Modern Lives We Lived: Xuan Juliana Wang’s Home Remedies

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The title of Xuan Juliana Wang’s debut short story collection might mislead readers into underestimating the scale of the world within its pages. The stories in Home Remedies reach all the way around the globe, spanning oceans and political borders, economies and economic classes, and generations of families stretched and stressed as they adapt to changing ways of life.

This doesn’t mean that matters of domestic life—the notion of home, the family unit, and the intimacy of our closest relationships—aren’t central to the inquiries Wang’s book makes. Many of the collection’s most memorable stories contrast sweeping geographical movement and a keen global awareness with private revelations and crushing discoveries. As epiphanies, confessions, and unspoken expressions of love and forgiveness pass between parents and their children, brothers and sisters, and friends pulled in opposite directions, the task of creating or preserving the notion of home—be it a physical, emotional or spiritual refuge—remains constant throughout the book’s twelve stories.

The first story, “Mott Street in July,” functions almost as a thesis for the collection, introducing themes that reverberate throughout the book—the tension of cultures in flux, the individual struggle against conformity, the strains created by collective notions of family and the complications of economic opportunity and class. It follows a nuclear family in New York whose Chinese immigrant parents succumb to the pressures of exhaustion and their own self-centered desires, while the children look to their Chinese heritage to understand their parents’ behavior. “Theirs was a Chinese love. It was not about making each other happy. It was about sacrifice,” the children think. But this capacity for sacrifice only carries their parents so far. After the father takes a second job to make ends meet, he spends his time drinking and lifting weights before realizing he doesn’t have to stay. He can pack a bag and leave—and that’s exactly what he does.

Social and economic forces are always pressing on the characters in Wang’s work. In the Pushcart Prize-winning “Days of Being Mild,” a post-Olympics Beijing serves as the backdrop for a story about Chinese millennials who are torn between an older generation’s ideas of success and their youthful Western-influenced ambitions that present a more exciting but much more fraught and uncertain path. The story beats with a foreboding sense that its protagonist, an aspiring filmmaker producing a music video for a Chinese rock band, will eventually cave to the pressure of moving to Louisiana to run his father’s oil rig. He, along with a small group of roommates chasing similar artistic careers, live in an apartment that used to be the women’s showers at a local factory. The one American in the group, Sara, is a useful device for comparing notions of individuality in China and America, even among a younger generation where those rigid cultural constructs have blurred:

We learned that Americans are able to take certain things for granted, such as the world appreciating their individuality. That they were raised believing they were special, loved, and that their parents wanted them to follow their dreams and be happy.

By the end of the story, the protagonist has decided to follow his father’s path but remains haunted by the lyrics of the music video he worked on: “We have passion, but do not know why. What are we fighting for? Where is our direction? Do you want to be an individual? Or a grain of sand.”

The complication of such decisions is beautifully and intimately expanded upon later in the collection in “Vaulting the Sea.” One of the book’s most impressive stories, it centers around Zhao Taoyu, an Olympic-caliber synchronized diver who as a teenager falls in love with his partner, Peng Hai. Once again, the Beijing Olympics functions as a crucible to intensify the stakes the individual characters face. Taoyu’s sexual awakening unfolds at a time when China’s romance of the Olympic Games is at an all-time high:

Something big was about to happen—it had been going on for some time and everyone appeared to be in on it. Ice melted into neat rings. Colors of clothes were more saturated. … In every kitchen housewives marveled at how plump their rice was cooking. Public displays of excitement were widespread and reactions to one another deadpan. ‘Let’s make an Olympic baby,’ whispered ten thousand newlywed couples entwined on ten thousand beds.

It doesn’t help Taoyu’s emotional well-being that he and Hai have been pegged as the country’s best hope for Olympic gold in synchronized diving—and at a time when his mother, whom he has not seen in seven years due to his rigorous training, has fallen ill. When he returns to Beijing, he’s desperate for comfort from Hai—but Hai is preoccupied with a girl, and while he loves Taoyu, it isn’t the same romantic love that eats away at Taoyu. Their bodies, for all their outward synchronicity, diverge from one another in painful, unresolved fashion.

A different kind of divergence—one complicated by economic pressures and a son’s sense of obligation to his mother—takes place in “For Our Children and for Ourselves,” which ranks among the most memorable stories in the collection. In the story, a young man considers moving to America as the hired spouse of a millionaire heiress to enjoy the kind of affluent lifestyle he would never have access to as a factory worker in China. But the offer is complicated, and not only because his would-be wife is a thirty-year-old woman with Down syndrome. The offer to leave China, which he ultimately accepts, also means leaving his mother, whom he loves and who would be left all alone, with little prospect of his seeing her or communicating with her in the future:

She was illiterate, so she wouldn’t be able to write to him. She worshipped no gods, so she couldn’t even pray. She let him go to be the husband of a rich girl with Down syndrome and never once wept for him.

The characters in Home Remedies often have a finely tuned sense of their economic standing, as well as the fragility of that economic standing. In “Fuerdai to the Max,” a group of affluent Chinese children—known in their country as “second-generation rich,” or what Americans might call “trust-fund babies”—are sent back to China from their American high school after getting into trouble abroad, most notably by assaulting a female student at their school. These are entitled, ungrateful, and unlikable teenagers who are aware of their privilege and unshaken, by and large, by the potential consequences of their actions. But these characters still feel the strain of China’s collectivist culture, and the story deftly illustrates how that authoritarian dynamic extends even above the kids’ parents, entrapping every citizen in an ominous, fearful system of control. One of the narrator’s friends, Kenny, spends much of his real estate in the story worrying about the consequences of getting kicked out of school in America. The narrator is repeatedly dismissive of these worries until close to the story’s end:

I didn’t want to agree with Kenny, but this could turn out really bad for his dad if—well, I could see the headlines. If somebody really decides to push for it, I could see how Kenny’s dad might get flagged for corruption and it would be Kenny’s fault.

To be honest, if I were in Kenny’s place and I had my family’s reputation to protect, maybe I’d just kill myself.

This dramatic shift toward the end of the story embodies the anxiety of living within such a rigid class and social system—even for spoiled rich kids whose parents can pay their way out of any trouble they might get themselves into.

Taken as a whole, the collection features a vibrant mix of stories that offer intimate views into modern Chinese and Chinese-American life, while also holding up a mirror to American readers who might overestimate the freedoms of their own political system. As a debut, it is a striking demonstration of Wang’s versatile storytelling gifts, presenting a range of characters, perspectives, and formal choices that prove she has the tools to write a story in whatever way it needs to be written. Home Remedies is filled with characters facing boundaries to be crossed: cultural, familial, economic, political. The magic of these stories radiates from the friction created as characters enter new worlds and try, imperfectly, to make a home for themselves.

Jonathan Crowl's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Guernica, Joyland, Day One, Necessary Fiction, Front Porch, the Prairie Schooner blog, and other publications. He lives in Minneapolis. More from this author →