Evoking both the drama of familial intimacy and the ups and downs of the everyday, My Old Faithful introduces readers to a close-knit Chinese family. These ten interconnected short stories, which take place in China and the United States over a thirty-year period, merge to paint a nuanced portrait of family life, full of pain, surprises, and subtle acts of courage. Richly textured narratives from the mother, the father, the son, and the daughters play out against the backdrop of China's social and economic change.
With quiet humor and sharp insight into the ordinary, Yang Huang writes of a father who spanks his son out of love, a brother who betrays his sister, and a young woman who dares bring a brown man home to her conservative parents. She writes of an aging wife and the kindness she shows a young prostitute caught soliciting her husband; of a woman returning to China after many years to find her country changed in ways both expected and startling. This collection, by a writer who grew up in Jiangsu province and participated in the 1989 student uprisings, is remarkable in its sense of place and fidelity to lived human experience.
"46 Books By Women of Color to Read in 2018": [My Old Faithful] spans thirty years and a rich variety of stories.
"My Old Faithful establishes Yang Huang as one of our most provocative writers on contemporary China. Imagine Ferrante telling a family's story from prismatic perspectives and you come close to Huang's triumph. Here you find a debut writer adept at sidestepping the timeworn: she gives us a story so real it bursts the bounds of the form, becoming an autofiction which, in its humanity, quickly becomes yours as well."
―Edie Meidav, Juniper Prize for Fiction judge and author of Kingdom of the Young
"Charming, funny, and deeply moving, Yang Huang's My Old Faithful chronicles a family over time, in all their struggles and joys."
―Vanessa Hua, author of Deceit and Other Possibilities
"Fans of Huang's powerful debut novel, Living Treasures, will welcome the author's return in My Old Faithful. With its rare views of family life in contemporary China, My Old Faithful's intersecting tales of the vibrant―sometimes explosive―Chen family demonstrate once again Huang's big-hearted gift for penetrating both our vices and virtues."
―Elizabeth Evans, author of As Good as Dead
"Yang Huang's collection of linked stories peels back the layers of a culture too often rendered exotic and opaque to reveal what is intimate and familiar. Sexual awakenings, sibling rivalries, the pain and joy of raising children, aging, the constraints of love and loyalty are all dealt here with a gentle and incisive hand. My Old Faithful is a deeply moving portrait of a family and a society."
―Hasanthika Sirisena, author of The Other One
"In My Old Faithful, Yang Huang explores with humor, tenderness and fierce precision the ties that bind and separate a family across time and space. Filled with unexpected turns and a painterly attention to detail, this is a wise and beautiful book."
―Elizabeth Graver, author of The End of the Point
A Q&A WITH YANG HUANG ABOUT MY OLD FAITHFUL
MY OLD FAITHFUL tells a wide-ranging story of the life of a Chinese family over time. For this non-Chinese-American American, the stories feel at once very relatable and also like a window into a different culture. Did you write the world you knew? Who did you write this collection for?
I wrote the collection for myself, dissecting a character from every angle in a way that I couldn’t do to a real person. I was especially interested in moments of weakness, when an outwardly decent person makes a bad decision, at times consciously and other times against their better judgment.
I modeled the stories on my family and other families I knew during my teen years. We used to live in a community of six apartment buildings that housed the teachers’ and staff’s families at Yangzhou Teachers’ College. My parents, like all Chinese parents, compared my brother and me to our schoolmates who excelled in studies or had special talents. It was normal for us to have anxiety and feel inadequate.
In what ways did you choose to push or not push against stereotypes or tropes with which an American audience might be picking up your book?
I wrote personal essays in a memoir writing class. The professor commented on how awful the parents seemed, how cruel and insensitive they were. I thought: really? They seemed perfectly normal to me. I realized how “civilized” middle-class American families seemed in comparison: parents try to be fair, reason with their children, and give them space to grow. I had rich material to work with because Chinese parents are not so polite, don’t pretend to be fair or politically correct, but their love for their children is intense, smothering, almost a primal instinct.
China has 1.35 billion people and a civilization of more than 5000 years. Over the centuries people have survived wars, natural disasters, and political upheavals. Family is an integral part of their survival in a harsh, crowded, and indifferent society. There are a lot of rules, some written in stone and others unspoken. Parenting is a person’s ultimate responsibility and crowning achievement. It’s also an arms race, for which you exhaust all your resources.
China is changing, too, now with smaller families and a rising middle class. I don’t mind stereotypes, because some have a bit of truth in them. The problem with stereotypes is that they are backwards—they’re based on history from which we have evolved. Today middle-class Chinese families share a lot of values and aspirations with their American counterparts. I think of my stories as an antidote to stereotypes in that they reveal human intentions and emotions rather than categorize them.
Why was it important to tell the story from the point of view of the different family members? What did that allow you to do that a single narrator would not have?
I suspect every culture has a similar proverb to this one: “Even a wise judge cannot settle a family dispute.” Some family disagreements cannot be resolved by arbitration: who is right, who is wrong. That is irrelevant. Sometimes people need to express their emotions, while they grow up, grow old, or just discover themselves.
I constructed a fictional family with a father, mother, two daughters, and a son. Each person tells two stories, and they are peripheral characters in other people’s stories. The characters are honest with themselves when they are away from others’ watchful eyes. This authenticity is something that other family members don’t see in their interactions.
By juxtaposing these different perspectives, readers see how skewed the characters’ perspectives are. For example, the father doesn’t know how insightful his wayward son is. Just when you think you get the last word, other people will trump you with their fresh perspectives. There is an element of surprise that leads to insight and humility.
As the #MeToo movement gains momentum, it struck me that a couple of the stories have moments that resonate with it. Can you speak to that?
The #MeToo movement is heartening because it brings to light an age-old problem. Sexual harassment has been pervasive throughout human history. This is nothing new. What is new is our awareness about how harmful it is. Unfortunately a person may first encounter sexual harassment in the family. The story “If You Were My Legend” details a transgression by a love-crazed brother, but his victim pushes back and stands her ground. She recounts the incident in her story “The Match,” devastated by the broken trust. The perpetrator and the victim interpret their confrontation differently, which is something we’ve been seeing a lot of in the news.
The family is supposed to be a safe haven. The father in the story “The Umbrella” takes a strong ethical stand on a teacher’s role as an educator and a parental figure. He seizes a teachable moment to establish the no-excuse rule for sexual harassment. Of course, his teenage daughter has already learned the lesson and fought back once before. These issues have always been with us. I’m glad to see them getting the attention they deserve now.
You participated in the 1989 student uprisings in Tiananmen Square. How did that time and experience color your view of life in China? How did it impact you as a writer?
My parents were educated on the Soviet model and survived the Cultural Revolution. When my brother and I questioned the authorities, they used to warn us, “If you are unruly, you’ll be sent to Siberia.” That was their way of protecting us, because speaking against the government could have dire consequences. But, we grew up in the 1980s, when China was relatively liberal and hungry for western philosophy and democracy. We read Freud, Jung, and Nietzsche, rather than Maoism and Marxism. We admired the university students who held debates in “Democracy Salons.”
In 1989 I joined the marches for democracy as a freshman. I didn’t forget my parents’ warnings, but the times seemed to have changed. I marched with millions of people, not only students but also teachers and workers and people from all walks of life. Even thieves stopped pickpocketing to pay homage to the democratic cause. For a short while there seemed to be real possibility that political reform and democracy could come to China.
This hope was dashed by the Tiananmen Square massacre. Then came the crackdown. Anything remotely politically sensitive was censored. There were the labor camps. Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate, recently died, basically in prison. I came to the U.S. shortly after the crackdown.
I believe that Chinese people want democracy and are ready for it, regardless what the government says. I don’t believe the mere pursuit of material wealth, which has been front and center in Chinese life since 1989, can satiate the spiritual hunger for personal freedom. That’s why I choose to write about ordinary people with indomitable spirits who live with hope and quiet dignity.
You’ve said in the past that you’re inspired by the persistence of the grass people. Who are the grass people? Why do you take them as your subject?
China has 1.35 billion people, roughly 20 percent of the world’s population. Of this great mass of humanity, more than 99 percent people have no political power, their voting rights a mere sham, as they can only vote for preselected candidates. They are essentially subjects to be ruled. They live like the prairie grass, with freedom, grace, and short splendor. An increasing number of “grass people” are middle-class and have good jobs. Among them are successful entrepreneurs, real estate moguls, doctors, teachers, entertainers, with more opportunities than their parents’ generation.
I write about grass people because they are not only the majority but also can have a conscience. Grass people of all social and economic classes share a certain equality and egalitarianism. They have a collective voice, one that is neglected but never silent. Many Chinese officials succumb to system-side corruption and become puppets of the state. The powerful few, subject to political purges, can become enemies of the state overnight. Grass people, without the privilege, have relative freedom and can choose their career paths.
Today activists are doing important and dangerous work on all fronts, from environmental protection to human rights advocacy. The seed of independence is sown by the family and one’s upbringing. You can strive to live with dignity and honor in an unjust society. Some may choose to emigrate to a foreign country and become grass people in their host country. After all, grass people are everywhere, even in the most advanced democracy.