Yang Huang published her debut novel at 43. Now at 50, her third novel, My Good Son—published in May—is a University of New Orleans Press Publishing Lab Prize winner.
As a Chinese American writer raising a family in the Bay Area at a time when hate crimes against Asian American have exploded, Huang’s insights about family life resonate. There are few things as universal as a parent’s love for their child—and the heartache that can accompany it. But what makes a good parent?
Like many of his generation, the most fervent desire of Mr. Cai, a tailor in post-Tiananmen China, is for his only son, Feng, to succeed. He manages to get Feng to pass his college entrance exams and turns to an American customer, Jude, a gay man who could use the help of the Cai family as well, to sponsor Feng’s studies in the States. This scheme, hatched between the older Chinese man and a handsome gay American ex-pat, highlights the parallels and differences in American and Chinese cultures—father-son relationships, familial expectations, sexuality, social mobility, and privilege. Huang’s straightforward language “reflects Mr. Cai’s no-nonsense mentality and his willingness to articulate harsh truths,” according to the New York Times, to tell a complicated story of fatherhood.
If he could have exchanged a limb for a wish, Mr. Cai would have traded his gladly in order to unleash Feng, his only son, into a life where he could live and prosper on his own.
Afternoon sunshine slanted into the northwest-facing kitchen, hot and stuffy with the carp soup simmering in a slow cooker. Mr. Cai unfolded a letter on the dining table and saw a hint of blush come into Feng’s pallid face. He was lean and willowy, like a beanpole, towering above his mother beside him. Despite their height difference, the mother and son had faces looking strikingly similar, so in a way, the chiseled nose and high cheekbones were too pretty on Feng for his own good.
Now that Mr. Cai had their full attention, he read aloud a “love letter” written and signed by Feng, to a young cook working 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 dudou, the lushest satin I’ve ever stroked.”
“What the hell is this?” Mr. Cai pounded the dining table so hard that his cup jumped up from its saucer.
Feng shuddered and stepped back. “Nothing, Dad.”
Mrs. Cai reached out a hand to stroke Feng’s hair, but he pulled away before she could touch him. This should teach her not to pet him like a baby, Mr. Cai could only hope.
“She complained about unwanted attention, and I, your old dad, was called to your school to be given this!” Mr. Cai swept the letter off the table. “You tell me if this can be called a love letter.”
Feng’s finger shook as he pointed it to the floor. “When I wrote the letter, I only wanted to feel her dudou. It was made from a rare silk brocade embroidered with—”
On another day Mr. Cai might have indulged Feng, for his son had a fascination for silks and other fine fabrics. But not today. “What do you take me for, some old dimwit?” Mr. Cai ripped the reading 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. Mr. Cai rarely saw tears from his son. Feng had an inner strength that belied his fragile appearance. As a young boy he had taught himself making rag dolls with scrap cloth. By the time Feng was in middle school, Mr. Cai had made him quit his hobby until his grades were ranked among the top 30%. As a result, Feng had not made another rag doll, nor had he shed a tear about giving it up.
Now 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 the birds chose a season to mate, lay eggs, and raise their young. Why couldn’t Feng remain abstinent for a few more months?
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. Meanwhile, Ouyang Jiao, the neighbor girl who grew up with Feng, had gone to Beijing Normal University four years ago and would return home in May with a B.A. in Chinese. At the end of April, Mr. Cai had erected a new fence bordering on Jiao’s yard and planted a row of roses along it. That way, Feng didn’t need to say hello to anyone on the other side of the fence unless that person called out to him. Once Jiao was back, Mr. Cai would hint that she should not disturb Feng before his exams. Feng would not be a free man until the late afternoon of July 9th, 1990.
“You may not care about your future.” Mr. Cai heard the tremor in his own voice and cleared his throat. “But you’re indebted to your parents, who work until their backs break in order to provide for you.”
Feng stomped on the letter and kneaded the paper under his sole with vengeance, until the letter was torn in the middle. Mr. Cai had never seen his son so distraught before. If Feng poured a half of his passion into his studies, what might he have not achieved?
Seeing Feng’s cheek damp with tears, Mr. Cai managed to choke down his scolding. “Son, you have to be smarter. As the old saying goes: the worth of other pursuits is small.” He waited for Feng to finish the sentence.
“The study of books exceeds them all,” Feng whispered.
“Now act on your promise like a good son.” He rubbed Feng’s back and drummed his hard spine. “Let’s put this trivia behind us.”
Feng returned to his room and shut the door. Mr. Cai told his wife to move Feng’s place setting from the small table to their dining table. It would be easier for him to lecture Feng if they were seated at the same table.
Mr. Cai Liang always had to correct other people: his family name was Cai 材 as in aptitude, not the Cai 才 as in talent. He had grown up without a father, and his mother hadn’t given him her surname, Bai 白 as in white, a synonym for chastity. Instead, she chose him a name composed of the two best words in the dictionary: timber 木 combined with talent 才 that promises aptitude, and Liang 良 which means fine quality.
Cai 材 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 材丰, abundant aptitude. To this day, Feng’s name remained one of the two things about his son with which Mr. Cai was satisfied. The other was Feng’s good looks. His eyelashes, long and dense, shaded his eyes like little fans.
“All we ask of you,” Mr. Cai told Feng at dinner later that evening, “is to enter a college this year.” He turned aside to let his wife put the fish soup on the table. “It’s about time. You know, China’s War of Resistance against Japan lasted eight years, and you’ve been in the continuation school for half that long.”
“Eat it while it’s warm,” Mrs. Cai said, putting a soup spoon by Feng’s hand.
“We’re not unreasonable parents,” Mr. Cai said. “After making your way to a university campus, you can find and date a nice girl. But, you’ve got to wait a few months. If you get distracted, 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 said. “No wonder the newspaper said the one-child policy has produced a generation of little emperors—”
“Feng is not like the other only children.” Mr. Cai pinched his wife’s thigh under the table. She slapped his hand away. “We have relatives in Taiwan. Feng may write to his cousins, whom he’s never met.”
Feng swallowed the soup and pouted his lips. “Why would I want to do that?”
“Not everyone can boast of an extended family nowadays.” Mr. Cai pushed the soup bowl toward his son. “Remember, blood is thicker than water.”
Feng sipped a half spoonful of the creamy white soup. He had been a strict vegetarian ever since he had come down with food poisoning from eating lamb hotpot when he was six. Throughout his teenage years Feng had not touched eggs, meat or seafood, and prevented Mr. Cai from killing any fish or fowl in his presence. Feng had grown tall and bony, with a pale complexion and large, expressive eyes. After he failed the college entrance exams four times in a row, Mr. Cai suspected that Feng was undernourished, and pressed him to eat eggs. The lack of animal protein might have hampered his brain function and stultified his killer instinct. But 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 chunks, then simmered them in a crock pot with oyster mushrooms, black fungus, and lily flowers, until the soup became fragrant and milky white. When Feng initially protested, Mr. Cai told him that the carp was previously frozen and so was already long dead. Luckily Feng had no culinary experience, or he would’ve known that frozen seafood does not make good soup.
“After the exams, I won’t eat this anymore.” Feng pushed the soup toward his mother.
Mr. Cai didn’t oppose Feng being a vegetarian so long as he did relatively well among his peers. 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.
As usual Mr. Cai checked on Feng before he went about his own business. Through the keyhole to Feng’s bedroom, Mr. Cai saw his son hunch over the desk with his right hand moving a pen across his notebook page. This picture of diligence was a result of fifteen years of schooling.
Feng had been left-handed when he was in kindergarten. Mr. Cai learned that many left-handed children stuttered when they started school. To help Feng ease into the transition, Mr. Cai spent a summer training him to write with his right hand. Not until his left hand suffered enough whacks from a ruler, did Feng gradually succumb to the discipline. By the time he started school, Feng only used his right hand to wipe the blackboard clean for his teacher. In spite of Mr. Cai’s success Feng began to stutter, which lasted for eight months until his classmates grew tired of mocking him.
Having seen that Feng was studying, Mr. Cai returned to his workroom, nestled in the back of his shop. With the ceiling fluorescent light turned off, the shop front was dark, and back lights illuminated the workshop where four tables formed a rectangular space. The worktable faced the shop in the front. On the long wooden table he laid out assorted fabrics and paper patterns alongside chalks, scissors, ruler and tape. Against the back wall was the ironing table, one end of which touched upon the archway that led to the kitchen and bathroom in the back of the house. In the west corner was the fabric table, stacked with silks, brocades, and various blends sorted by content and colors. Against the east wall was an end table with rotary cutter, seam ripper, tracing wheel, and other tools. Everything was within his reach. It felt cozy in this space where Mr. Cai and his wife spent most of their time together. The clutter was stashed away inside the sewing room at the west side of the house, so the large hall of the shop and workroom was spacious and welcoming to both tailors and customers.
Feng had grown up playing with the fabrics and watching his parents cut and sew and serve their customers. As soon as the customer left their shop, the tailor’s work was done and forgotten. In a way, a tailor’s accomplishment was superficial—it only made people look good on the outside. Besides, there were myriad styles to try, none better than the other. Mr. Cai had been cooped up inside his shop making clothes for other people, but he had harbored a grander ambition for his son. Feng should venture into the world and become a scientist, an engineer, or a physician, to whom ordinary people would turn in their time of need. So in spite of Feng’s interest in cloth and perhaps because of it, Mr. Cai had made it a point to keep Feng from tailoring, so that his son could focus on his academic studies.
“What’ll we do if he fails the exams again?” he asked his wife. “I haven’t taught him one skill.”
Mrs. Cai moved a rack full of new clothes to the ironing table and collected the ham, seam roll and clapper for him to use. She was deft at managing the shop and household without breaking a sweat. Having spent almost every minute with his wife, Mr. Cai still found it thrilling to look into the gentle eyes in her round face.
“Feng is only twenty-two,” she said. “Many young people live with their parents until they’re allotted apartments to get married. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“That doesn’t make it right.” He hit a cotton coat with the clapper to flatten its surface. “What is a son good for if he’s cooped up with his parents? We ought to get rid of him.” He misted the coat with water, then pressed his iron over its breast pocket.
“If he moves out, you will miss him more than anyone.”
“A son ought to brave the world.” He slid the coat onto the ham to iron its sleeve. “I’d rather support him to study in the States than have him stay home to save money for me.”
Mr. Cai had pressured Feng to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language last year in order to expand his options. After applying for several universities in the U.S., Feng found that an American citizen was required to be his financial sponsor in order for him to obtain a student visa.
Mr. Cai had no idea where to look for an American citizen. Living in Yangzhou, a medium-sized city in Jiangsu province, they hardly saw any foreigners except for a few times in the Slender West Lake Park. In late summer, a tourist group was occasionally led by a young woman who carried a loudspeaker and waved a red flag. Mr. Cai never mustered his courage to approach those big-nosed strangers, who wore white berets and toffee sunglasses printed with their travel agency’s logo.
“It’s not his fault that he cannot study in the States.” Having sewn the frog closures, Mrs. Cai hung up the coat to sweep its back with a felt brush. “Isn’t it enough that he’s doing his best, and that he’s goodhearted and handsome?”
“Looks don’t buy him three meals a day.” He swiped some starch onto a pair of pants and ironed its leg immediately. “Face it: he isn’t a girl who can marry up with her looks.”
His wife waxed a needle in her hair before she sewed a button. Having been married to him for more than twenty years, she remained slim and with few gray hairs. Only two weeks ago, one of Feng’s classmates had asked if she was his sister. Mr. Cai was proud that Feng had inherited her fine skin and gentle eyes, yet she had almost no eyelashes.
“Although I’ve never been to a university, I do not consider myself a failure, because I have you.” He wished she would look up at him, for he meant what he said. “But Feng is flirting with a cook. Do you really want a country girl for a daughter-in-law?”
“You’ve never met her. How do you know she’s a country girl?”
“A city girl can tell Feng off in person and not resort to going to the school authorities. Besides, who wears a dudou nowadays? Any city girl can afford to buy a bra, which is more figure flattering.” He pointed at a red skirt hanging on the rack. “The city girl bares her legs when it’s below zero outside. Why? To show off.”
Mrs. Cai kneaded the woolen skirt with two fingers. “This is warm enough for April,” she said and returned to her sewing.
Next morning, Mr. Cai followed his wife to the sunny shop that faced the courtyard. She opened the pinewood plank windows to put her potted orchids on the windowsill.
Mr. Cai believed that sunshine and flowers bring good feng shui for business. He had allotted the entire south hall, half of their townhouse, for their home tailoring shop. During the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Cai had asked a famous calligrapher, then a known “counter-revolutionary intellectual,” to inscribe “Cai’s Formalwear and Wedding Wardrobe” beneath the eaves of the house. Mr. Cai paid the calligrapher with a bowl of pork and shepherd’s purse wontons, a treat back then for a starving artist beaten by Red Guards. More than a decade later, the calligrapher passed away as a “rehabilitated patriotic artist,” according to his eulogy. His works became so popular that they were auctioned overseas for astronomical prices. Mr. Cai vowed never to move his shop away from the house, partly because the calligrapher’s ink was etched above their front door.
From behind his worktable, Mr. Cai could see Mr. Ouyang’s tinted shop windows across the street. “Show off,” he muttered and spat in his hand.
Ouyang Rong, who specialized in youth wardrobe, had separated his shop from home and moved it across the street to double its size. Mr. Cai speculated that the cute outfits spilling onto the sidewalk were returned goods, clothes made a size too small for pubescent customers. Mr. Cai rather took pride in not having such “samples” for show.
Mr. Cai dipped his fingers into a bowl of talcum powder, then rubbed the powder over his palm and between his fingers. He disliked leaving sweat stains on anything he touched, from paper patterns to silk brocade. He opened a sleeve pattern that he had cut out yesterday. After trimming the edges of the paper pattern, he pinned it against two layers of blue velvet and placed them inside his scissor blades. Snip snip, his day officially began.
An hour later, his wife greeted their first customer of the day. “Good morning, Sir. We specialize in formalwear, wedding wardrobe—”
“I must see Mr. Tailor himself.”
Mr. Cai didn’t look up but frowned at the awkward title. Who would say this as if he were the only tailor in the neighborhood?
“I want to make a vest from this Matka silk,” the customer said.
The first customer should never be slighted because he might bring good luck. Mr. Cai put down his scissors.
“My husband will take care of you.”
She walked over to hand Mr. Cai the Matka silk. It was stone yellow, solid and heavy like burlap, with bold cloud prints.
“Would you make a vest for my shirt?” the man asked in lightly accented Mandarin. His jaw moved gingerly as he pronounced every word in a clear and even voice.
The young man was about Feng’s height. He had such translucent skin that it seemed to be washed-out from drinking too much milk. His blond hair parted in the middle and hung above his nearly white eyebrows. What really caught Mr. Cai’s eye was a pair of sapphire earrings. The azure stones twinkled and reflected the color of the man’s eyes.
A little short of breath, Mr. Cai stepped back. He had never seen a man wear earrings.
“A vest?” the customer repeated.
Mr. Cai pinned the silk to the man’s chest, and he straightened to his full height. Mr. Cai caught a whiff of powdery scent, not an unpleasant odor but distinct enough from a foreigner and stronger than Feng’s scent. He felt the bump of chest hair under the man’s shirt and removed his hand. “This will do.” He backed away to his worktable.
“Will it look okay?” the man asked.
In spite of his unease Mr. Cai chuckled. The man could’ve worn rags and looked smart with those chiseled features and blue eyes. “I am sure,” he said simply.
The man grabbed Mr. Cai’s hand so suddenly that he almost stumbled forward. “I went to Mr. Ouyang’s shop, and he told me to make a coat instead, but I didn’t listen.” The man shook Mr. Cai’s hand vigorously. “Thank you for doing me the service.”
Mr. Cai smiled and pulled the tape off his neck. The man raised his arms to let him wrap the tape around his chest. Ninety-nine centimeters for his chest, seventy-three for the waist, ninety-six for the hips, and thirty-eight for his neck. His admirable proportion and chest hair made him look more grown-up than Feng, though his face appeared quite young.
Mr. Cai cleared his throat. “May I have your name, Sir?”
“Mr. Jude.” Mr. Cai jotted down his measurements. “Where’re you from?”
Mr. Cai wrote “American” and drew a star beside it. “Do you happen to be a model?”
The man frowned as if he didn’t understand the word.
Mr. Cai stuffed the tape in his pocket and closed his notebook. “You have an ideal figure, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“I’m not tall.” The man clicked his heels. “I have short legs.”
“Your legs are proportional,” Mr. Cai corrected him. “Do you want a Chinese or western vest?”
“I want the hip-length vest, with the mandarin collar and frog closures, the traditional Chinese style.”
“Anything else, Mr. Jude?”
“You can call me Jude.” He pulled out a Parker fountain pen from his shirt pocket. “I’ll write down my Chinese name for you.” He wrote legibly and fluently with his left hand.
Mr. Cai read his running script. “You write very well, Mr. Red Moral. Do you know it’s also the name of a famous Chinese general?”
“My teacher picked it out as a transliteration for Jude.” He smiled and showed his straight teeth. “I like it.”
Mr. Cai couldn’t help but smile back at him. Jude was the only American with whom Mr. Cai had ever talked. Was he a distinguished person as both his looks and name suggested? Amazingly, Jude had good manners and spoke near-perfect Chinese. If Mr. Cai did not seize this opportunity for Feng’s sake, he would consider himself a negligent father.
“You may come and try on your vest in a couple of days,” Mr. Cai said. “It’s my pleasure to serve you.”
Mr. Cai waited for Jude to turn onto the main road, then capered into the sewing room. “Guess what order I just took?” he said to his wife, who was basting a border onto a dress front.
“Is that why you’re hopping like a gorilla?” She finished sewing and bit off the end of a thread.
“I told you not to ruin your teeth.” He handed her a pair of scissors.
She put the scissors in a drawer. “Was it a good deal?”
He opened the Matka silk to drape it from his arm. “Isn’t this grand? Feel it.”
She stroked the silk and grinned. “He has the yellow hair to match it, you know.”
He showed her Jude’s handwriting. “This Red Moral may be of some help to Feng. He speaks Chinese. Why don’t I ask him to be Feng’s financial sponsor in the States?”
“Don’t make a fool of yourself.” She covered her mouth with her hand.
“He can say no. What do I have to lose: my face or Feng’s future?” Mr. Cai dropped the silk in a basin that they used to shrink new fabrics. “He was turned away by Mr. Ouyang before he walked into our shop. What a stroke of luck for us.”
Yang Huang grew up in China’s Jiangsu province and participated in the 1989 student uprisings. Her linked story collection, My Old Faithful (2018), won the Juniper Prize for fiction, and her debut novel, Living Treasures (2014), won the Nautilus Book Award silver medal in fiction. Her essays, stories, and screenplay have appeared in Poets & Writers, Literary Hub, The Millions, The Margins, Asian Pacific American Journal, and Stories for Film. Huang lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and works for the University of California, Berkeley.
Author photo by Nancy Rubin