From the book HOME REMEDIES by Xuan Juliana Wang. Copyright © 2019 by Xuan Wang Inc. Published by Hogarth, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Hogarth.
In a blue sky smeared with white clouds, his mother’s pigeons whirled above his head in enormous sweeps. This household chore was one he never grew tired of. He tended daily to the birds, encouraged them, and as they dove their wings took on every shade of gray. These were kites people could never dream of, he thought, and as they weaved in and out between those old porcelain roof tiles and plum trees, they drew invisible watercolors and characters without names.
With a loud thud, Xiao Gang slapped the long branch he was waving against the tree trunk. The pigeons continued to fly on their own. A few plums fell to the ground, and boys from the neighborhood scrambled to pick them up. “Mine! Mine!” they shouted.
When they were too tired to fly, the pigeons one by one settled back into their hutches, puffed out their feathers, and cooed gently in unison, like heartbeats slowing down to slumber. A child from the city might ask why none of them ever flew away into the inviting mountains and trees in the distance. But this was the Henan countryside, where that would be a stupid question.
* * *
On this particular night, Xiao Gang was looking to get very, very drunk. He wanted to be carried home singing. As the occasion was his bachelor party, all of his buddies—booze in hand, undershirts already stained from spills—were ready to fulfill his wish.
After the fish was picked to bones, Liang stood up unsteadily and raised his brimming glass of baijiu to give a toast. “To your journey, brother!” Cheers were grunted, lips smacked, and cigarettes lit.
“Ever since we were this tall”—Liang gestured with his fat hands at his hips—“we’ve been best friends, and maybe not by blood but I always saw you as my brother. And if I can’t speak to you from the gut, then who can, huh?”
Xiao Gang looked at him, smiled sloppily, and filled his own cup.
“To this lucky bastard, he’s going to get rich in America!”
Surrounded by his closest friends, Xiao Gang cheered with them.
“Your wife,” Liang continued, “well, your wife is…” He looked around, as if searching for a euphemism, then he shouted, “Your wife is a retard!”
The snickering around the table stopped, a series of throats cleared. Someone’s arm gently went around Liang’s meaty shoulders.
But Liang continued, his eyes beginning to swim in their puffy alcohol pools. “Ah, but her mom’s got money! And she ain’t stingy!
“Brother, you’re gonna live far better than us losers! Damn it all, let’s ganbei to that!” Without waiting for anyone else, Liang threw his head back, gulped his shot, and held his glass upside down above his head.
Xiao Gang searched the faces of his closest friends for pity or jealously, but none returned his gaze. Except for Liang, who reached out and put an arm around him. This was the man he’d fought with as a teenager, with whom he shared everything he’d ever had. Xiao Gang grabbed him roughly by the collar and kissed him on the cheek.
Their friends laughed, showing their crowded, yellowing teeth. They clinked their glasses and then baijiu, that clear warm venom, burned their throats.
“Gong xi!” they yelled. “Congratulations!” in a tone no different than if he’d won the lottery.
Liang drifted away from the group, slumped in a chair, and began drinking alone. He worked at a paper factory, and though he was only twenty-eight, he was already wearing old-man shoes. The winter winds had etched deep grooves into his cheeks long before the years could get to them.
He and Xiao Gang could have had a real heart-to-heart that night and gotten things straight before the spell of their friendship was irreparably broken, but not knowing the words, they drank instead, until they had nothing to say at all.
* * *
Whether he believed it or not, about six months ago, Xiao Gang had tumbled helplessly into the grasp of yuan fen. 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.
Yuan—not quite fate—had been at work giving birth to the millions of invisible strings that pulled Xiao Gang, a single-winged seed from the Henan countryside, to his current situation. When he packed his bags for the last time and walked the long road to where a car waited to pick him up, that was fen, propelling him toward the realization of that destiny.
Three weeks before his twenty-eighth birthday, Xiao Gang was engaged to an American girl he’d never met. The connection took only a single moment. The world turned as always, a sugar cube lost itself in tea, train stations united lovers, corn grew golden, and kites went up in the air. In this moment, yuan fen grabbed hold of Xiao Gang, counted his steps, and drew his hand to the door he held open for Vivian, the mother of his future wife.
After that, everything changed.
* * *
Vivian Tang’s favorite topic of conversation was money. Mortgage rates, import taxes. Her most uttered sentences included “Oh, this thing? My personal shopper at Neiman picked it out. It’s a special order from Milan.” She wore nothing but Italian suits, tailored to hug her short, stocky frame. For the past two decades she had worn her hair in a poufy bun of tight curls, dyed deep maroon, high on the back of her head.
She had been married only once, in her twenties, when she still lived in China. But whenever her husband gave her that tragic look of his and delivered in cadenced sighs his juvenile overtures about love, she had changed the subject to the more practical matters at hand—where they would go to graduate school, when they would be able to buy an apartment, the rising price of pork. So she wasn’t surprised, some years later, when she realized he had stopped bringing up the subject of love. And she was not greatly disappointed when, soon after they immigrated to America and their daughter was born, he left her for someone else. Vivian did not mourn his loss; she did not want to resemble her weak and unfocused husband. Just by looking at the back of her head, people knew she was tough. The tight cluster of dyed curls spoke of a woman who did not have the time for mood lighting and poetry, someone who took pride in never having loved her husband.
Yong Qin was her Chinese name. She knew that those characters did not convey any elegance, but she’d always felt the name directly represented her personal virtues: bravery and hard work. Every day she forced herself out of bed, to her desk, and eventually into business school in Massachusetts. Most people were so intimidated by the fierce clarity with which she spoke that they hardly noticed the accent that still clung to her words. Within a decade she had become a successful apparel supplier, through years of never doubting her instincts. Her company, Vivian Inc., was a major client of Xiao Gang’s employer, a fabric-dyeing plant in Shenzhen.
Like the other children in the village, Xiao Gang attended a trade school and got a job in a factory. Every summer he went home to work the wheat harvest, and this would go on until he had children of his own to send out to the machines. His life stretched out before him, long and predictable. Day after day, dyeing equipment breathed hot air into his face as he lifted and loaded weave combs. There had been times when he felt a pinprick of envy that the fabric would travel to places he could only dream of.
When he first saw this woman walking down the hall, the unfurling of her clothes and her entourage of assistants, he was in awe of her. To say she had an air of authority would be an understatement; to Xiao Gang, she might as well have floated by on the shoulders of a hundred men. As she passed, he caught a hint of her perfume, and before the scent could leave him, her personal secretary had already caught up to him and, to his amazement, asked him to dinner.
Vivian needed only two minutes to take stock of Xiao Gang, but she saw him instantly for what he was: a slightly above-average young man with big dreams but nothing to show for them. He was a fairly tall and insignificantly handsome mid-level manager who wasn’t extraordinary in any visible way. But when he held the door open for her, she sensed a rare quality in him, which she couldn’t place until later. She knew right then that he was still a boy, earnest and artless, and more than that, she knew he was what she was looking for.
That night at dinner Vivian offered him a job and a U.S. green card. Under one condition.
“Her name is Melanie, and she is a very sweet girl.”
* * *
He had been resigned to becoming exactly the kind of man his mother had said he would be: strong-bodied and stable-minded. When he was younger, he’d had more outlandish hopes: He had wanted to play the piano, like on the Mozart tape his neighbor sometimes played. When college exams came up, he fantasized about applying to music school. In the end, a factory job appeared and a piano didn’t. His fingers grew thick and stiff before they were ever taught to follow music. As he got older, these realities became more apparent and easier to accept. Sooner or later, he figured, life rubs smooth everyone’s edges.
That didn’t mean he hadn’t harbored the hope that somehow he would get the opportunity to live someone else’s life. On his daily bus rides, he imagined the life of a millionaire businessman, millionaire rock star, millionaire government official. He wanted to be someone who saw the ocean from the sky.
Then, suddenly, the chance was here, so real he could pound his fists against it. Without needing much convincing, he agreed to meet her.
* * *
Melanie was, in fact, very sweet. Even her hairdresser said so when she untangled her long curls and permed it per Vivian’s instructions. Melanie loved to wear only one dress, which was the color of tangerines. She was going to wear it when she went to meet her future husband, and her mother promised that he would be “very, very nice to her.”
How nice? As nice as her puppy, her music teacher, a bubble bath, as nice as playing ball at the beach, she had told herself.
Melanie had never wanted a husband, but she was thirty years old, and that’s the age when her mom said every girl gets one. She thought having a husband might be like having a friend over all the time. When she was young, she had lots of friends—Sean, Taylor, Ciarra—but she had stopped going to school and didn’t see them anymore.
“Please sit still, I might accidentally cut you,” the hairdresser hissed.
Melanie stopped herself from rocking and looked down. Her future husband lived in China, and China was a long plane ride away. Her mother was taking her to meet him and so she got to wear her favorite dress. Red flowers were stitched on its sleeves and the flowers matched the color of her lipstick. She felt unusually pretty the day she got on the plane to go to China to meet her future husband.
* * *
Before she left, Vivian gave Xiao Gang the keys to her Shanghai apartment. For a week, as he waited for Vivian to return with his bride, he was lost in a happy stupor. He’d never imagined a more amazing city, never been surrounded by so much luxury. Money she’d given him flowed out of his hands and manifested itself in the form of expensive clothes and lavish meals. He was so thrilled to be a part of this new world that he didn’t think too much about the bargain, the costs of this life.
He often stayed in and sat smoking on the balcony that overlooked Shanghai Pudong. The view was magnificent, millions of lights shimmering and reflecting off the ocean that enveloped it. The traffic swirled neon ribbons underneath the Bund and he was sure that he was witnessing the future. The sight was so glorious that he ached, knowing he’d soon have to leave it behind.
* * *
Xiao Gang noticed her hand first on their official “date.” Her left hand curved in above her wrist, fingers shrunken and pressed together like a broken toy. She tried to hide it in the sleeve of her dress, which was billowy but still revealed the chubby figure she had inherited from Vivian. Then he noticed her eyes, which were large, round, and calm. Finally he saw her broad, flattened forehead, which spelled out her condition for anyone who looked at her. Her mother led her by the elbow when they walked into the restaurant.
“Hello, Xiao Gang, nice to meet you, I’m Melanie,” she said too loudly, as if she had rehearsed it all afternoon. From around the restaurant, her pitched voice drew stares, which lingered on her before each pair of eyes shifted away, the way eyes do when they register pity. She didn’t notice any of this as she extended her perfect right hand, and he took it gently into his.
Xiao Gang looked nervously at Vivian. She had told him that Melanie was different, shy, and not like other girls, but he wasn’t at all prepared for this. She was thirty, hardly a girl, but she still looked like a child whose gray hairs served to remind the world that nobody escapes age. The revulsion he felt for her drew a grimace to his face. He forced a smile at Melanie and then quickly looked away.
They sat down and ordered tea. Vivian lit a cigarette for Xiao Gang and handed it to him. For a moment, she wanted to tell him everything. How she had achieved every success she’d ever wanted, except for a perfect daughter. She wanted to confess about all the doctors she’d flown Melanie to see and the grief she felt to see her daughter stay a child forever. She wanted to say that she knew she’d owe him for the rest of her life and she would never forget it. As his mother-in-law, she would gladly give him anything he wanted in California, because he was perhaps more for herself than for Melanie. As a mother, she wanted him, to adore and take pride in as if he were her own son.
But, of course, she wouldn’t allow any of that to be said. Instead she lit her own cigarette and slowly blew out the smoke.
Vivian smiled. “If you agree, we can start the paperwork on Friday.”
* * *
In many ways, Xiao Gang had a lot in common with Melanie. Secretly, he, too, was easily disturbed and didn’t quite fit into his surroundings. Over beers with his buddies, he could talk about women and rock and roll, but he could never tell them what he dreamed about at night.
He was always dreaming about bees.
Once, an old man who lived alone in Xiao Gang’s village had raised great hives of honeybees. As a boy, Xiao Gang used to wander into that forbidden corner and watch him. He didn’t remember if the old man ever spoke, or what he even looked like, only that, when alone, he was covered in bees, a constellation of gold stars sparkling over his entire body.
Years later, while Xiao Gang was working in the factory, the old man died. For almost a week, no one noticed his absence. Over time, the old man’s house became abandoned and ruined. The bees he had raised became wild bees; they flew across the river and disappeared over the mountains. Yet every autumn Xiao Gang would return to his old hiding spot and await their inevitable return. He was their witness. He knew the bees would find their way back to the old man’s house because they missed him.
Seeing those bees gave Xiao Gang, the son of a long line of farmers who didn’t want to be farmers, a hint of some unmentioned magic in life, something he’d never dared to tell anyone.
* * *
Across the table, Melanie fiddled with her sparkly watch, which was studded with real diamonds. Her mother had told her not to pick at it, she remembered. When her future husband came to live with them, her mom would buy him presents, too. Why was he shaking like that? she wondered. He reminded her of her cat when it was startled. So Melanie hummed to Xiao Gang under her breath quietly, the way her teacher, Mrs. Medrano, had taught her that whales do. Whales sand when they were too far away from one another. That way they wouldn’t feel so alone. “It’s okay,” she hummed over and over again.
A painful heaviness drifted up from Xiao Gang’s stomach, and when he was afraid he would suffocate, he took a sharp breath. “Does she speak Chinese?” he finally asked.
“Not as well as English,” Vivian said, “but she can understand most of it.” She patted Melanie’s wrist. “You’re pretty smart, aren’t you, baobeir?”
Melanie nodded enthusiastically.
“Ask her something, go ahead.”
Xiao Gang paused for a moment, then wiped his mouth with his palm. “Is America really beautiful?”
Melanie nodded again and cackled. How nice his voice is! she thought, liking him right then. Why? Two big soft eyes, and they were smiling at her. Maybe he would agree to take her to the beach. His hands were warm and so much bigger than hers, and thinking about them touching hers, she cackled again. Oh, and he was tall. She felt a warmth inside of her chest; she was smiling inside and out.
* * *
Vivian talked about life in California, how polite and orderly the freeways were, the sky was blue every day, a satisfying variety of Chinese restaurants, and statuesque palm trees that leaned to the east. They had cars for him to drive, a desk at the office to work at; she guaranteed that he was going to be pleased with his life.
Xiao Gang nodded, but somewhere along the line he stopped listening. Instead, he remembered the hands of the first girl he’d ever wanted to marry, the local snack-shop owner’s daughter. In elementary school he’d expressed his feelings for her by throwing a worm into her hair or flicking mud at her. But somehow she liked him back and looked at him with eyes that made him flush down to his knees. He’d kissed her only once, when they were teenagers perched on top of boxes of noodles, his hand fumbling underneath her bra. That summer she left, like so many girls he knew. She went to college in Beijing, and he never dared try to kiss her again.
* * *
Vivian finished her speech with a question and he nodded just in time. He turned and looked at Melanie, and her innocent expression calmed him. Vivian ordered the two of them to sit together at the table so that she could take a picture, and he put his arm around Melanie’s soft shoulders. He noted how adorable she was. She reminded him of his niece. His future wife wasn’t going to make him feel worthless—she was going to be pleased with him. With her, he was never going to be made to feel like a poor country fool again. He smiled gratefully for the winking camera.
Turning his head to one side, he cracked his neck bones. Perhaps she was like a business deal that he could invest a few years of his life in and then move on. With her he could finally buy things he’d always wanted, women included. These opportunities don’t come every day, he thought. If Vivian wanted it, he could keep his eyes closed and put a baby into Melanie. He could do that.
He remembered the life in Shenzhen he never had to see again. He could picture himself picking at the mold that grew on his clothes in the summer, born from the dampness of his cramped company apartment, the long bus rides through dusty roads, the pile of wheat he slept on to guard it during harvest, and the persistent hum of the factory machines that drove itself into his every waking moment. The practiced motions of lifting fabrics and checking the balance of colors would take longer to forget.
Only a poor country fool would give up an opportunity like this, he thought. He reached for Melanie’s hand again and held her soft childish palm in his. She gazed at him with the eyes of a kitten. He looked at Vivian. His voice shaking with something that was not quite guilt he pronounced the three English words he’d been rehearsing all afternoon: “We get married.”
* * *
To make the engagement official, Vivian had flown his mother to Shanghai, and she put all of them up in a hotel with more fountains than he’d ever seen. His mother, in her typical fashion, barely spoke.
Xiao Gang was his nickname. His mother had given it to him. It literally meant “little steel,” a symbol of strength and endurance. His brothers and sisters received similar unromantic monikers and with these names became practical daughters and obedient sons.
His mother told only one story about her past. It was about Xiao Gang’s older brother, on the day he went swimming in the river and never came back. How he had looked up at her, his grubby hands outstretched, and asked for three cents to buy a slice of watermelon and she had not given it to him. She told the story more often as she got older. It got longer and she would cry before she was finished. It was the only sign of tenderness Xiao Gang ever saw from her.
* * *
During a dinner of abalone steak at a restaurant with gold-plated walls, Melanie sat between Xiao Gang and Vivian and across from his mother. She smiled dutifully at the old woman, who avoided looking at her. She rocked back and forth in her chair, tracing her fingers along the carvings of her chopsticks. Xiao Gang picked them up every time she brushed them onto the floor.
Vivian leaned in close to his mother and repeated the same plan, with greater enthusiasm this time. Xiao Gang was going to have a luxury car, a position in her company, and a three-thousand-square-foot house.
“He can go swimming and bowling!” Melanie interrupted. She wanted to say something perfect for this new lady. She rounded the Os the way her speech teacher said she should. She waited in vain for a compliment from her mother.
* * *
Vivian stood up and raised her glass. “A toast to a happy marriage. Thank you for raising such a fine and capable son.” She tilted her head back and the baijiu followed.
Xiao Gang’s mother smiled awkwardly and bobbed her head up and down in agreement. “Thank you, Mrs. Tang” was the only thing she managed to say.
Every time Vivian looked at the old woman, she felt a pain that echoed its way from the memories she’d long tried to forget. Melanie as a baby, small and perfect against her breast, as if everything in life had led her to that moment. How the baby’s smiles had compelled her to drop her schoolwork just so she could knit her daughter a sock. Then, as Melanie got older, she watched the faces of friends morph from joy to pity; their cheers of congratulations became muted whispers when she entered the room. She looked at Melanie and felt a tenderness that would never leave, no matter how imperfect her daughter was.
Seeing the old woman reminded her that being a mother was so difficult, that you love a child more than yourself, that you want to give the child more than you have. This is what we’ve got, she thought, only this endless wanting, for our children and for ourselves. She vowed to do her best—to provide everyone at the table with something to be happy about.
* * *
Xiao Gang loved his mother more than any one else. She had not said to him, nor hinted even once during the return flight, the short train ride, and the long bus ride back, that maybe he didn’t need to do this. Had she voiced any hesitation, said he could find his way on his own, find a pretty girl whom he loved, and make himself into a success, he knew he wouldn’t have gone through with it.
Instead, his mother had packed his clothes for him, made all his favorite foods for dinner, and patted his hand before he set out for America. She was illiterate, so she wouldn’t be able to write to him. She worshipped no gods, so she couldn’t even pray. She let him go to be the husband of a rich girl with Down syndrome and never once wept for him.
* * *
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. He could feel everything—the pigeons cooing, the sunflowers turning toward the sky, the day gray with solemn clouds. With swift motions, the driver dumped the luggage into the trunk, the sedan’s door closed heavily, and suddenly all was quiet and still. Xiao Gang craned his neck to look back. Through the tinted windows he could see his mother and sister. They waved.
As he watched every street he’d known pass by his window as the car wove its way out of the village, he thought about taking some pictures with his phone. Instead, because he couldn’t contain himself, he began to narrate village stories to the driver.
“Here is where the butcher said he saw the dragon fall out of the sky. Now I know that man and he’s never told a lie in all his life. He said it was gold, bright, the size of a goat!” He slid across the backseat and pointed out the other window.
“Oh, and do you see that miniature pagoda across the river? That’s where the old ladies go to pray for rain when we have a drought. I saw it work once, too! Oh, man, I almost cried. But get this, after a few drops, the rain just stopped!”
* * *
Xiao Gang’s phone rang and he saw the caller was Vivian. For a moment he was terrified something had gone wrong. He put the phone to his ear and answered cautiously.
“Xiao Gang, listen,” Vivian said. “Some things are easier to say on the phone.”
He shifted nervously and wiped his sweaty palms on his pants.
“People are just animals onto which society imposes unnecessary responsibilities. Like you’re supposed to have a passion and philosophize about the ‘meaning’ in life. Right?
“Believe me, it’s bullshit,” she continued. “Nothing about this is natural. The world tortures this out of all of us. Meaning is completely unnecessary when all a human being really needs to do is live and procreate.”
She paused. “Pain comes with everything else that requires insight into humanity. A conscience is what invites trouble. Listen to me, Xiao Gang. If you keep this in mind, life is really quite simple.”
He coughed, confused. “Why are you telling me this?”
She sighed, and he could tell by her voice that her eyes were watery. “Because I want you to feel satisfied with your choice. You should feel good about it. I want all of us to feel really good about this. Do you understand?”
“Hao… yes…y-yes,” he stuttered, and then, “You don’t have to worry about me, mother-in-law.”
* * *
As he flipped the phone off, he stretched his back against the seat and lit a cigarette. His thoughts now swarmed all over the place. He pictured American girls with big breasts and strawberry-blond hair. He pictured Melanie’s innocent child smile and broken hand, and shuddered at the thought of how it would feel against his bare thigh. He closed his eyes and for a moment felt himself covered with the old man’s bees, those old friends, as if they were trying to lift him off the seat, out the window, and back to the soil where they were born. They glistened over his body like fireworks. He pressed his eyelids tightly together, and he eventually dozed off. When he opened them, he was at the airport terminal; one by one the bees disappeared, like the dew drying on a leaf.
* * *
When the flight attendant bent down to secure his seat belt, he studied her exquisite face, held smooth and still with makeup, and Xiao Gang suddenly felt panic.
He fidgeted with the buckle of his belt. The cloth of the seat cover made the back of his neck itch. He studied the fine curve of the plane’s ceiling above him, three perfectly positioned features to cool him and shower him with light. He swallowed and turned to his companions.
His bride-to-be, Melanie, was slumped with her cheek against the window, already asleep, her mouth open. He small feet were extended across his future mother-in-law’s lap and onto his. He still thought of himself as Xiao Gang, but Vivian had already given him the name Travis.
The plane began to move and he jerked into an alert position. He could still change his mind; he could run away. A cold sweat passed across his forehead and he wiped it away with the back of his hand. Against every impulse of his limbs, he sat there in the seat as the plane drew its body faster and faster down the runway.
Mother, daughter, son sat still in those seats. Yuan fen held them together and transported them safely across the ocean. During the coming years, his nights would eventually stop being about the old man’s bees, and his reveries would no longer involve pigeons. He would buy his mother a big house, much like the one he would have in California. He would send his family money and vitamins, and they would be the envy of all the relatives. He would take up golf and drink single-malt scotch, learn to speak English, and make new friends. On Christmas cards, he would sit between Melanie and Vivian, his arms around both of them. Sometimes a stranger, usually a woman, would ask if Melanie was his younger sister, and if his mother-in-law wasn’t around, Xiao Gang would lean in with a smile and say, “Yes.”
Xuan Juliana Wang was born in Heilongjiang, China, and moved to Los Angeles when she was seven years old. A Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, she received her MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Best American Nonrequired Reading and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her debut collection of short stories, Home Remedies, was published in 2019 and hailed as the arrival of ‘an urgent and necessary literary voice’ by Alexander Chee, and ‘tough and luminous’ by The New York Times Book Review. Home Remedies was named as one of the Most Anticipated Books of 2019 by Nylon, Electric Literature, The Millions, and LitHub, and one of the Best Books of the Season by Elle, Publishers Weekly, The Daily Beast, and New York Observer. She currently teaches creative writing at UCLA. Photo: © Ye Rin Mok