The most coveted feature of Yao's new home was its vast open-design kitchen, which stood like a chrome-covered altar a few steps up from the living and dining rooms. Da Fang, however, had no use for it. To cook her Shanghainese specialties, she converted the small laundry room on the side of the house into an enclosed Chinese-style kitchen--the better to keep in the billowing smoke created by furious stir-frying.
Adjusting to life in the U.S. would be far more difficult for Da Fang and Da Yao than it would be for Yao Ming. Neither parent spoke English or had any interest in loping across the lawn to join their Texas neighbors in a backyard barbecue party. In Shanghai, Da Fang and Da Yao lived in the pulsating heart of the city, never more than a short bicycle ride away from their favorite markets, shops and friends. In Texas they were stuck in an isolated community far outside the Houston city limits--with no means of escape.
Though Yao's new house boasted an enormous two-car garage, the family of three didn't have a driver's license among them. Colin Pine, the obliging translator they invited to live in the guest room across the hall from Yao, ferried the family around in his rental car. But when Pine and Yao headed off to practice or on road trips, the parents were stranded in their perfectly manicured American island. Many months later all three family members would learn how to drive, and Yao would buy two luxury cars. His parents would never feel completely comfortable behind the wheel--Da Yao would get a ticket for driving too slowly on the highway--but at least they would have more freedom than they had in those early days in Houston.
On the night of Yao's highly anticipated home debut, a preseason game against the Philadelphia 76ers, his parents were nowhere to be found in the stands. Instead, they were at Windsor Park Lakes, waiting for the cable company to come install their TV service. When somebody suggested they reschedule the cable guy so they could see their son's game, Da Fang demurred, "No, the serviceman told us to wait for him." It was a perfectly Chinese response, rooted in a culture of pliancy and long suffering.
Still, Da Fang kept close watch over her son. After one of Yao's early practices, she arrived at the Rockets' facility with his lunch--a few bags of McDonald's hamburgers and french fries. As Yao gobbled down the food, his teammate Cuttino Mobley emerged from the locker room in a tailored lavender suit. "That s---'s gonna kill ya," he said to Yao, before turning to Da Fang. "Hi, Mrs. Yao." Flashing a seductive smile, Mobley leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. Da Fang recoiled.
Yao appreciated his mother's devotion, but sometimes even a giant can feel suffocated. Back in China, Yao had sometimes avoided going home on his day off simply to escape Da Fang's nagging. "My mother is like a mosquito constantly buzzing around my ears," he once complained to a friend.
Now the buzzing became louder. Yao may have been an adult with an $18 million contract, but he lived under his mother's thumb; early on he even had to ask her for an allowance. After one preseason practice he brought home one of his only Chinese friends in America, Yang Yi, a Shanghainese journalist on assignment in Houston. Da Fang threw a fit when she saw Yang walk through the door. "How did you get here?" she demanded.
Yao tried to calm his mother down. But later, when the journalist mentioned the name of Yao's gated community in an article, Da Fang forbade Yao to speak to him again. That evening, during a pregame warmup, Yao went up to Yang and told him gravely, "You're finished. Listen, it's my mother's fault. She's way too sensitive. But meiyou banfa--nothing can be done." Yang later patched things up with Da Fang, but at the time he felt so discomfited that he left Houston two weeks earlier than planned.
In public Yao never failed to sing his mother's praises: Her chicken soup was his favorite food in the world. Her knowledge of basketball was so great that she should be made a Rockets assistant. Her judgment was so sound that he left all major decisions up to her. In private, however, Yao told a friend that he had finally mustered the courage to give her a warning. "You just put up walls around me," Yao told her, "but one day you may notice that you put yourself outside the wall. What will you say then?"
Over the last few years the walls around Yao have gradually come down, giving him more room to breathe. Now 25, he still lives most of the NBA season with his parents in Windsor Park Lakes, where, despite his suggestion that his mother hire a housekeeper, she insists on doing the laundry and cooking all the meals. But Yao has also rented an apartment in downtown Houston for game days and nights, enabling him to avoid the nightmarish Texas traffic--and his mother's cloying affection.