Desiring the Unattainable in Shanghai

Te-Ping Chen discusses the gift of imagining alternative realities in a society divided by class.

A stylized portrait of Te-Ping Chen
Lucas Foglia / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Read Te-Ping Chen’s new short story “Shanghai Murmur.”

“Shanghai Murmur” is taken from Te-Ping Chen’s forthcoming debut collection of stories, Land of Big Numbers (available on February 2). To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Chen and Oliver Munday, a senior art director of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.


Oliver Munday: “Shanghai Murmur” opens with a morbid scene: Xiaolei, the protagonist, considers the death of an upstairs neighbor in her apartment complex. In your process of writing the story, did the narrative always proceed from this point?

Te-Ping Chen: Not exactly. Often in my short stories I begin with an impulse—a stray image or idea—and feel wonderfully unburdened when I start. Only after I’ve written my way through the piece does it become clear where the story is heading. In this case, I’d written several hundred words about a woman who lived in a building loosely inspired by one not far from an old apartment of mine in Beijing. I used to walk by it all the time, a gorgeous instance of Republican-era architecture in a seemingly advanced state of neglect, where lines of laundry used to stretch out of the windows and soot blackened its sides, a humbleness at odds with its magnificent exterior. I started writing a character who was susceptible to the beauty of the place, but also dealing with the much more mundane difficulties of urban life, including the fact that a man had died upstairs from her. I wound up cutting everything about the building, but the character stayed, and she became Xiaolei.

Munday: Xiaolei was just 16 when she left behind her family and provincial life for the opportunities offered by Shanghai. Having worked for a stint at a bottling plant, Xiaolei finds less taxing employment at a flower shop where she interacts regularly with tony customers. Through this dynamic, the story deftly exposes Shanghai’s class divide. How does Xiaolei’s past inform these interactions?

Chen: To me the story is about class, and Xiaolei’s desire for things that are unattainable, but also about what class signifies—how she projects herself onto those things. Xiaolei comes from a village where the outside world felt nearly dreamlike, full of extraordinary places and happenings that she could step into, almost like a storybook. Through sheer daring, she ends up willing herself into it without truly inhabiting it or feeling like she’s on solid footing, knowing what her lines are and how to read others’ cues.

Munday: “Shanghai Murmur” is a part of your debut collection of stories. How does the story relate to the rest of the book—thematically, geographically, and culturally?

Chen: The story is set in China, as most of the book is, and all the stories are linked to China in some way. Beyond that, “Shanghai Murmur” is about longing and desire, which is a theme that also carries through the collection—a desire for other realities, to be other people, for the paths not taken. I first lived in China in 2006, and spent the better half of the next 12 years there, including most recently as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Land of Big Numbers is an attempt to evoke the multiplicity of the experiences I saw around me during an incredibly swift-moving period of change and aspiration for the country—and later, particularly in the years after Xi Jinping took power, growing repression as well.

Xiaolei and others in the book are looking for meaning and trying to figure out how to construct lives for themselves in an environment where it’s easy to feel powerless, one in which they often have to compromise their own dreams and, at times, moral frameworks. Those struggles are specific to China in some ways, but some aspects to that experience, of course, are much more universal.

Munday: The texture of the city is vividly described throughout “Shanghai Murmur.” One gets a visceral sense of the bustling streets, yet Shanghai is also described as having “grafted steel plates” in Xiaolei’s cheeks. Why has the luster of city life worn her down after only a few years?

Chen: For someone like Xiaolei, Shanghai is a place so much wealthier and more cosmopolitan than her home village that it may as well be a foreign country. It’s also a place where she doesn’t have any kin ties and is utterly without a sense of who can be trusted, and partly for that reason she’s used to being on her guard, wondering how she’s being perceived and having to hustle, not wanting to be cheated by her boss or her landlord or the vendor who sells her noodle soup at the night market, and at the same time knowing she’s easy prey—a thousand indignities that add up to a feeling of being worn down, and a nagging sense of anxiety that I suspect is familiar to many travelers.

And as she discovers when she goes to her customer’s apartment, it can be very hard to see the things we idolize up close. In her case, the glare and brilliance of Shanghai make her own apparent inadequacies stand out in sharper relief. It was much easier to project her desires onto the city when it was still unmapped and glimmering in the distance.

Munday: Xiaolei must have had preconceived ideas about her potential life in Shanghai before moving there, and she continues to imagine stories for herself and the people she encounters. You write that she “constructed an elaborate life” for the man on whom she has a crush. Can pursuits, whether those of love or financial advancement, exist without the engine of storytelling?

Chen: Even if it’s at the subconscious level, I think we’re always telling ourselves stories. Whether we’re driving a car down a familiar road, expecting certain things from our loved ones, or drawing up a grocery list, we’re telling ourselves something about the world and how it works. We carry a million stories within us at any given time, and depending what they are, they can help us, lead us astray, or get us through the day.

Once in Harbin, in northeast China, I remember talking with a woman in her 50s about the Cultural Revolution. She said she remembered the period with genuine fondness—she was a teenager then—because school was disrupted and she could sleep in. Yes, she said, it was a chaotic period and terrible things happened, but that’s what she’s remembered most vividly all these years: getting to be a teenager and sleep as much as she wanted. I often think about that conversation and what it says about the nature of memory, and how every story is different depending on who’s telling it.

Munday: The deceased neighbor from the beginning of the story returns to Xiaolei in a dream, murmuring something in her ear. The sequence ends with them dancing together. Is Xiaolei emboldened by this beyond-the-grave vision?

Chen: I suspect she doesn’t remember it, in the way that most of us wake with only a cloudy sense of what our mind was doing the night before. But while Xiaolei is in many ways at the mercy of the city and her customers, she has one great gift: the ability to imagine alternative realities for herself, and the dream sequence speaks to that side of her. When I first wrote the story, I included a scene in which Xiaolei was much older, traveling abroad and looking back at those early years in Shanghai, feeling nostalgia and compassion for her younger self. Ultimately I didn’t keep it, but I do think she gets to have a happy ending and a position in life where she’s secure, and it’s her way of creating stories—whether about herself or her customers—that gets her there.

Munday: Xiaolei sees opportunity in a fancy pen left behind by her love interest. This opportunity leads her to take risks, risks that we learn, through a brief flash-forward in time, remain with her. Is love, for Xiaolei, just another feeling animated by her ambition?

Chen: For Xiaolei, love is enmeshed with reverence and fascination and the intense desire to be close to the objects of her affections—both big and small—in the hope that some of their perfection might rub off on her. She’s someone who moves instinctively toward beauty and makes small attempts to seek it out in her own life, whether pilfering flowers or taking particular care with her possessions. With the customer, she’s drawn to him because he carries with him an atmosphere of ease that she’s able to inhabit too, when she’s in his company, much in the way that once she finally arrives at the lobby of his building, she’s content to sit for hours. At this stage in her life, love is mostly a form of desperate, earnest admiration. She loves the customer in the same abstract way she loves the city she’s chosen, and both have the same potential to wound her.