The high cost of living 'A Free Life'
Novelist Ha Jin achieves a realistic portrait of a Chinese immigrant's search for purpose in the land of plenty
If literary awards are any measure of prowess, than native Chinese speaker Ha Jin has most certainly mastered the English language. As a writer of poems, short stories, and fiction, he has been showered with major prizes, most notably the 1996 PEN/Hemingway for "Ocean of Words," the 1999 National Book Award and the 2000 PEN/Faulkner for "Waiting," and the PEN/Faulkner again in 2005 for "War Trash."
In his latest novel, A Free Life, Jin makes his official literary transition from China to Chinese America (this is the first of his works set in the United States) with the same seemingly effortless grace with which he has produced his previous titles.
In basic terms, the plot of "A Free Life" is the familiar story of the gradual assimilation of an immigrant family into US life. Nan Wu arrives solo in Boston as a PhD candidate in political science in 1985. His wife, Pingping, joins him a year and a half later. They are reunited with their young son, Taotao in 1990, after having watched the Tiananmen Square massacre from afar and deciding that life in the US is the safer option for their small family.
Nan grows disillusioned with graduate school, quits his program, and eventually moves the family to an Atlanta suburb, where they buy a small Chinese restaurant. Their financial stability grows, but as it does, Nan becomes more unsettled and agitated and longs to live his life as a poet.
While heartfelt and earnest, Nan's story is not necessarily why you read "A Free Life." What keeps the reader transfixed to the almost 700-page odyssey (indeed, I read it through on a single Sunday) is Jin's ability to capture the illuminating minutiae of Nan's searching, changing life. Shaped by so many details, Nan springs forth from the pages fully formed.
Nan's agony over culling his 40 boxes of some 3,000 books down to a measly seven boxes in order to minimize moving costs is visceral. He had carefully collected them with the intention of starting his own library upon his return to China – a return that now will never take place. In contrast, when most of the valuable contents of their uninsured 35-piece UPS delivery arrive damaged and broken, Nan is only upset that missing box #21 may have contained some of his poetry books, although he can't name any of the titles.
When his family experiences a tragedy, he can do nothing more than fulfill his wife's request that he stop at a Korean supermarket – just as she's being released from the hospital – for the garlic stems she promised their son for dinner. Nan's feelings of inadequacy are underscored by a pigeon's fresh droppings, even as he finds himself too helpless to take his wife's arm to support her in her debilitated state.
When he flies to Beijing after winning a grocery-store raffle, Nan recalls his first flight to the States, during which confused new travelers like himself carefully wiped and saved their plastic tableware from their meals, unable to imagine that such valuable utensils could possibly be disposable. "They had no idea what kind of plentitude and waste they were going to encounter in this new land."
"A Free Life" is Jin's first book to be set in his adopted land, and marks a clear delineation in his career. Jin's opening dedication, "To Lisha and Wen, who lived this book," suggests similarities to Jin's own immigration story.
Like Nan, Jin arrived on US shores as a graduate student who intended to return home, but abandoned those plans after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Unlike Nan, Jin finished his degree and continued on to pursue a teaching career – he's now an English professor at Boston University.
Jin's decision almost two decades ago to write fiction only in English set him on a deliberate journey away from China. Choosing English as his literary language marked a process of distancing himself, and yet Jin remained attached to the China of his memories by recreating his birth country in his some of his earlier books.
With "War Trash," Jin took a step away from China into Korea, with a brief prologue set in Atlanta. Now with "A Free Life," Jin sets firm roots on American soil.
As Nan finally comes to realize, "a free life" has a high price. Chasing the so-called American dream – with all its trappings of accumulation and wealth – is anything but free. True freedom is the freedom to fail ... or not. Jin has taken risks throughout his career, but here he proves yet again that failure is not a part of his vocabulary.
• Terry Hong is media arts consultant at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American.