The first time I encountered Xuan Juliana Wang’s writing, it was an essay in The Cut titled “Long Live Chinatown, Especially When I’m Gone.”
Reading her piece, I realized how much I missed the place where I grew up.
Wang is not from Chinatown, but her words demonstrated a deep love for this immigrant community which we both called home in different ways.
Her gift for empathy and compassion is apparent in her new book Home Remedies, a collection of 12 stories that span across time zones, from the rural villages of China to the hipster enclaves of Brooklyn.
Some of the stories are fantastical, like the one about a martial arts master who eats glass. Others are more grounded in reality—parents on the brink of a divorce, would-be lovers who meet on a diving board, a broke film student making ends meet.
Wang presents these characters with remarkable empathy. Even people we’ve been trained to despise—the well-heeled, the uber-wealthy, and their spoiled kids—have a sympathetic ear in Wang.
“I know [these characters], and I love them.”
In Fuerdai to the Max, the children of China’s nouveau riche are presented with all their flaws, anxieties, and insecurities. In the media, they’re often spoken of—most recently as subjects in the U.S. college admissions scandal—but rarely heard.
“I've never read about these characters,” Wang says, “but I know them, and I love them. I feel like I’ve approached every character with just empathy. There’s no one judging them.”
The characters represent a generation of Chinese millennials who were born in a country still digging itself out of poverty but came of age at a time of prosperity. Many of the stories are based on Wang’s own experience living in Beijing and witnessing that change.
“I think I can see the whole of my 20s in these stories.”
Wang spent her early childhood years in Heilongjiang, a province in northeastern China, in the late 1980s and immigrated to Los Angeles when she was 7.
In 2007, she moved to Beijing and worked as a translator for journalists covering the Olympics. (One of her employers was Evan Osnos, who was then reporting for the Chicago Tribune.)
“My friends, the people around me, they were really cool and sexy, and I wanted to capture that.”
The two years she spent in China were formative. She wrote, partied, went to concerts, and hung out with a crowd that included artists and writers.
“Those years in China changed everything for me,” Wang says, “the way I saw the world, my thematic preoccupations in life.”
One of her short stories, Days of Being Mild (a play on the title of Wong Kar-wai’s film Days of Being Wild), makes a reference to Beipiao, the young people who flock to Beijing from other parts of the country in search of work and other opportunities.
Although she drifted to the capital from overseas, Wang counts herself among the Beipiao. “Everyone was from somewhere else,” she recalls.
The short story, about a group of malcontents and artists in Beijing, captures the frenetic pace of the city she lived in and the raw energy of being there in her 20s.
“The things I saw, the people I met in China were like nobody I had ever encountered in literature written in English,” Wang says. “My friends, the people around me, they were really cool and sexy, and I wanted to capture that. And I didn’t want to render them into any kind of stereotype while doing it.”
While the stories are diverse in content and form—one is a listicle of emotional ailments and their home remedies—they’re tied together by a universal theme.
“I think I can see the whole of my 20s in these stories,” Wang says.
The book is divided into three sections—“Family,” “Love,” and “Time and Space”—a reflection of the questions that preoccupied her at different stages of her 20s.
“In the beginning of my 20s, I was really concerned with family, what makes a family, breaks up families, and also chosen families,” Wang says. “In my mid-20s, I was thinking about love, the choices one makes, regrets, and the way that people can hurt each other.”
By her late 20s, she began to wonder if she had all the answers to life’s questions.
“I still want it to hurt me somehow,” Wang says of her writing. “If I can still lose myself with these stories, then that means the feelings are still there.”
And they are still very much present, in the stories of wayward artists and passionate lovers presented without judgement by Wang’s empathetic prose.