Land of Big Numbers (Mariner, 2021), a collection of 10 short stories by Te-Ping Chen
In my junior year of college, I had the chance to study abroad. I chose Rennes, France, because I wanted to live with a French family—I wanted to be forced to speak, think, dream in French. In the eight months leading up to the trip, I sweated and saved, packed and repacked, and conjugated verb after verb, trying to mash as much of the language into my head as possible.
The one thing I hadn’t prepared for—at all—was the fish-out-of-waterness of the experience. I knew it would be different, I wanted it to be different, but there’s the imagining and then there’s the reality. And my reality was deeply intimidating. At the head of my temporary family was Agnès, a strong, intelligent woman who managed her household, her fitness, and her work life with a firm, unshakeable hand and never hesitated to correct my grammar. Along with the thrill of adventure and pleasure of mastering a language, I remember the crushing embarrassment of cultural missteps, the feeling I would never really know the place in which I’d chosen to embed for a year.
Those memories floated to the surface as I read our March AFAReads selection, Land of Big Numbers(Mariner, 2021), a collection of 10 short stories by Te-Ping Chen, who was born and raised in the United States but has spent years living in China off and on, including four years as a Beijing correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. The United States and China may be thousands of miles from France, but our human struggle with cultural integration is universal.
Cover image courtesy of Mariner Books
Several of Chen’s stories revolve around cross-cultural connections between American and Chinese characters. In “Beautiful Country,” a young couple in a fraying relationship travels to the Grand Canyon. The man, an American outdoorsy type, chides his Chinese girlfriend for counting change in front of a vendor. “My cheeks get hot,” she shares with us. “Even after more than a decade in this country, I’m still getting caught out.” And in “Field Notes on a Marriage,” an American woman, torn apart by the suicide of her husband, travels to his Chinese hometown in an attempt to connect with his family.
Chen, whose great-grandfather was an intellectual who advocated for democracy in the pre-communist era, says she has wrestled with her relationship with China. Her love for—and her frustration with—the country infuses the book. Through a mix of surrealist tales—such as a group of subway riders who get trapped in a station because the rules state “passengers must exit at a different station from where they entered”—and unflinching portraits of a society burning to expand, she walks readers through the nuances of life in China.
Author photo by Lucas Foglia
In a February interview with PEN America, Chen shared that she was “trying to bring to life a much more vivid, textured sense of China, a country full of complexity and contradictions that can be hard for readers to really access.” She continued on to say that many of the “common tropes” people think of when they think of China (human rights abuses, the thriving economy) are accurate, but there’s “so much more to the country.”
And yes, The Government is a constant, present in nearly every story whether obliquely (several characters have government connections) or directly (in the opening story, “Lulu,” a young woman is jailed repeatedly for sharing stories of government neglect). But there’s such individuality to each tale that I finished the collection with a more expansive sense of that bureaucratic entity. The vastness of Chen’s storytelling is the collection’s real beauty: Each story is rich with detail and character but leaves you wanting more to unfurl. It reminds me of something Chen writes in the titular story, “Land of Big Numbers”: “The world was a profusion of opportunities waiting to be unfolded. . . . He had only to stretch out his hand.”
We would like to thank Greene, Senior editor from AFAR for the press release.