Chinese American Dreams

A Free Life, by Ha Jin (Pantheon, 2007)

If America is a nation of immigrants, then why do we hate them so much? In recent years, immigrant-bashing has rivalled baseball as the national pastime, with media figures like Lou Dobbs blaming them for everything from gang warfare to leprosy. Yet for novelists, the immigrant experience provides a rich vein of material.

This is abundantly clear in Ha Jin’s new novel, A Free Life. Ha Jin left his native China in 1985 and launched his literary career in English, following the tradition of another talented expatriate, Vladimir Nabokov. He achieved commercial and critical success with Waiting, the bittersweet tale of a long engagement in China following the Cultural Revolution. Not content to rest on his laurels, he followed up with War Trash, a searing novel of prison camps during the Korean War. Now, Ha Jin turns his prodigious talents to the lives of Chinese immigrants in the U.S.

The Wu family–Nan, his wife Pingping, and their young son Taotao–arrive in New York after the massacre of Tiananmen Square in 1989. Nan is a scholar who yearns to write poetry, but must take a series of menial jobs to support his family. Over the next decade, we follow their ascent up the economic ladder. Nan works as a waiter while his wife keeps house for a wealthy widow, and Taotao learns English well enough to be ashamed of his parents’ accents. Their break comes when a restaurant in an Atlanta suburb goes up for sale. The Wus plow their hard-won savings into a down payment, and become the proprietors of the Gold Wok. They prosper enough to buy their own home, and here one might expect a Horatio Alger-style ending. But Nan has grown weary of the day-to-day grind, and is puzzled by his own unhappiness: “If his family hadn’t come to America, he couldn’t imagine owning these things, not in his wildest expectations. He was baffled, wondering what was wrong with him. Why couldn’t he enjoy the fruits of his hard labor? He should feel successful. But somehow the success din’t mean as much to him as it should.” The long hours take their toll on Pingping as well and she falls ill. As the novel concludes, they are forced to sell the restaurant.Confronting failure in business, Nan realizes his true vocation is poetry. Despite mounting medical bills, his wife dreams of starting another business. It is this hope in the face of an uncertain future, the novel implies, that immigrants bring to America.

Ha Jin’s technique is deceptively simple. In transparent, unadorned prose he describes the Wus’ gradual, often reluctant adjustment to life in America. His protagonists are complex, contradictory individuals, not always admirable but sympathetic nonetheless. While Pingping is reconciled to her stale, loveless marriage, Nan remains obsessed with an old girlfriend. If they will always remain outsiders, their son assimilates easily, surfing the internet and watching baseball games. If the writing seems mired in the mundane, it is also fresh and engaging, uniquely suited to his characters’ lives.

While Ha Jin’s previous books dealt with China, the American setting of A Free Life marks new ground. Needless to say, there are some bumps on the road. Some of the minor characters are two-dimensional, little more than signposts in the Wus’ journey. Conversations in Chinese are shown in italics, while those in English are phoneticized to reflect accents. At times, this can be cloying, as when Nan discusses the menu at his restaurant: “We cannot offer sautéed chives to our cahstomers, who won’t like zat.” When they move into their new house, the Wus can’t figure out the significance of the red flag on the mailbox, and raise it every morning to greet the postman. Like his characters, the author often seems bewildered by the kaleidoscopic America of the 90s.

He is on surer footing when describing the divisions within the Chinese immigrant community. For example, the Wus view American–born Chinese as haughty, dismissing them as “ABCs.” The events at Tiananmen Square have been conveniently whitewashed by China’s economic boom, but Ha Jin recounts the horrific violence that occurred. Many of the students who fled were given political asylum in the U.S. Nan encounters these dissidents but comes to regard them as self-serving. He is equally skeptical about the Tibetan independence movement until he meets the Dali Lama and is impressed with his humility.

Politics aside, the Wus keenly feel their forced separation from China. This strain of melancholy comes through in Nan’s poems, which appear at the end of the book. Nan has realized that he must write in English if he is ever to be published. Yet even this comes at a cost:

To write in this language is to be alone,

To live on the margin where

Loneliness ripens into solitude.

Perhaps like Ha Jin himself, he will find inspiration in exile.