“How he regretted having tried so hard to come here! He’d been misled by the people who bragged about the opportunity found in America and wouldn’t reveal the hardship they’d gone through here. They all wanted to appear rich and successful in their hometowns’ eyes,” an exploited young monk who’s been teaching kung fu without pay for two years laments in the title story of A Good Fall, Ha Jin’s first book of short stories since 2000.
It’s a sentiment echoed by many characters in these 12 engrossing, visceral tales about the difficulties faced by Chinese immigrants in America.
Like his last novel, “A Free Life” (2007), Jin’s new stories explore some of the ways in which navigating freedom and a new culture exact a toll. Interestingly, his characters, who live and work among other immigrants in Flushing, (Queens,) New York, rarely interact directly with Americans. Instead, their hardships stem from abusive fellow Chinese employers, demanding relatives in both China and the States, and the rub between American and Chinese attitudes towards family duty.
For Jin’s characters – and, indeed, most immigrants – the great gateway to improved circumstances in America is learning English. It’s an especially challenging hurdle for older immigrants, but also for those scrabbling to earn enough to pay off lenders or send face-saving money back home to family members lusting after status symbols.
It’s also a hurdle that Ha Jin knows personally, having made the difficult decision to write in his adoptive English – following in the tradition of Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov – after coming to the United States for graduate studies at Brandeis University in 1985 and deciding to stay after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. He began publishing poetry and fiction shortly after earning his doctorate, winning praise and prizes for his stunning novel, “Waiting,” and for story collections that include “The Bridegroom” and “Ocean of Words.”
At the heart of each of these new stories is a dilemma, often involving the stifling weight of an immigrant’s fiscal responsibility to parents and family. In “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry,” first published in The New Yorker and also selected for the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories of 2009, a young man working as a presser in a garment factory must figure out how to free the woman he loves from the crushing debt that has forced her into prostitution. As with several other stories, distressing examples of exploitation are somewhat mitigated by touching displays of selflessness and personal risk.
Jin’s prose (and particularly his dialogue) is baldly direct, without flourishes but not without nuance. Six of the stories are narrated in the first person, the others from a tight third-person perspective – yet all come across with the straightforward declarative immediacy of a videotaped interview or testimonial.
“To be honest, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to learn enough English to live a different life, but I must try,” declares the home health aide in “A Pension Plan” who, with a sudden “jolt of spirit,” quits her demeaning job, knowing that with English, she’ll at least be eligible for work that offers benefits.
A man who’s come to America with his wife to live with their only son is dismayed to find disrespectful, alien grandchildren. “Now I wished we hadn’t moved,” he says. “At our ages – my wife is 63 and I’m 67 – and at this time it’s hard to adjust to life here. In America it feels as if the older you are, the more inferior you grow.”
Several stories involve a stock figure from Chinese culture, the shrewish, impossible-to-please mother-in-law. “In the Crossfire” features an accountant named Tian Chu who goes to ridiculous lengths to get rid of his visiting mother without insulting her, as she is ruining his marriage with a constant stream of shrill criticism directed at his wife. Even when his mother agrees to return to China, it’s at a stiffly negotiated price, enough to keep her neighbors from mocking her.
For many characters in this illuminating, well-integrated collection, the road to real freedom sadly involves completely severing ties with their old lives and, especially, their families back in China – often by changing their names and making themselves untraceable. As a friend advises the distraught monk in “A Good Fall,” who prefers death to the shame of returning to China penniless, “You can always change. This is America, where it’s never too late to turn over a new page.”
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.