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'Land Of Big Numbers,' Short Story Collection From Te-Ping Chen

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The writer Te-Ping Chen grew up in California in a Chinese American family. She says she did what kids from immigrant families often do. Her parents sent her to bilingual school. She attended classes in Chinese styles of painting and calligraphy. But her family did not take her across the Pacific.

TE-PING CHEN: I always wanted to go to China. I was always really curious about the country. And I remember in high school when I asked my father if I could go, he said, no, you can't go. You'll go, you'll shoot your mouth off, and they'll throw you in prison. But the country continued to loom large in my imagination.

INSKEEP: When Te-Ping Chen grew up, she took her chances and she went - first as a student, then as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Her experiences, starting in 2006, have since inspired her first book of short stories. "Land Of Big Numbers" features people trying to live their very particular human lives in the shadow of an overpowering state. A young woman is working at a government call center when her ex-boyfriend starts calling. A villager tries to distinguish himself by building his own airplane. And then there are people in an underground subway station in shining, modern, wealthy Beijing.

CHEN: The train was supposed to arrive, but it didn't. It has broken down. The system has malfunctioned. And for a very bureaucratic reason, the government says, you can't leave the station because you have to exit at a different one from the one you entered from. And so they're stuck. It's - the subway system, the symbol of modernity, has let them down. And they end up stuck there in limbo for months and, ultimately, being celebrated by state media, being lionized in a somewhat absurd fashion and form this kind of cozy community.

INSKEEP: I'm amazed by the government's response to this situation. They say, we will bring you food. We will take care of you. We're going to look after you. We'll even bring in reporters to tell your brave story to the world. But we won't just let you out.

CHEN: Yes. And that was something that I was trying to capture in the book, was this feeling of what it's like to live in a environment and a system where so many of your choices are constrained.

INSKEEP: People make friends. They have romances. I mean, they're living their lives down there.

CHEN: Exactly. And donations pour in. They have television, comfortable mattresses brought in - everything that they could want - delicious food, which brings me to another part of what I was thinking about during the writing of that story, which is that with China, so often from a distance, you think of "1984." You think of it as this grim, bleak place. And to me, living there, I always felt like the much better analogue was "Brave New World," where it is just so easy to be entertained, to look away, where the dark very much coexists alongside the light.

INSKEEP: In "Brave New World," they controlled people through giving them pleasure.

CHEN: Exactly. And state media does that in China, that sort of incessant, chirpy sharing of content, like gambling kittens and grandmotherly health tips that coexist alongside sort of also a steadier drumbeat of other kinds of darker, more disturbing propaganda.

INSKEEP: You're clear-eyed about the government throughout. I'm thinking of a story that is centered on a woman who works in what's called a satisfaction office, which is a branch of the government. What is a satisfaction office in the story? And are there really such things?

CHEN: Yeah, that was one detail of that I stumbled across when living in China - just these government hotlines that citizens can call, and they can make the complaints. And in a number of jurisdictions, there are very clearly stipulated regulations on how quickly the government needs to respond and the remedies that they need to offer and - you know, and what time frame and all that. And I just thought it was so fascinating, that detail. I was never able to get inside of one. But...

INSKEEP: But they exist.

CHEN: Yeah, but they do exist.

INSKEEP: And you describe them not as a place where you can really call and get your problem addressed, but you can call and get a sympathetic ear, and maybe somebody will even pay you a couple of bucks. But the idea that what the government is doing wrong would actually be corrected is a little bit beyond what the office would do.

CHEN: Yes. And I imagine that is part of their purpose, too, is that they serve as an outlet - right? - for citizen grievances. And it can be so important just to be heard, as much as it is at times to have your problem actually remedied.

INSKEEP: Why did you decide to approach this question in fiction, this question of what China's really like?

INSKEEP: Well, as a journalist in China, of course, my job was writing about the country. But I would also go home at the end of the day and still feel like there were so many more stories that I wanted to tell. The - China is such a vivid, propulsive place, one that doesn't always fit so readily into headlines. And I often think that life in China is so surreal, and you know this yourself, having traveled there. And so - the experience of it can be so over the top and unexpected and surprising that, in many ways, magical realism felt like the best way to evoke that for the reader.

And funnily enough, (laughter) in the book, many of the details that are most outrageous are actually the ones that are taken from real life. I'm thinking of funeral strippers who make an appearance in one story. It's a real phenomenon in China in which someone passes away, and you want to ensure good turnout for their funeral, and one way to do that is to hire a stripper. It was a detail that I'd encountered when reporting and just thought it was one of those just such incredibly arresting, vivid details that it needed to be put in a story. And there are many of those.

INSKEEP: In your story that we talked about originally, about the people trapped on the subway platform - finally, a train comes. Finally, the doors open. And hardly anybody gets on the train. I think three people of the however many get on the train. What are you telling me?

CHEN: (Laughter) That's such a hard question. I'm telling you, I think it's - I wanted to end on that note, thinking, of course, very much about the people who choose not to, right? Because in many ways, it's more comfortable to stay surrounded by all of these material goods and distractions and sense of privilege that they've created for themselves, and yet that there's always people like the main character who do want to break out and who do manage to subvert expectations. And it felt important to me to end on a note like that because you do meet so many people like that in China - right? - who see the world differently from the way the script has been laid out for them. And that's inspiring.

INSKEEP: The book of short stories is called "Land Of Big Numbers." It's by Te-Ping Chen. Thank you so much.

CHEN: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLDPLAY SONG, "MAGIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.