China Is Too Big to Fit Inside One Reality

The short stories in Te-Ping Chen’s “Land of Big Numbers” encapsulates the surrealism of modern-day China

Photo by Bruce Tang on Unsplash

As a college student, I traveled to China for the first time in my life. Growing up, I frequently visited relatives in Hong Kong, then under British colonial rule before its handover.

But setting foot on the mainland, a place my maternal grandparents had fled and died without ever returning to, I was not at all prepared for what I would encounter. I had to concede that I, in fact, knew very little about the country of my family’s origins. 

Chinese American author Te-Ping Chen seeks to make sense of this so-called Land of Big Numbers in her debut short story collection. She draws on her real-life experience as a journalist who spent years on the ground in Beijing, while also playfully gesturing to the surreal nature of living in the world’s most populous nation. I dove into her book as if reconnecting with a long-lost friend. Later, over a video call, Chen and I traded stories about our time in China and discussed what it means to commemorate a sense of place in fiction.

Mimi Wong: When I was in China, it definitely felt bigger than life. There was this very hyper-real quality about being there. I really appreciated that, interspersed between the more realist, slice-of-life fiction, you had these speculative satirical stories that had magical realism and absurdism in them. What motivated you to write these tonal shifts?

Te-Ping Chen: I think China is just a place that demands both genres. The surrealism, the hyper-realism, as well as the realism. It’s a place where the government literally will decide when it’s going to rain. It can control the weather, which seems like a detail straight out of a science fiction novel, but it’s real life in Beijing. That would happen so often when it was really polluted before a big political event. We would just wait for the government to fire up those cloud-seeding implements and make it rain, so the skies would turn blue again. There’s just that incredibly rich, visual lexicon of things that you would never expect to see.

When I was living in China, I just had a sense of propulsive-ness about the place. Like the sense that anything could happen at any moment and often did. And so, I think when I was living there as a reporter, I was so much engaged in the headlines and the day-to-day and the news. But at the same time, also feeling like you’re right on the edge of things happening. One of the cliches is: if you want to visit the future, you go to China. I think some of that does inflect the stories in the book.

The different mixing of genres for me also came about because I just wanted to play in some ways and have fun writing them for me. So many stories would start with a little kernel of something and then your imagination starts running away. One of the stories, “New Fruit,” is one of my favorites.

MW: Mine, too.

TPC: You visited Beijing during your time there, so you’ll know the kind of neighborhood that I was trying to evoke, one that I lived in for a number of years when I was in Beijing. It was the kind of neighborhood and community that I loved so much. On weekends, I really loved nothing more than just walking through these narrow hutongs and people-watching and seeing all the vegetable and fruit vendors coming in and out, and the old men and women playing chess and gossiping. I loved it. At the same time though, you would just look around and think, “My god, what these people have seen, what they’ve been through.” Whether we’re talking about the Cultural Revolution or other historical tragedies that the country has been through. I was looking around and the kernel of the story for me started there. But then I was thinking, “Well, what if a fruit arrived in the neighborhood that made everyone start to remember things that they wanted to forget?”

So many of the stories in the book have had that sort of genesis, when you wonder what if, and then the stories start. Then everything falls from there. Side note on that story: there’s a particular kind of nectarine that is everywhere in the summer, which is the fruit in that story is based on. I loved it. I just would eat bagfuls every day. The story is an ode to that neighborhood in Beijing and also to the fruit that I loved eating.

MW: I’m glad you brought up this feeling that visiting China is almost like going to the future because I feel like time really operates differently there. I just felt like life was really sped up and things moved really fast. I’m sure you witnessed this in that time you were going in and out, but I felt like every time I returned, everything would change. All the buildings would be brand new. The one restaurant I used to go to would be gone, replaced by something else. They’re just moving so fast. As you were reporting or writing about China, were you aware that things were happening faster than you could record it?

When I was living in China, I just had… the sense that anything could happen at any moment and often did.

TPC: Absolutely. I think you’re really conscious of that as a reporter, certainly just the incredible speed of events in China. I think that’s partly what prompted me to write the stories, just the sense that what I was being immersed in every day was so precious. It could be something mundane, just someone biking down the street with their dog and kid on the bike. All these little vignettes that you’d see as soon as you stepped outside your door. Just fast forward a year, and these things will vanish or be changed in some way. Like this neighborhood that I was describing in “New Fruit,” that really special community that in so many ways makes traditional Beijing what it is and has been. When I was living in Beijing, they started this campaign to break up all of these small shops that make up the fabric of hutong life. And it was the most surreal thing because one day you would walk down an alley that the previous weekend had been this incredibly bustling street with jianbing carts out and people selling temple incense and fruit and vegetables, everything. And then the next week, you’d walk down and they had all been bricked up, all these shops. It was as though it had never existed, and it was the saddest and most eerie experience. That kind of change, you would just see at a granular street level so frequently when living there.

MW: It’s pointed out in the story “Gubeikou Spirit.” I remember the first time I went to Shanghai, there were only two subway lines. The next time I went back, there were 14 or more lines. That’s very real, how rapidly that happens.

TPC: Thinking back to what we were saying before about the realism, hyper-realism, surrealism of China, it makes me think of one of my favorite details in the story, “Flying Machine.” It’s one story that I love so much partly it’s because it’s a story that’s told in a realist fashion, but it has certain elements that sound utterly made up. Like the funeral stripper, or this robot that makes noodles. And yet, those were some of the pieces of the book that actually were taken most directly from the headlines. Robots that make noodles, they’ve been a thing for a while. I actually wrote a news story about them for the [Wall Street] Journal because I just love them so much. Ditto, funeral strippers, which is just such a surreal thing but is actually something that happens. I was just like, “Oh my god, that’s amazing.” I would have loved to write a 10,000-word news story about them. Obviously, it was not exactly a new story, but I wanted to use it somewhere. That’s how it wound up in that story.

MW: At the same time, there’s a darkness that pervades a lot of the stories, too. The threat of violence underlies a lot of the narratives, whether it’s perpetuated by the characters themselves or it’s happening to them. I was wondering where that darker impulse comes from.

One of the cliches is if you want to visit the future, you go to China. I think some of that does inflect the stories in the book.

TPC: I’m trying to think now how much of that was the product of the environment I was living in and how much of it was just me. It’s hard to say. The darkness was specific to the environment in a lot of ways because at the end of the day, as a reporter, I was spending so much time talking to people who were in horrifically dark situations—wives of men who had been railroaded and thrown into jail, and human rights lawyers who were being persecuted. I think it’s really hard not to live in China and not feel struck by that environment and also moved, too. I think a number of the stories are trying to grapple with some of that and some of that duality. On the one hand, it is this place where it’s so wonderful to get to live there. It’s such a rich experience. At the same time, there is just that vein of incredible darkness running through events. I’m glad you asked the question. It’s a hard question. I don’t quite know how to answer it, but I do think a lot of it did emerge from just the reality of the place.

MW: Something else I picked up on was the constant sense of competition that’s happening, where the characters are often under extra pressure because they’re comparing themselves to other people. There are a lot of class issues, but I also noticed this recurring figure of the model student, which felt really relatable to me growing up in a large Asian American community. You always know who the model student is, and that’s always the figure that you’re chasing.

TPC: I hadn’t noticed, but I think it speaks to the broader themes that come up in the stories, which is that of people striving and trying to make meaning for themselves and make an identity for themselves. To find their place in an environment where it feels like incredible demands are being placed on you and incredible strictures. Just how do you make meaning? It’s a theme that, whether you’re in China or not, we can all relate to, especially this year when it’s very easy to feel like you are living life where forces are beyond your control.

MW: You’re writing about China from the perspective of being Chinese American, and writing in English. Who was the ideal reader you were imagining when you were writing these stories?

I hope that the stories offer a bit of a window into a country that’s become increasingly hard to access.

TPC: No one because I didn’t think anyone was necessarily going to read them. That’s one thing that’s hard now that the book is coming out, and I’m trying to figure out how to talk about it. I didn’t know anything was going to get published. I think I was really writing [the stories] because there was just so much that I wanted to try and capture what I’ve seen. It came from that place and that impulse. There was a bit of a sense of trying to wrest beauty from the environment around me, too.

MW: Who do you hope the stories reach?

I hope that the stories offer a bit of a window into a country that’s become increasingly hard to access. Not long after I left China, China kicked out a lot of my colleagues from the country, as well as from the New York Times and Washington Post. If I had stayed much longer, I would likewise have had to leave the country. It’s a hard place to have a window onto and getting harder. And so, I hope it does offer that to readers. I hope that for readers, too, that there’s a feeling of being surprised. I think China is a place where you can feel like it’s a headline. It’s 1.3 billion people. I really hope that what comes across in the stories for people is a sense of specificity and some of the detail and surprises that you do get from living in the country, which I got it. It’s a harder and harder thing to do these days, especially as a reporter.

There’s a lot of good food in the book, too. I hope that, especially for readers who are stuck at home as so many of us are right now, the stories also offer a sense of transport and being taken away, which so many of us do crave right now.

MW: Something I personally struggled a lot with when I started writing fiction was negotiating the white gaze. A lot of writers of color have to confront this at some point. I was wondering how you thought about it, as you’re writing about this place that is often misrepresented, othered, exoticized. How did you grapple with trying to get it right?

TPC: I was wanting to tell a fuller portrait of this place that I had spent so much time writing about, grounded of course in events of the day and the headlines and all that. But I just felt like there was more to say, and fiction offered a different kind of canvas. In terms of thinking about how to negotiate that gaze, I guess the answer is I wasn’t thinking that hard about it. That was probably what was so wonderful about the experience. When you’re a journalist, there’s such scrutiny on the words, and that feeling of every single line and word being weighed, and thinking so much about audience. What was so wonderful about the process of getting to write these stories was just this feeling of getting to play and luxuriate in this really private sense of being. Just being awake early in the mornings and writing on my couch and not thinking that these would be published and, therefore, not having that sense of self-consciousness or pressure to think, “Am I conveying this in a way that’s going to be more readily parsed by readers in America?” I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was really just trying to just capture this moment that I was seeing around me.

MW: What were the challenges of writing from the point of view of Chinese characters? What kind of research went into that? What steps did you take?

TPC: I think it really was just the experience of living there for so many years. Of course, in my day-to-day work as a reporter, my job was just talking to as many people as I could across China and in different walks of life. So when I was writing these stories, a lot of the time I would have something in mind, who I’d met. Maybe it was my next-door neighbor, or maybe someone I’d met in the course of an interview. There were little things tucked in here or there, but I would have the voice of somebody who I’d met in my head.

In the story “Lulu,” there are a couple of instances that surface that [the character] writes about. One is the case of a woman whose mother died, beaten to death by the police, she says, and she had kept her mother’s body in a cooler to preserve the evidence for years. And that was just something that stuck in my head. I had met her in the course of reporting another story. She didn’t surface as part of that story, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. She was somebody whose voice was in my head when I was writing that part. There are lots of moments like that throughout the book, thinking about people who I had met in real life.

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