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Identity issues in a thousand years of good prayers

Asian American literary studies point to some overlapping strands of disciplinary, multidisciplinary as well as interdisciplinary scholarship. What can be considered Asian America literary studies exceeded the ethnic and disciplinary boundaries issued in the literary texts depicting the histories and lives of Asian Americans or written by authors belonging to this community. However, the central focus in framing of Asian American literary production has been the interrogation if various layers and differences of contradictions that crate the word Asian American itself. (Kang, 518).

According to Cheung, the usage of the term “Chinese-American” (39) is accepted by the vast majority of the community and the American political structure, referring to persons of Chinese ancestry residing permanently in the U.S. The Chinese Americans have a long history in the United States dating back from the influx after the Gold Rush of 1848 to the massive importation of laborers to build the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. (Cheung, 39)

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Being born in 1972, in Beijing, Yiyun Li moved to the United States twenty four years later, in 1996, in order to study immunology at the University of Iowa, after receiving her bachelor of science from Peking University, in Beijing, China. After taking a course of English writing, she found herself being drawn to writing fiction. In 2005 she earned her master of fine arts focusing on fiction and creative nonfiction. (Chicago Public Library,

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is a collection of short stories but as well one of the stories included in this collection, exploring the themes of immigration. (Chicago Public Library). Moreover, the short story A Thousand Years of Good Prayers explores other themes such as the language barrier, friendship and the conflict between generations.

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The theme of language barrier is evident as soon as Mr. Shi or Baba, a Chinese retired rocket scientist, comes to America to visit his daughter after he heard she had problems with her marriage. He feels lost and that is because he is not able to speak English that much and communicate with the locals. Mr. Shi stumbles upon the same issue while meeting Madam, a Persian woman, in a park. However, this time things seem to be different. Despite both of them not being able to speak English very well they still manage to understand each other; “Sometimes they run out of English. She switches to Persian, mixed with a few English words.” (Li, 1)

The theme of friendship concentrates around the two elder people, Mr. Shi and Madam. Since it is unclear if they can understand each other or not because of their deficiency of speaking English, they still manage to form a friendship. And just as we find out from the story “he does not understand much of what she is saying, but he feels her joy in talking to him, the same joy he feels listening to her.” (Li, 1).

Just like in her other stories from the collection, Yiyun Li includes the theme of identity in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers as well. This issue seems to be hinted when both Mr. Shi and his daughter are eating dinner together. Mr. Shi has prepared a lot of food for the both of them but she only “eats little and eats out of duty.” (Li, 2). This could signify that she does not what to identify with the Chinese culture anymore because she has already has adapted to the American food and lifestyle.

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The theme of generations’ conflict revolves around Mr. Shi and his daughter. Both come from different backgrounds and see things completely different, each one of them having their own opinion on a certain subject. Mr. Shi finds out that his daughter was the one responsible for the divorce and not her husband: “Baba, we were divorced because of this man. I was the abandoner, if you want to use the term” (Li, 6). Hearing this, he gets mad at his daughter: “You were married for seven years! How could you do this to your husband?” (Li, 6). He was not expecting his daughter to do such a thing and he was mad mostly because a divorced woman was considered something bad in China. Because of that, Mr. Shi ends up calling her a prostitute: “You talked, you laughed, like a prostitute!” (Li, 6). However, his daughter that lived in America for a long time has a different view on the subject and considers that what she did was totally fine because no one in America would criticize her.

All in all, in the short story A thousand Years of Good Prayers, Yiyun Li portrays herself through Yilan and expresses her feelings and emotions about how it is being a an Americanized Chinese who does not have the same traditional approaches as before.

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