to her one-month policy.

But the real "gem" of this story lies in it's final two lines. Lines like these are why I read fiction and why I return, week after week, to my steadfast role as keeper of the weekly New Yorker Fiction Reviewing Torch. Upon deciding to ignore her irrational and illegal fantasy of kidnapping baby and acting out like her mother and grandmother did before her, the author reflects that:

"[Mei] had, unlike her mother and her grandmother, talked herself into being a woman with an ordinary fate. When she moved on to the next place, she would leave no mystery or damage behind; no one in this world would be disturbed by having known her."


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