Longing characterizes the lives of Chinese and Chinese-American families in this solid short story collection.
In the title story, there is a moment when the protagonist, Guili, reflects back regretfully on her family’s decision to xia hai, a phrase that translates roughly as "to jump into the sea of commerce," or to leave a stable job for something riskier. In Guili’s case, she and her husband left good jobs in China to come to America “only to discover everywhere they looked, there were Chinese who’d come earlier…started mindless businesses, and made a fortune.” These are the characters that fascinate Chai (Training Days, 2017, etc.): the ones who feel that “invisible lines” have been drawn “between themselves and the rest of the world.” There is the young girl just discovering an attraction to other women who watches her uncle’s homosexuality cause irreparable rifts in her extended family (“Ghost Festivals”). An 11-year-old’s apprehension over getting a new training bra causes her to see her mother in a new, disappointing light (“Canada”). Teenage Xiao Yu, a migrant worker who leaves the countryside to work at a city restaurant, learns toughness to survive his unsavory surroundings (“Fish Boy”). Chai uses similar narrative structures and even repeated details to link the stories, though this sometimes serves to make them run together rather than acting as a successful unifying device. (The supernatural noir story “The Body” is a satisfying departure from the rest of the pack.) But Chai’s confident writing and insights into characters wanting, but unable, to fit in—whether because of class, sexuality, ethnicity, or the everyday complications of human connection—make her a writer to remember.
Lightly plotted but emotionally intricate tales about the risks we take in trying to belong.