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The ABCs of Transpacific Migration

A UCSB Professor's Life Story Transcends to the Bookshelves

Yunte Huang

Alabama begins with an A.

When Yunte Huang first looked up American undergraduate schools, the first page he turned to would have been Alabama. There, he would discover the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, the home of the Crimson Tide. So the young man from China packed up his things. While his fellow English language classmates at Beijing University began their research into becoming foreign ministry interpreters, Huang ventured off to the Deep South, with hopes of becoming the Chinese-American version of William Faulkner.

Living as a Chinese man in Alabama is about as uncomfortable as it sounds. So Huang did what any habituating foreigner would do: He got a job as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant. As eventually happens to most starving students, Huang began to feel ostensibly affronted by “the man,” so he teamed up with the chef, and together they opened their own Chinese restaurant. Huang called it Swen, an anagram for “news,” which in Chinese means four directions – it was Huang’s subtle way of implying that his restaurant would franchise out in four literal directions. Soon enough, Huang discovered that owning and operating a restaurant was a bigger task than being a Chinese student studying American literature in Alabama. So he sold the restaurant and put all his efforts back into the realm of academia. It just so happened that this coincided with his graduation from U of A at Tuscaloosa.

Buffalo begins with a B.

The State University of New York at Buffalo was the next place Huang’s studies led him, namely for graduate school. It wasn’t too overwhelming, said Huang, explaining, “After the restaurant business, graduate school is a piece of cake.”

Walking down the streets in downtown Buffalo, Huang noticed the sweet smell of air, and suddenly realized that he didn’t need to be anywhere. In the process of not needing to be anywhere, Huang began to come into himself. Working several jobs to fund his own education, and working as a TA for the English department, it became clear that his degree would make his role in the literary world more proactive than just putting pen to paper.

Cambridge begins with a C.

Shortly after finishing up his graduate work at SUNY Buffalo, Huang received word that Harvard was hiring Professors in the English Department. Off he went again, in search of another set of life experiences. After attaining the prestigious position of Harvard educator, Huang finally found the time to settle down and have a family. His oldest, Isabel, was named after Isabel Archer, the female protagonist of Henry JamesPortrait of a Lady, and Huang’s favorite literary character. Huang spent the next several years lecturing and writing in New England, living a subsequent author’s dream. Although Cambridge life suited him well, family issues and a change of environment ultimately led him to where he is today.

Huang is now a professor at UC-Santa Barbara and teaches courses ranging from Asian-American and contemporary literature to a poetry lab. He has published several books, including Cribs, a book of doggerel poetry.

Now Huang is on the verge of what he put into motion all those years ago: his latest novel, Yellow Alabama, is a memoir that traces his path all the way across the country. “It’s a strange time for me. My publishers at Norton have me feeling like I’ll be the next Hemingway,” he joked. “We’ll see how it goes.”

As for teaching, Huang explained, “That’s the easy part – it’s like being a stand-up comedian.” If all goes according to plan, his book will be released next fall.

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