The Pearl Jacket and Other Stories: Flash Fiction from Contemporary China is a collection of short short stories which let readers see modern China from a variety of angles. Divided into sections such as family, portraits, society, truth and art, the book consists of stories, no more than four pages long, which remind me of O. Henry stories. They present sharply focused scenes of both country and city life with a dash of sentimentality and a surprise ending. Here’s an example:
by Wu Du
Like any other day he returns home from work. He is about to take out the key to open the door when the door opens. She stands by the door, a smile on her face. One, two, three kids peek from inside to greet him, “Welcome home, dad.”
The three kids are beautiful. So is she. The kids busy themselves around him excitedly, getting him his slippers, his tea, his newspapers. He sits down in the cushioned chair, rests his head against its back, and takes a deep breath. It feels so different with a woman around the house. He notices she has cleaned the curtains and the cushions and tidied up things. Somehow the entire room looks much brighter than before.
The kids are bright and thoughtful. They all come over to kiss him, the youngest one still smells like a baby. They “pester” him for a while, asking if he is exhausted from work, if he knows the latest news, and so on. They are sensitive to even his facial expressions so they know how far they can go and what questions they should not ask. They are experienced. Third Hair, the youngest, even recites a Tang poem for him. He is amazed. It’s taught by the kindergarten teacher, he is told. He likes to call the kids this way, “Big Hair, Second Hair, Third Hair.” They are like the kids he has seen on television. The boy has long, like a girl, his eyes big and deep. The girls have on cute skirts and squat on the floor like little princesses.
He likes to call her “Mei.” She comes out from the kitchen. She is beautiful, but not the obvious kind of beauty. It’s the housewife kind of beauty, not quite that of a young secretary or a film star. She has on just a little make up. Her thin lips fresh red. She tells him what kind of dishes she has prepared. They are all his favorite.
During dinner he sits at the head of the table where the head of a family is supposed to sit. The kids are enthusiastic and chatter with him nonstop. They are ready to answer any question he asks. He asks, “How do you like Uncle Qin?” The kids reply without hesitation, “Dad, we like you better.” She stops her chopsticks, smiles and exchanges a knowing glance between them. Heavens how can he not melt into all this? Third Hair prints on his face one last kiss with the same baby fragrant mouth. They are all neatly dressed as if they are gong somewhere. They all say “goodbye” so sweetly. Just before they leave, he hands her an envelope with money in it. She hands him a card, the same promotion card of their company, which he has seen so many times before. Yet he reads it one more time:
FIRST RATE WARM FEELING OF FAMILY
Good news for single people in the world: Our company provides happy families of all stripes and types to meet the emotional needs of all kids of single, lonely people . . . .
He breaks into a smile. Perhaps he should try a different flavor next time, a hot and spicy one that gives you no peace whatsoever. Old Qin said, “You should try that kind of family life, too. It can be exciting.”
It’s a good book to pick up and read a story or two now and then.
I’m going to share a few with my students. The language is simple, while the irony and descriptions add a bit of sophistication.