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issue 61:December 2007

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A Free Life by Ha Jin:  Pantheon,  Oct. 2007 

I am approaching Ha Jin backwards, which is to say I have not yet read his previous work, including the award-winning novel Waiting. A Free Life differs from his other work in that it is set in the US rather than China and focuses on the ordeals of a first-generation Chinese-American family, a now firmly established theme in American fiction.

Here we meet Nan Wu and his wife Pingping who have just brought their 6-year-old son Taotao over from China to begin a new life in the United States.  (Nan Wu had come first, later his wife, and last of all their son.)  Any thoughts of ever returning are pretty much quashed as they witness the Tinananmen Square massacre from the US and wish to completely sever ties with China.  But they are new in America, the language is hard, and so is earning a living.  At first Nan had enrolled in a Ph.D. program—which is what permitted him entry into the country—but he quickly became disillusioned with academia.  In his heart, Nan is a poet. 

Now severed from university, the family lives in Boston in the guest house of a wealthy widow and her two young children where Pingping works cleaning and taking care of the little ones while Nan works a series of menial jobs, mostly away from his family in New York.  One job is as editor of a literary review, New Lines, where he gets to know its founder/editor, Bao Yuan, and meet some established poets.  Another job is being the helper to a cook at Ding’s Dumplings where he learns about Chinese cooking—the job which will set the direction of his life.

As the Wus begin looking for other employment, it comes to their attention that a Chinese restaurant, The Gold Wok, is for sale in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, and they can maybe just afford it.  Nan investigates, cuts a deal with the Chinese owner who is retiring, and the Wus move to Atlanta.  They take the cheapest apartment they can find in the newspaper, which proves to be a huge mistake.  In no time, the place is broken into and their laptop (which didn’t work anyway) is stolen.  The search begins for better and safer lodgings and they find a home on a lake closer to their restaurant. Now they are saddled with a mortgage which makes them nervous, so they both work unbelievably long shifts in the restaurant seven days a week to keep up with the payments and get it paid off asap.  Nan isn’t happy, but not totally unhappy, cooking all day in the restaurant.   Taotao is a precocious child and learns English fast.  Pingping is a great mother and helps teach math to her son.  (She had been assigned to be a math teacher at a state school back in China.)

Pingping seems to have no faults.  She is a good mother, a remarkably hard worker, very thrifty (never buying new clothes for herself), and very tolerant of her moody husband.   Nan, for his part, feels he does not love his wife, even though she is wonderful, and coincidentally, beautiful.   Pingping is aware of Nan’s lack of passion (they sleep in separate bedrooms), but she still loves him and wants the family to stay together for their son’s sake.  It is hard to believe how Nan could not love his wife, but it seems he is fixated on a young woman he once loved in China who jilted him (of which Pingping is well aware), and Nan can not get her out of his mind. If only he had her in his life, he reasons, then she would provide the great passion he needs to be a poet.  That is what is lacking, he’s sure.  Plus he needs more freedom from the damn restaurant.

The family is fairly isolated in their new surroundings except for Janet and Dave, a young couple who come into the restaurant frequently and will eventually adopt a Chinese baby.  The main purpose of this couple seems to be a set-up to have Janet constantly asking Pingping questions about her native country; hence, the reader learns more about modern-day China, and, for me certainly, this proved one of the more interesting parts of the novel along with Nan’s trip back to China, which he won.  His parents are getting old and he wants to take advantage of this free trip though he hardly feels any nostalgia for China or his parents.   Once again, his comments, brief as they are, concerning the poverty in China, the strict communist regime and everyday life, jumped off the page, leaving me wanting more.

Back in the States:  One of the poets that Nan got to know from his stint with the literary review in New York gets a teaching job at Emory College in Atlanta and they become friends.  It is always hard for Nan to get away from the restaurant, but he manages now and then, in order to attend talks at Emory.  Here Nan meets a big-name poet and is stunned to find him so arrogant and focused on the commercialism of his art (something he will later discover in his old friend Bao Yaun who uses Nan to climb the ladder).  At Emory Nan also meets the Dalai Lama, who is accused by some of the crowd as promoting Tibetan independence.  Politics enters in yet another talk about a recently published book, China Can Say No, which vehemently condemned the US as China’s archenemy. A heated discussion follows, revealing the mixed views of the Chinese-American community. 

Time moves on, the Wus becomes US citizens and pay off their mortgage, but at the cost of spending the bulk of their lives in the restaurant where one can smell the flavors in the food, feel the heat, experience the chop, chop, chopping of the vegetables and the tedium of the non-stop arduous labor.  The reader almost feels as trapped in the kitchen as the Wus.  Pingping copes much better than her less centered husband.  But as is explicitly stated:  women have an easier time adapting.  Of the Chinese men transplanted to the US, Bao Yuan once said:   “Not many men of our generation are good fathers and considerate husbands.  Some of us don’t even know  how to fend for ourselves.  We’re often possessed with ideals and ambitions, too high-minded, but in all candor many of us are just ignoramuses.”   The title of the novel refers not only to life in the US, but Nan’s own personal quest and liberation, which in his case has nothing to do with ambition and everything to do with a quiet sort of hard-sought peace of mind and loyalty to his art.  

I have to confess that in reading about the Chinese-American experience, I have a preference for Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Gish Jin.  They all, particularly Amy Tan, add more humor.  Not much in Ha Jin.  One has the idea—especially concerning the writing, the talks attended at Emory, and the curtain pulled back on the commercialism of the arts—that Ha Jin is using much autobiographical material.  Which is OK.   But it is a long novel and I never ceased wanting more about the author’s native country.  Still, one can’t help getting pulled into the lives of the struggling family, and Nan is a complex character who encapsulates the immigrant experience while never falling into stereotype.  And when it comes to the daily grind of life and ongoing bureaucratic hassles, we can all relate, and this did bring a few chuckles.  Jin’s prose is clear, straightforward and effective, showing a writer beautifully in control of his craft.  All the more amazing as it is not his native language.  I immediately went out and bought Waiting, where I look forward to getting my full dose of China.  J.A.

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Run by Ann Patchett:  HarperCollins, 2007

Ann Patchett (The Magician’s Assistant; Bel Canto) is another author whose latest offering  serves as my introduction to award-winning previous work.  Here we are introduced to a liberal Irish-American Boston family brought face to face with a past that binds them.

Boston’s ex-mayor, Bernard Doyle, was married to a red-headed Irish beauty, Bernadette, who was, by all counts, a near-perfect wife and mother.  They had one son, Sullivan, but unfortunately could have no more children.  They adopt a baby black boy, Teddy, and not long afterwards the unknown mother of the baby asks that they take Teddy’s 14-month-old brother Tip as well, which they’re delighted to do.  But cancer soon takes Bernadette, leaving Doyle to raise the boys.  The novel focuses on years later, when Tip is 20, a graduate student in ichthyology at Harvard, and Teddy is leaning towards following his old Uncle Sullivan into the priesthood.  These two boys are known as Smart (Tip) and Sweet (Teddy) to teachers and those who know them.  Sullivan is the black sheep (pardon the pun if that’s what it is), who has been involved in scandals and is a ne’er-do-well.  He’s long disappeared from the family.

Doyle has always dragged his sons to political rallies, wishing they would both take an interest in politics, but they do not.  Reluctantly, one night Tip and Teddy tag along to hear Jesse Jackson speak, a speech that the omniscient narrator, who works through the point of view of the various characters, is critical of for its lulling narcotic effect and because it has been repeated so many times.

After the lecture, it is discovered that a snow storm has begun and as Doyle and his two sons are walking home, Tip announces that he’s never going to like what his father likes—politics—and that it’s clear his father is never going to like what he likes—fish.  Tip announces he’s never going to another political speech.  Shortly thereafter he steps in front of a huge SUV, which roles over his ankle, but he would surely have been killed if a black woman had not rushed over and heroically pushed him out of the way, taking the hit herself and leaving her life hanging in the balance. An ambulance soon whisks her to hospital, but the woman, whose name is Tennessee, was not alone.  She was with her 11-year-old daughter, Kenya, who, being denied entrance into the ambulance, has the foresight to go looking for her mother’s purse, boots, hat, etc.  Once at the hospital it appears that Tennessee has a broken hip and has other injuries, but will live.  She is to have surgery the next morning.  Meanwhile, Kenya has nowhere to go.   Teddy wants to take her home with them, but Doyle says that would be “kidnapping.”  Still, who cares about a little black girl?  No one at the hospital presumably, so she goes home with Doyle, Tip (whose foot is now in a boot) and Teddy.

Once Kenya is in the nice home of the Doyle’s, certain disclosers begin to take place.  She seems to know Tip and Teddy’s exact age.  She seems to know a lot about them.  In fact she and her mother have been following them around for years.  Because he was a popular mayor and mom was a political groupie?  Well, maybe, but   . . .  doesn’t Kenya look a lot like Tip and Teddy?  Yes!  Without anyone saying anything exactly at first, it appears that Tennessee is the boys’ biological mother and Kenya is their sister.  (One sees all this coming near the beginning of the novel, so I don’t feel I’m giving much away, and a wee twist further on shows not all is exactly as it appears.)

If you can swallow this extraordinary coincidence of unknown mother saving son at that exact moment and place, then perhaps you can swallow the coincidences to follow; to wit:  after years of absence, Sullivan, the older errant son, now 33, was at the Doyle home when the whole crew returned from the hospital.  He had been in Africa doing aid work, but had to leave quickly (for reasons he will later confess to Tennessee of all people).  The point is, we now have the whole family under one roof.  Kenya sleeps in Tip’s bed on the fourth floor of the beautiful home, gets to play the piano the next day, and though she worries terribly about her mother, she also has to admit to herself that she loves being with the Doyles at this house.  How many times did she and her mother want the Doyles to look at them while passing on the street, but they never did.  Now they are the center of attention.  But we warm to Kenya  and her mother as they are both perfect in every way—except maybe for Tennessee's having “stalked” her sons for so long.

Tennessee and Kenya turn out to live very near the Doyles.  But of course the Doyles live on the good side of the tracks, and Tennessee and Kenya live in council housing on the other side.  And it took Tennessee a long time to get there, having had to wait for her name to come up on a long waiting list. The Doyle kids all went to a great school, but Kenya’s school is low-budget and not so great, and even though she is a very intelligent girl—and a runner with potential for the Olympics—any scholarship to a better school is prohibitive as it would not cover the whole cost.  And the Doyle kids got to play the piano, but Kenya, if she plays at all, is permitted to only occasionally by a music teacher at her school.  Oh yes, the Doyles naturally have health insurance. Tennessee does not.

The whole drama plays out in about 24 hours as all past histories are revealed and the “healing” can begin.  It is indeed a novel about healing and love, and people, who if they aren’t already perfect, are on the way to becoming perfect, thanks mainly to our little angel Kenya (there is a rather obtrusive image of the Virgin Mary/Bernadette that underscores this almost unbelievable goodness in the child in case the reader is too dull to see it themselves.)  It’s all very neat, very pat, very PC. But even if this type of novel appeals, there are lapses of credibility that rankle.  For example:  Tip, who is supposed to be so damn smart, is amazed that Kenya didn’t know who Thoreau was, amazed that she’d never been to Walden Pond, so near.  He asks himself:  “How was it possible that any child could go to school in Boston and not get dragged out to Concord for something?”  That’s just stupid.  Of course there are discrepancies in the schools!  He is black, but grew up in a good neighborhood; Kenya is black in a poor neighborhood.  A point that is banged home time and again.

The prose is solid though often plebeian and the characters are memorable despite their lack of complexity.   Many readers seem to be moved by all the confessions and good heartedness.  But in the end, I found its foundation false to the core, and its coincidences more laughable than touching.   J.A.

© 2007 The Barcelona Review
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A Free Life by Ha Jin
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