Born and raised in mainland China, Yang Huang came to the U.S. shortly after taking part in the 1989 Democracy Movement. She works as a computer engineer for U. C. Berkeley and as a writer by vocation.
Huang has completed a novel The Good Son. She is revising her new novel: Oasis. The following are selected essays, stories, and interviews.
Writers Yang Huang and Kirstin Chen talk histories of the Cultural revolution, betrayal, and the importance of craft.
I explain how I balance the duties of being a mother, wife, and engineer with the work of being a writer. "When it's time for my creative endeavor, mostly on the weekends, I go to the cave. It is just my desk behind a closed door, but it's the place where I permit myself to be a writer."
People have often asked me why I write in English. I chose English as my first language to write realistic fiction. Here is my confession: "Wanting privacy in a police state was sheer stupidity"—to tell the stories of my life in China without the threat of censorship, I had to look beyond Mandarin.
This is an excerpt from my work-in-progress Oasis. See below for a summary. It is a novel about unrequited love, economic development at the cost of environmental degradation, and one’s lifelong obsession with her birthplace. Although Kaier has left her village, the village has never left her.
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?
Kaier has carried a torch for her childhood sweetheart Lou, who once saved her from drowning in the flash flood. They grow up in Minqin, an oasis in the encroaching deserts. Kaier leaves her hometown to study and become a radiologist. Lou stays behind to fight the dust storms and raise a family in the oasis, which slowly dries up and becomes a desert.
Although Kaier leaves her village, her village has never left her.
Her hometown people become ill from pollution and dust storms. Kaier donates her bone marrow to save Lou’s wife.
Is Kaier finally able to let Lou go?
As Kaier came in through the front yard, she saw her brothers wrestling in the dirt like bear cubs. She picked up Goldie and dusted off his bare legs. Her mother would scold Kaier if he had a scraped knee.
“Why are you so late today?” Her mother pushed straw into the stove with a fire poker. Its tip was glowing red.
“The teacher kept us late,” Kaier lied.
“Go give your uncle a hand.”
Kaier went to the backyard. Goldie’s chubby arms clung to her neck and made it hard for her to breathe. She sat on a stool and laid Goldie in her lap. If she put him down, Woodie would charge the baby and knock him face-down in the dust. She sighed loudly, the way her mother often did in the morning when she thought the children were asleep.
“Don’t sulk, Kaier.” Her third uncle sharpened the knife blade on a whetstone. A rooster sat in dirt with its legs tied.
“I want a baby sister.”
“Here is a secret: Parents always want boys. A daughter is raised to become another man’s wife, but a son belongs to the family. He can look after his parents in their old age.”
He grasped the rooster by its wings and cut off the rope from its feet. Then he bent its head back to hold its beak in the same hand and plucked the soft feathers on its throat. With a quick flick of the knife he slashed its throat.
“If you want a sister, you must ask in a way that your mama cannot refuse.” He held the rooster’s head down to drain its blood. The rooster struggled in vain against his tight grip.
“When your mama gives birth, you stay at her bedside and tell her you want a sister.”
“What if she says no?”
“She won’t. Anyway it doesn’t matter what she says. Remember: you say it while the baby is being born.” He sprinkled salt onto the blood to make it gel. “When the rice is cooked, you cannot turn it back into grains.”
Kaier wiped the drool from Goldie’s chin. She never knew that she had disappointed her parents by being a girl. Was it a punishment for a girl to do more chores? Kaier longed for a sister. When they were both older, Kaier and her sister would help with housework and tend to their newest brothers. Then her parents might thank Kaier for her foresight, if they ever learned how she had begotten her little sister.
“You look pretty when you smile.” Her third uncle doused the rooster in boiling water and then began to pluck it. “Who’s your favorite uncle?” He gave Kaier several tail feathers to make a shuttlecock.
“You.” She laid the feathers on the step of the porch. Deep bronze and reddish at the tips, the feathers reflected a green hue in the dusk.
Sometimes Kaier felt sorry for her third uncle. Since he was childless, he doted on his nieces and nephews. Kaier admired her fourth uncle, a man who was too busy to play with children. He had gone to work in Shenzhen, the booming city in Guangzhou Province. Last year he had sent home a letter. There was a picture of him standing on a suspension bridge, his red collar stiff against an emerald wool vest, his hair blowing in the wind. After seeing it Kaier was reluctant to brush her hair for days. She dreamed of herself as grownup with permed hair and heeled sandals like the Shenzhen girls silhouetted on the bridge.
* * *
For weeks Kaier had rehearsed her plan. Her mother’s belly grew so large Kaier expected her sister to burst from the seams of her dress. Her grandparents made Kaier and Goldie stay with them at night, so that her mother could get some rest. Her grandparents’ and parents’ houses, separated by corn and radish fields, were just beyond shouting distance. Often Kaier ran back and forth in the pitch dark, fetching a diaper or sweatshirt for Goldie. She could have run home even if she were blind.
One day in August Kaier helped her grandpa in the radish field. She watered a row of radishes planted in a narrow ditch, built to conserve water. She could almost hear the radish roots suck up water. Their dark green leaves regained vigor in the glaring sunshine. She retreated into the shade of a plum tree. Red clouds gathered over the horizon, like the brilliant scales of a dragon carp. The heat was so intense that the distant mountains seemed to dance in the blue air. Familiar footsteps echoed in the field.
Her father ran toward the house calling for Kaier’s grandma. “She’s ready to have the baby!” he shouted.
Her grandma tottered across the ridge on her bound feet. Kaier dashed for home, skipping in the fields and squashing a few radishes. She couldn’t lose a moment to ask her mother for a girl. At the door Kaier heard a baby crying. She was too late.
The midwife croaked, “Congratulations on your big happiness!”
Kaier felt as if she’d been doused by a basin of ice water. Her legs gave way. She crumpled onto the doorstep and buried her head in her hands. How could her mother pop out a baby faster than a hen laid an egg?
Finally her grandma arrived, huffing and puffing. “Won’t you go inside?”
“It’s a boy again.”
To Kaier’s surprise, her grandma burst into laughter. “It is the will of God. Don’t be cross. Come on inside.”
Kaier didn’t budge.
“You sure are stout,” the midwife cooed inside. “Look at your hands. You can build a house with them!”
Kaier heard her mother laugh, a tired and elated chuckle.
Her grandma opened the bedroom door. “Where is my little grandson?” She clapped her hands.
Their happiness humiliated Kaier. She wanted to hide away and weep. The sun was high, and the desert lay scorched and burning. Rose willows seemed to reach toward the sky in a plea for life-giving water. She turned away from the village and walked toward Reed Marsh. In the cottonwoods along the dry creek, cicadas sounded their high, whirring sounds, like a thousand rattlesnakes. Now and then a woodpecker shrieked among the willows, or a rock squirrel whistled at a sign of danger.
Children were not supposed to come to Reed Marsh by themselves, as it was infested with mosquitoes, snakes, and lizards. A woman had drowned herself there a decade ago. Villagers said her ghost came out after dark. When Woodie wore her out sometimes, Kaier threatened she would take him to Reed Marsh. That would make him behave for hours.
Kaier sat on the grassy slope. Hot tears flooded her eyes. She didn’t wipe them. As tears brimmed over, her vision regained momentary clarity. Yellow flowers blossomed on the riverbank. Reeds, taller than a house, wavered in the breeze. Catkins flew in the air like goose feathers.
“Will I be your lame donkey forever?” Tears stung her eyes.
She had no sister to play with or share her burdens. She might as well be a third parent to her brothers, who enjoyed their privileges of being boys. Now the family would fuss over the new baby. Her only rewards were chores and responsibilities.
“I’m not your slave, baby.” She wiped her nose on her sleeve. “What will you ever do for me? It’s unfair.”
In the pond, a dozen ducklings swam alongside their parents. One duckling headed into the lily pads. Suddenly there was a loud snap and splash in the lily pads. The water swirled, then quieted down, and all was as before. A snapping turtle might have clamped down its sharp jaws on the hapless duckling. A mallard lifted off the water and burst into the air.
Kaier couldn’t help being born the eldest daughter. What if she made herself disappear? Her parents would have to manage for themselves. Then they might regret to have taken her for granted.
She heard reeds rustling and looked behind her. Where the reeds parted, a naked boy with a shaven head appeared. He held up his trousers, each leg tied up in a knot. Seeing her, he squatted down and took out mallard eggs from inside the makeshift bag. He was taller than Kaier. His ribs indented his brown skin like the surface of a washboard. Kaier wasn’t embarrassed to see a naked boy. At home she bathed all her brothers.
But the boy didn’t look like her brothers. Despite his thinness, he had a wide face, a strong nose, and thick lips. He wrung water from his pants, then pulled them on, and tied the cloth rope around his waist. He collected a bundle of dried reeds, sunning over the sand. He struck a sickle against a flint, and finally lit the straw. He put a few eggs in the fire and added dry reeds.
“You want one or what?” he asked.
She shook her head. The boy appeared to be from a poor family, since villagers who kept hens didn’t eat mallard eggs. He had collected more than a dozen eggs. He couldn’t take them home unless he took off his pants again. How far could he get without being seen?
“I can help you.” She patted her empty pockets.
He glanced at her. “I’m going to eat them all.”
“You’ll get sick.” Kaier sniffled. She didn’t feel like crying anymore.
“Yeah? Watch me.” The boy pushed an egg from the fire with a stick. He cracked the shell on a rock, peeled the egg, and ate it with hardly any chewing. He stiffened for a moment but didn’t burp aloud.
“Is it good?”
He pushed out another egg from the fire and poured water on its shell to cool it, so that it could be peeled easily. “You tell me.”
Kaier knew she shouldn’t accept food from a stranger, but it was from a boy her own age. She peeled the egg and ate it. The yolk was a little runny, so it went down easily.
“Not bad,” she said. “It would taste better with a little salt.”
With a gust of wind, leaves from the oleaster tree drifted down into the river. Some blew like miniature boats across the surface. Birds flitted back and forth among the creosote bushes, cottontails running restlessly. Clouds clustered in the sky. Puffs of dust danced in the wind. Fallen leaves slowly sank to the river bottom.
“It’s going to rain,” the boy said with a hand over his brows.
Kaier didn’t mind getting wet. Since it was as hot as a bathhouse, a splash of water might be fun. Did anyone miss her at lunch? She could make them wait a little longer. The boy put some raw eggs in his pocket and then disappeared into the tall reeds.
“Are you going home?” She tried to sound calm, hearing the echo of her voice.
On the opposite bank, a dog leapt up from the sand dune. It barked sharply as a flash of lightning leapt in the sky, illuminating the interior of the cloud like a lantern.
“I told you it’s going to rain.”
Kaier was so happy to see him again she almost threw an arm around his shoulder. “Don’t go,” she said.
“Are you crazy? It’s going to flood.” He collected the rest of eggs in his pockets. His pants sagged on his thin frame.
“Where are you going?”
There was no answer. A moment later, the reeds down the riverbank parted. The boy went away whistling a tune. Kaier was disappointed he didn’t say goodbye.
“Go on home, scaredy cat.” She poked the hot ashes with a stick and found an egg he left behind. She sat under the tree and ate the egg.
It didn’t taste half as good as the first egg. In fact, it almost made her gag. A roar of thunder rolled over the distant mountains and boomed across the flats. The branches of oleasters and rose willows waved in the wind. Swirls of dust ran like elfin figures along the flats and washes. Where the sky had been blue and blindingly bright, clouds now shut out the sun.
“Would anyone care if I died?” Kaier started crying again.
For the longest time she had not shed a tear at home. If Goldie or Woodie cried, she coaxed them back to laughter. If Goldie wanted to rip out her hair, she had to let him, so that her mother wouldn’t scold her for being negligent. Now Kaier was free to cry where no one could hear her.
Lightning cracked across the sky, illuminating the greenish undersides of the clouds. Thunder rattled and banged. The wind rose in gusts, veering and whirling. Then the rain began, drop by drop at first, then two at a time—huge drops that splattered on the ground and raised little puffs of dust. Kaier stopped crying, fascinated by the grandeur of nature that dwarfed her inner turmoil. The rain saturated every inch of the oleaster under which she sat. The downpour was so heavy it seemed as if the air were entirely replaced by rain.
Her feet soaked in a puddle. The rain whipped her body harder than anyone had ever hit her. Rivulets formed on the ground, snaking in and out among rocks and plants. The rivulets joined, cascades rolled across the slopes, and sheets of water gathered in the flats. Within minutes, half-grown rivers were bolting across the desert floor. They reached a dry channel that had not carried water for months. White-capped, turbulent, and muddy, the water stampeded down the arroyo, sweeping everything before it.
Kaier headed for home. Wading knee-deep in floodwater, she was bombarded by hailstones. The driving stones tore the leaves off trees and punctured the tough skins of the cactuses. She took shelter under a sheet rock. All around her were helpless creatures. Jackrabbits cowered in their shelter, and for once the woodpecker sat quietly in its hole. Insects folded their wings tightly, clinging to stems and twigs. She thought of the woman who had drowned herself in the marsh. Perhaps she hadn’t been able to swim, like Kaier.
She felt a tap on her shoulder. A pair of thin brown arms reached toward her. “Follow me, to the high ground!” The voice was shrill but familiar. She recognized the gourd head floating upon raging waters.
“But I can’t swim!”
“Grab this!” A thick branch was offered to her.
She held onto it and leapt into the water. Her feet couldn’t touch the bottom. The torrent swelled. Large sections of land were swept away, with dry, powdery earth subsiding into the torrent like a pinch of salt in a boiling pot. Water plunging down the arroyo tore away bushes along the banks. As the land caved in, all animals living there went with it. Mice and rabbits tried vainly to swim in the seething waters. Wasps and lizards were swept by, struggling desperately or already dead.
Tangled up with a yellow-speckled snake, Kaier was so frightened she thrashed about to pluck it off her chest, but its scaly plump body wrapped around her elbow. Did she slice her palm on its teeth?
“Don’t let go!” the boy shouted.
Before he finished, Kaier sank into deep water.
She gulped water while watching the surface of the water drift slowly away. She trashed madly and heard splashing, the boy yelling for her to answer. She could see him each time she came up for another frantic breath. Kaier was supposed to be home, rejoicing in the birth of her baby brother. How stupid she was to let herself drown! By the time the boy found her she knew there was no way he was going to reach her in time. Too exhausted to kick, she pretty much gave up and let herself slide under for the last time, went limp as a dishrag, giving herself over to the flood dragon.
Just when she had relaxed and allowed the water to enter her nose, mouth, and ears, she felt a hand grabbing her hair. Up, up, up, she went and then her head broke the surface. She gagged and puked and drew in great lungfuls of sweet hot August air, while her extremities locked up, all her energy focused on getting air in and out.
“Let me go! You’ll drown us both!” The boy’s voice was muffled by gurgling. She threw her arms around his neck and held on for dear life, still sputtering and spouting water. But he was sinking. “You’re choking me. Loosen up!” She wouldn’t listen but applied herself to him like a trembling second skin.
Just then something pounded on her head. Thunder rang in her ears. She felt a tentative peace once she gave up and just let go. After taking in a double lungful of water it seemed that death would not be so bad. It was not peace she experienced, so much as resignation. The water turned black as ink.
The Good Son
Mr. Cai's ambition is to unleash Feng, his only son, to a good life where he can live and prosper on his own. Little does he know that he will befriend a dashing gay man, who seduces him into a deal he cannot refuse.
If one could exchange a limb for a wish, Mr. Cai would have traded his gladly in order to unleash Feng, his only son, to a good life where he could live and prosper on his own.
July was Feng's last shot at the college entrance exams, because he was twenty-two years old and would soon be disqualified for the university admission. Jiao, the neighbor girl who grew up with Feng, had gone to Beijing for college four years before and would return home in May with a B.A. in Chinese. By the end of April, Mr. Cai erected a new fence bordering on Jiao's yard and planted a row of roses along it. From then on, Feng didn't need to say hello to anyone on the other side of the fence unless that person called out to him. Later, Mr. Cai would hint to Jiao that she should not disturb Feng before his exams. Feng was not a free man until the late afternoon of July 9th.
Now Mr. Cai put on his reading glasses to peruse a love letter, written and signed by Feng, to a young cook who worked at the canteen of his continuation school. "I can't wait for the class to end and the day to go dark, so I can slide my hand under your apron to touch your doudu, the lushest satin I've ever stroked."
"What the hell is this?" Mr. Cai pounded the table so hard that his cup jumped up from its saucer.
"Nothing." Feng shuddered and stepped back.
"She accused you of taking liberties with her, and I, your old dad, was called to your school to be given this!" He swept the letter off the table. "You tell me if this can be called a love letter."
"I only . . ."
Feng's finger shook as he pointed it to the floor. "When I wrote the letter, I only wanted to feel her doudu. It was made from an old brocade embroidered with . . ."
"What do you take me for, some old dimwit?" Mr. Cai ripped the glasses from his nose. "I was a tailor before you were born. Have you ever seen me touching a woman's underwear when she tries on new clothes?"
Feng wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
Mrs. Cai set the small table, where Feng usually took his meal after he failed an exam. "He is really sorry," she said. "Go study now, and dinner will be ready in a few minutes."
Mr. Cai was too angry to look at Feng, and turned his face toward the windows. A magpie landed on the windowsill to comb its tail with its beak. Even a bird chose its season to mate, lay eggs or raise its young. Why couldn't Feng remain abstinent for a few more months?
"It's okay if you don't care about your own future." Mr. Cai cleared his throat. "But you're indebted to us, who work until our backs break in order to provide for you."
Feng stomped on the letter. As he kneaded the paper under his sole, he slipped and almost fell to the cement floor. Soon the letter was torn in the middle.
Seeing Feng's cheek damp with tears, Mr. Cai managed to choke down his scolding. "Son, you have to be smarter next time. As the old saying goes: the worth of other pursuits is small." He paused for Feng to finish the sentence.
"The study of books excels them all," Feng whispered.
"You know all the right reasons." He rubbed Feng's back and drummed his hard spine. "Now act on your promise like a filial son. Let's put this trivia behind us."
Feng returned to his study room and shut the door. Mr. Cai told his wife to move Feng's place setting to their dining table. It would be easier for him to lecture Feng while they were seated at the same table.
* * *
Over the years, Mr. Cai Liang had corrected countless people that his family name was Cai (aptitude) as in aptitude, not the Cai (talent) as in talent. He had grown up without a father. His mother didn't give him her surname, Bai (white) as in white, a synonym for chastity. Instead, she chose him a name composed of the two best words in the dictionary: timber (timber) combined with talent (talent) that promises aptitude, and Liang (fine quality) which means fine quality. Cai (aptitude) wasn't a traditional surname. Mr. Cai had never met anyone with his family name. Therefore, he was overjoyed to beget a son, who would carry on his lineage. Mr. Cai named him Cai Feng (Cai Feng) , abundant aptitude. To this day, Feng's name remained to be one of few things that Mr. Cai was satisfied with his son. The other were Feng's good looks.
"All we ask of you," Mr. Cai told Feng at dinner, "is to enter a college this year." He leaned aside to let his wife put the fish soup on the table. "It's about time. You know, China had the War of Resistance against Japan for eight years, and you've been in the continuation school for half that long."
"Eat it while it's warm," Mrs. Cai said and put a soup spoon by Feng's hand. "We're not unreasonable parents," Mr. Cai said. "After you make it onto a university campus, we'll let you date a nice girl. But, you've got to wait for a few months. If you let some trivia interfere with the exams, you may regret it for the rest of your life."
Feng sipped the carp soup. "It's fishy," he said and put down his spoon.
"You don't eat it for the taste, but for the nutrition." Mr. Cai scooped up a spoonful to put it in front of Feng's mouth. "Come on, have some more."
"Now you're feeding him," Mrs. Cai chimed in. "What the newspaper said is true. The one-child-policy gave us a little emperor to wait on."
Mr. Cai pinched his wife's thigh under the table and she fell silent.
Feng swallowed the soup and pouted his lips. "That's a joke, Mom! You know I'm your slave."
"Let's just have dinner like a civilized family." Mr. Cai pushed the soup bowl toward his son.
Feng sipped a half spoon of the creamy white soup. He had been a strict vegetarian ever since he had come down with a food poisoning from eating the lamb hotpot when he was six. Throughout his teenage years Feng had steered clear of eggs, meat and seafood, and prevented Mr. Cai from killing any fish or fowls in his presence. Feng had grown tall and slim, with a pale complexion and large, sensitive eyes. After he failed the college entrance exams four times in a row, Mr. Cai suspected that Feng had been undernourished on his diet, and pressed him to eat eggs. Feng refused vehemently, and resorted to drinking fish soup as a compromise.
For the past year, carp stew had been a regular course at their dinner table. At least three times a week Mr. Cai killed a carp, sliced it up and salted it before Feng came home from school. His wife fried the carp chucks, then simmered them in a crock pot with oyster mushrooms, black fungus and lily flowers, until the soup became fragrant and milky white. Mr. Cai told Feng that the carp was previously frozen, and persuaded him to drink the soup. Luckily Feng had no culinary experience, or he would've known that frozen seafood doesn't make good soup. Mr. Cai didn't oppose Feng's being a vegetarian so long as he would do relatively well among the people his own age. Otherwise, what would become of him when his parents were old and gone? The age-old saying holds true: he who does not plan for the future will find trouble at his doorstep.