Hello again Book Smugglers! I had the chance to speak with award-winning author, Yang Huang. Huang is a jack of all trades writing fiction, screenplays, and essays. Her most recent novel, Living Treasures discusses the perils of Chinese motherhood seen through the eyes of Gu Bao. Becoming a mother myself in 2020, this is the read I was looking for. The character dynamics and timely matter of the subject bring more understanding of what Chinese culture is like. I juggled my sweet 11-month-old son while reading Living Treasures. I couldn’t put it down!
You were raised in China and now are raising a family in America. In all your books, including MY GOOD SON, you bring this dual perspective to family life across generations and continents. How has your personal experience shaped your writing process?
I grew up as a Chinese daughter. The family I grew up in was parent-centric, meaning that the parents’ expectations dominated the relationship. We strove not to let our parents down. My children were born in Berkeley, so I became a mother to American boys. My own American family is child-centric. We tiptoe around our teenagers and try to understand the world through their eyes.
My personal experience doesn’t make its way directly into my fiction but rather provides a background for family drama. I am sensitive to the effect of one’s actions on the fabric of family dynamics. We are products both of our families and of the society at large. Understanding, embracing, and eventually healing from the aftermath of our families of origin is an integral part of maturation and finding one’s place within the family and in society.
This story is very much about the push and pull between generations — the older generation wants security and the younger generation wants freedom. Do you think that’s a universal dilemma, or is there something uniquely Chinese about it?
It is universal for parents and children to experience the push and pull…it is the glue that holds the family together. But of course, every child and parent relationship is unique. And their interaction has consequences. Parenting is not a perfect science because humans are fallible. They are also resilient. A single mistake, made either by the parent or child, doesn’t have to sever a bond. The negotiation between the parents and children, the constant push and pull, is a fluid dance of giving and receiving love and letting go—it is life itself.
For Mr. Cai, what does the promise of America represent?
Mr. Cai has very limited knowledge about America. His view is representative of his generation, which regards America as the land of opportunity and a beacon of hope and freedom. He turns to Jude in desperation, because Feng appears to be a failure, but a father cannot give up on his son. Feng is a creative person and craves freedom, which is not a top priority for most people in China. In a sense, Feng was born into the wrong family, and in the wrong country, to boot. But neither Mr. Cai nor Feng knows this; they just muddle along until Jude comes to their door. Jude brings the prospect of a larger world, but in a way, the world that Jude connects them with is also a small world with its own set of problems, as Jude struggles with his father’s acceptance. So these people have some common ground, and the playing field is leveled for each to make a contribution to help the other.
Mr. Cai has weighed his preference for a Chinese or American university. In both countries the quest for a good college is determined by many factors. The U.S. college admissions scandal exposes some of the weakest links in college admission. Is Mr. Cai aware of the perils of his extraordinary effort to help Feng?
In China, college admission is based on the entrance exam scores. During the year when I entered the university, the admission rate was 1% in Yangzhou. The competition was less brutal in metropolitan cities such as Shanghai and Beijing with numerous prestigious universities, where the cut-off scores averaged 5-10% lower than a provincial town like Yangzhou. Feng would have passed the exams easily if he were a resident of Shanghai or Beijing.
In America, college admission policies are changing with the times, and exam scores are only a part of the application. This leaves room for interpretation of what is fair. For example: a surprisingly high percentage of the Caucasian applicants accepted at the Ivy League Schools were either athletes, legacies, or the children of donors and faculty. When these legal shortcuts weren’t enough, some parents broke the law to bribe admission officials for their children’s seats at the elite colleges.
Mr. Cai would condemn these greedy parents, but he understands their motivation—that animal instinct to put one’s offspring ahead of the herd. As Mr. Cai jumps through some bizarre hoops in order to secure a future for his son, he begins to see the toll it takes. He asks himself, “Was parenting an arms race to amass privilege for your child, so that he could rise while others sank? Was this kind of parenting morally corrupt? Yet, what other choice did you have in order to give your offspring the best chance to survive—even thrive in a cutthroat society?” Strictly speaking, fairness in college admission is an unattainable ideal. In both the U.S. and China, there are tiers of privilege, legal and otherwise.
About Yang Huang
Yang Huang grew up in China’s Jiangsu province and participated in the 1989 student uprisings. Her novel My Good Son won the University of New Orleans Press Publishing Lab Prize; her linked story collection, My Old Faithful, won the Juniper Prize for fiction; and her debut novel, Living Treasures, won the Nautilus Book Award silver medal in fiction. Her essays, stories, and screenplay have appeared in Poets & Writers, Literary Hub, The Margins, Eleven Eleven, Asian Pacific American Journal, The Evansville Review, Futures, Porcupine Literary Arts Magazine, Nuvein, and Stories for Film. Yang lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and works for the University of California, Berkeley. Learn more about Living Treasures and all of Huang’s works on her website: https://www.yanghuang.com
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