Reviewed by Jean Arboleda
By Xuan Juliana Wang
240 pages. Hogarth.
“We are what the people call Bei Piao—a term coined to describe the twenty-somethings who drift aimlessly to the northern capital. […] We come with uncertain dreams but our goal is to burn white hot, to prove that the Chinese, too, can be decadent and reckless. We are not good at math or saving money, but we are very good at being young. […] We are marginally employed and falling behind on our filial-piety payments, but we are cool. Who is going to tell us otherwise?”
Home Remedies, Xuan Juliana Wang’s debut collection of short stories, traces the lives of the new Chinese youth. From Beijing to Paris to New York, they are restless, relentless, and have a lot to prove. They are out to forge their own identity, only to discover that the ties that bind are stronger than they expected.
Several of Wang’s characters find themselves in an unfamiliar and unfriendly new world, where attempts at assimilation meet varying degrees of success. In “Fuerdai to the Max,” rich Chinese kids are outcasts in a California high school, where they are ignored at best, and bullied at worst. They have now returned to Beijing under mysterious circumstances, for reasons which are soon revealed in a shocking scene.
In “For Our Children and for Ourselves,” a factory worker from a small village in Shenzhen dreams of becoming a millionaire. When he is offered a chance at a better life in America, he quickly accepts—only to realize that the price he must pay is an arranged marriage with a rich woman’s disabled daughter.
“This is all we’ve got, she thought, only this endless wanting, for our children and for ourselves.”
“Algorithmic Problem Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships” is subtle in its heartache. The father in question is a former computer science professor who has become just “another ordinary immigrant” in New Jersey. He believes that every problem has a logical solution, until he finds himself struggling to understand and repair his strained relationship with his daughter.
A few stories stray into the realm of magical realism, including the standout gem of the collection, “Echo of the Moment.” A Chinese student in Paris steals a dead socialite’s wardrobe, and suddenly becomes a fashion darling. She basks in the Instagram likes and free-flowing champagne, until one day the magic of the clothes starts to wear off. It’s a compelling story about isolation and loneliness, masked as a modern-day Cinderella tale.
Short story collections are sometimes difficult to judge. Each story can be a hit or a miss, and the weaker ones might hurt your overall view. But Home Remedies is fairly consistent, written with empathy and nuance. It’s easy to immerse yourself in each tiny slice of life, to relate to each character, to feel their longing, fear, or shame.
Several Asian cultures continue to believe in home remedies. It’s a sign of clinging to the old ways of the homeland, even as circumstances propel you forward. Wang, who was born in China but grew up in America, seemingly knows that well. These twelve stories about love, family, and identity offer a fresh perspective on Chinese millennials—the Bei Piao, the fuerdai, the immigrants. Caught between two cultures, they are trying to make peace with their past, while coming to terms with the uncertainty of their future. Home Remedies gives voice to the new Chinese generation.
Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang will soon be available at Fully Booked. Email us to reserve a copy in advance.
Jean will try anything once. She has, at different points in her life, worked in government, interviewed international celebrities, and been the social media manager for several brands. On any given day, she would rather be reading, preferably surrounded by puppies. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @jeanarboleda.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]