Reviewed by Chengyuan Bian
As one of the Chinese millennial generation, we are always blamed to be selfish, crazy, irresponsible by elder Chinese. We are also expected to attend good universities and then find great jobs in big cities, for the benefit of the next generation, for the glory of the ancestors, and for the contribution to the motherland, but they don’t necessarily think about our own happiness. Also, they don’t realize how hard it is to set up a family far away from home, they don’t understand there can be love apart from money and marriage, and it’s hard for them to imagine the infinite possibilities the new world has offered us. The newly-published short story collection Home Remedies, written by a China-born author Xuan Juliana Wang, captures the dilemma that most Chinese young people face nowadays. After graduating from a Chinese university, I’m now studying at the United States, and this book has become one of my home remedies, relieving my unsettled homesickness, the anxiety about the future, and the uncertainty when thinking about who I meant to be.
This book captures realistically about the lifestyle of young Chinese living both in China and outside. When it comes to love, the daughter of an immigrant family living in a cramped apartment on Mott Street describes her parents’ love like this: “Theirs was a Chinese love. It was not about making each other happy. It was about sacrifice. It was a love devoted to suffering for the beloved” (11). When it comes to dreaming, the ambitious young people, floating and suffering in big cities without decent work or house, comfort themselves by thinking “we are not our parents, with their loveless marriages and party-assigned jobs, and we are out to prove it” (22). When it comes to a family issue, the second-generation spoiled rich live with the belief that their parents can fix any trouble they make. Their stories are so real like the gossips I hear from my neighbors and friends in China. From the real life of an Internet celebrity to the struggle of a homosexual diving athlete, the young people are trying to figure out a sense of belonging in the varied and inclusive world.
In addition to the distinctive stories, this collection also succeeds in the plot structure. The twelve stories are divided into three parts – “Family,” “Love,” and “Time and Space” – which gives readers a clear expectation of the topic in each story. The title story, Home Remedies for Non-Life-Threatening Ailments appears in the middle of the collection. Unlike the other stories, this one has no characters and storylines, instead, it consists of twenty-six symptoms such as Boredom, Self-Doubt, and Humiliation that emerge in specific situations with concrete solutions. It seems like a summary of the mental problems encountered by other characters in the book. Almost every story has a two-lane structure, whether the alternation of the past and the present or the alternation of two characters that finally meet, and there is always a seed buried in the storyline which will sprout somewhere and affect the plot development. The most enjoyable experience while reading the book is that curiosity will drive you through a whole story in one sitting.
Equally successful is the presentation style with rich details. Chinese writers are often criticized for the lack of detail in their work; the same criticism will never be applied to this collection. The carefully crafted details make it easy for readers to form a picture in mind as in the departure scene in “For Our Children and for Ourselves” that takes place at the countryside:
On the day of his departure, neighbors gathered outside the front yard to watch him drag out his two meager suitcases. His dog barked, running from one corner to the other, the dirt swirling around his feet. Liang gave him a bottle of good baijiu he’d been hiding for years. His sister handed him her baby, whose dirty butt poked through his split-crotched pants and rested on the forearm of Xiao Gang’s new coat. Vivian’s big black sedan swept right through the alleys into his front yard; neighborhood children ran after it with sticks, screaming with glee (71).
It’s typical that in a small village in China, each family has a close relationship with all the other families. They help each other build the house, sow the seeds and harvest the wheat. Every single piece of news about each person in the village is spread quickly. When someone from the city comes in a sedan, nearly all the villagers would come out to watch until there is no trace of the unusual visit. Children are especially excited because of the car, the city, and the outside world are so far away from them. This departure scene vividly depicts the status of a poor village in China.
Another interesting aspect of this collection is the use of Chinese Bopomofo with English explanation rather than translated meaning. It has largely preserved the original appearance of the Chinese language and gives readers a local flavor, such as Bei Piao, Yuan Fen, and Fuerdai. “Bei Piao – a term coined to describe the twentysomethings who drift aimlessly to the northern capital, a phenomenal tumble of new faces to Beijing” (22). “The term yuan means the fateful meeting of two people, with the possibility – the shared hope – of becoming love. Fen was the responsibility of fulfilling that unspoken promise. Yuan and fen make love stories possible” (59). “Some people think being called a fuerdai – second-generation rich – is an insult, but I don’t care. The emphasis is on the fu, as in rich” (78).
In this remarkable debut collection of short stories, Home Remedies, Xuan Juliana Wang has crafted twelve stories about the new generation of Chinese youth, full of Chinese features, with fancy structures and rich details. As a Chinese youth, those stories strike a strong chord with my life. For readers who are not Chinese, those stories will give you an insight into modern China and its young people.
About Chengyuan Bian
Chengyuan is a graduate student at Weber State University, pursuing the degree of Master of Arts in English. Chengyuan is also a teaching assistant of the English Department at Weber State University. You can read her blog here: https://chengyuanbian.wordpress.com
Be sure to grab your copy of Home Remedies to read all 12 of Xuan Juliana Wang’s short stories.