Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator, the central premise of this moving story is how immigrant young adults break away from the duties and expectations of their parents. Han, the thirty-three years old protagonist, is single and a recently naturalized American who visits his mother in Beijing. He has “a brand-new American passport and an old Chinese worry.” He is a “diamond bachelor” (Chinese-born U.S. citizen) who must tell his mother to stop looking for eligible girls to marry him as he is gay.
Yiyun Li avoids self-consciously literary language and creates simple, pared-down prose to illustrate the disconnect between the mother and son. The story is also about religious dogma where the son is an atheist and his mother who has just converted to Christianity, has the fervour of the newly converted. Due to her newfound faith, the mother is insistent on converting her son as well, to which he responds more and more angrily as time goes on. While on the surface the son can be viewed as a stereotypical atheist, the story takes a deeper look behind what is fuelling his angry reaction towards his mother. Han points out that the so-called “catholic” church his mother attends is run by the government, which means that it is full of state propaganda.
The story is told from the son’s perspective. It is his thoughts that the reader gets to know intimately, and his loving, but frustrated, feelings towards his elderly, widowed mother. His closeted state related to his sexuality makes sense in the context of growing up in the 1980´s China, where homosexuality was illegal until 1997. He does not want to upset his mother who is enmeshed in the societal beliefs of this culture.
The story whilst being light-hearted in tone, is nonetheless a powerful critique of communist China and its repressive measures and stranglehold over its citizens.
Yiyun Li’s debut collection won the Frank O’Connor International short story award and the Guardian First Book Award in 2006.
First published in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Harper Perennial, 2006