Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996 to pursue a career in immunology before she became a writer. She earned a B.S. from Peking University in Beijing in 1996 and earned her M.S. and an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa in 2000 and 2005, respectively. She most recently taught fiction at the University of California, Davis, where she received the 2011 Chancellor’s Fellowship, one of the highest and most prestigious faculty honors at the university.