Ailin wants to get married. She wants to have the perfect husband, the perfect house, the perfect life. While her grandmother discusses her betrothal to Hanwei, a boy of 7, Ailin runs around barefoot, pestering everyone. She hasn't had her feet bound yet. At dinner, there is talk of change in China. Hanwei is being sent to a public school, cloth is being made by machines, and women are wearing skirts, a foreign fashion. That night, Second Sister shows Ailin her bound feet, and Ailin vows to never ever get her feet bound. Many attempts are made, but Ailin resists them all.
Ailin is accepted at a public school and for the first time, she meets the “big Noses,” or the foreigners. She is especially gifted at languages and picks up English very quickly. However, when her father dies, Big uncle decides to stop her schooling. Miss Gilbertson, Ailin's English teacher, continues to give Ailin free tutoring sessions. Big uncle soon makes a decision about her future: she can marry a farmer, become a concubine, or spend the rest of her years at a nunnery. Miss Gilbertson helps Ailin by setting her up with the Warner family. Mr. and Mrs. Warner are missionaries and they need an amah, or nanny, who speaks English to watch over their children. She accepts their offer to become their amah, and moves in with them. Ailin, now Eileen, as she is called by foreigners, teaches their two children, Billy and Grace, and watches over them. After three years, the Warners are going to go back to San Francisco, and they invite Eileen to come with them. She accepts.
America is different than anything Eileen has ever imagined. Will she be able to adjust quickly enough? Will she ever be able to go back to China? Will she ever feel like she belongs?
This synopsis report prepared by Katharine Schwab