"The Science of Flight" by Yiyun Li Originally published in the August 30, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.
I’m afraid I don’t have much to say about this story. My experience with other Yiyun Li stories has been one of struggle — a struggle to keep my mind on it; a struggle to finish it — that usually has paid off, somewhat, in the end. However, I have never been convinced I would like to purchase and read one of her books. This story, while having its moments where I thought it would all pay off, only pushed me further away.
There is promise here, and that promise might be realized for some readers. In the beginning, Zichen, a Chinese immigrant to America, has decided to go to London for her annual November holiday instead of to China. She is so consistent that this inexplicable change causes minor hub-bub in with her two co-workers, Henry and Ted. They assume her yearly trips to China are to visit her parents out of filial duty, and Zichen does all she can to preserve this misconception. Mostly, though, the hub-bub is just a way to pass the time with friendly co-workers; she’s not really that important to them, though there is obvious respect.
We get a sense that Zichen has a secret, inner life when she muses: “There was a reason to visit a place where one’s name was unpronounceable, Zichen thought, just as there was a reason that her parents continued to share a life in their daughter’s mind.”
Zichen is calming to other people. She is constant (which is why her trip to London is strange), she never has visitors to her apartment, she doesn’t let people know about her passion (if you can call it that) for studying Latin for fear they will see her as eccentric — she basically wants people to forget about her when she is not there.
There are reasons for this, and we learn more about her parents and about her own failed marriage as the story progresses. We learn about her immigration to China. All of this ties together, but getting there is a bit excruciating and doesn’t satisfy anyway. This is a relatively short story, but I found myself distracted constantly. I kept looking to see how many pages were left, though the story is only six pages long. It has its moments, and perhaps I just was off-balance, but I’m happy to move on from this one, and I think I can continue to live safely under the assumption that Yiyun Li is not for me.