A Free Life: Ha Jin’s Immigration Story

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Ha Jin here (25 minutes, 11 MB MP3)

What if the meticulous realism of Ha Jin‘s first “American” novel, A Free Life, could be slipped into the fearful immigration debate we’re not quite having in the US?

Ha Jin: the long arc to America

I can imagine two reactions.

First, the generous sigh of sympathy — “give them a break!” — on being reminded just how humbling it is to hit the American beach running, to grasp our idioms (“in the doghouse,” “shooting the breeze,” “getting laid,” and “getting laid off”) — how just plain hard it is to confront the routine suspicions and exclusion, to cover the rent, to keep a family clothed, to see a way forward.

Second, there’s the more complicated, maybe off-putting realization under Ha Jin’s endless documentation that getting started here is not exactly an American experience. For a Chinese immigrant it’s a Chinese experience. Ha Jin reminds me of my daughter Sarah’s discovery: “When you’re pregnant, everybody’s pregnant.” Everybody in Ha Jin’s American saga is Chinese, and the divisions (between Taiwan and the mainland), the strongest feelings (“I spit at China…”), the intimate language, the brave hearts and weaklings, are all Chinese.

In the Americanization process that Ha Jin writes about there is no baseball, no Abraham Lincoln or FDR, no Paul Bunyan or American camp-fire songs, no Grand Canyon, no interest in our local or national politics… and no outward sentiment about a golden path toward the citizenship moment and pledge of allegiance. John Updike’s New Yorker review of Ha Jin notes that his characters “strive less to let America in than to squeeze China out — ‘squeeze every bit of it out of themselves.'” Is this part of what upsets us about immigration — that these strangers are so wrapped up in old languages, and their own damned dramas?

To me the slow-release beauty of A Free Life is its very long arc of acculturation and assimilation, over about 15 years. Between 1985 and 2000, the protagonist Nan Wu, with his wife and son, follow Ha Jin‘s own path from Boston to Georgia and back. Nan is first a graduate student in political science at Brandeis, then a translator and cook in Manhattan, then a successful-enough strip-mall restaurateur in suburban Atlanta, reading Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and W. H. Auden in his private hours. But by the time he is forty his poetic muse is in control; he is determined to be an artist and to run the risks of an expressive life. He is sounding like no one so much as the arch-American, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in “Self-Reliance.”

“He didn’t want to die a successful businessman,” Nan realizes, summoning up his real credo: “Do something moneyed people cannot do… Why hadn’t he devoted himself to writing poetry?”

In Nan’s Chinese circle, he has taken a lonely and provocative position.

“You never cease to amaze me.” Mei Hong stood up. “A madman is what you are. Let me tell you, you’re also a banana [yellow on the outside, white on the inside]!” She jabbed her finger at Nan. “You always despise China and our language. That’s why you’ve been writing in English and dreaming of becoming another Conrad or Nabokov. Let me tell you, you’re just making a buffoon of yourself! Get real — stop fancying yourself a great poet.”

Flustered, Nan felt his chest constricting. But he scrambled to answer, “To write in English is my personal choice. Unlike you, I prefer to be a real individual.”

“Yeah, to be a lone wolf,” scoffed Mei Hong.

“Exactly!” …

He preferred to stand alone.

Ha Jin, A Free Life, Pantheon, 2007. Pages 496-7.

Tom Tancredo, or Lou Dobbs for that matter: say hello to Ha Jin. Can Ha Jin point us to the core of this campaign frenzy about immigration, and immigrants?

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  • Zeke

    I’m looking forward to this. I found Waiting a very human and touching story. And I have War Trash cued up and ready to go. I’ve been doubting whether I could tackle the length and reportedly slow pace of Jin’s latest, but I suspect your interview will help me decide to. The comments above are fascinating. I hope the interview will explore the dimensions of: “…getting started here is not exactly an American experience. For a Chinese immigrant it’s a Chinese experience.”

  • hurley

    Looking forward to the show. A question I wish were a feature: Can you recommend anything we might be unaware of? A book, a piece of music, a movie…And what does Ha Jin make of contemporary Chinese literature? Any recommendations? The last Chinese novel I read was The Republic of Wine, by Mo Yan. Ingenious and funny. Anyone else, anybody…?

  • Zeke

    Cambridge based Gish Jen wrote two novels about an immigrant family that I enjoyed. The first Typical American plays with the ironies of its title in tracing the progress of the Chang family as they build a successful dry cleaning business. By the second novel, Mona in the Promised Land the irony is multiplied as daughter Mona, raised in Scarsdale, decides that she will become Jewish!

    I don’t think Gish Jen is aiming for any deep profundity. Though satirical, she seems to care for the characters and the dilemmas of assimilation. She makes the reader care too.

  • nother

    Thanks for the interview, Chris.

    Even the most stalwart patriotic American will be quick to talk up their heritage at a dinner party. Even Bill O’Reilly brags about his Irish roots at every turn.

    Yes, a Chinese immigrant knows only a Chinese experience and the same goes for a Brazilian immigrant; their culture is ingrained – and that’s beautiful, and vital.

    American culture is bland. But maybe it needs to be. It functions well as a mediator in our hodgepodge of tastes. It provides the grease, the fast food (and we all need to eat food fast sometimes) until we have time to eat the delectable cuisine of our choosing.

    America is an idea. The American experience is about joining hands – strange hands – with that idea in mind.

    To mine the ultimate American metaphor, baseball: On the World Champion Boston Red Sox, Dice K was a vital player. He is a Japanese immigrant (lacking even the English language) who joined hands (and exchanged bows) with Dominican Immigrants and Southern transplants, and they thrived.

    Watching scenes from the locker room celebration after they accomplished their common goal, one never saw such merriment. There was no limiting dialogue to be had, only laughing, and hugging, and crying, and wide limitless smiles – smiles born from an American experience.

  • Isn’t the quintessential question of what it is to be American, Chinese, Japanese or a member of any tribe a question born of movement and migration? It first peeps and then soars in a contact with the other rich in anticipation, trepidation, blood letting and blood mixing.

    We are, do and know only through mixing and mingling, even if after Nan we seek to make our mark, to be more independent and individual. But to talk of assimilation and acculturation implies a a one-way process that ignores what happens to the host, but isn’t this what’s really feared?

    Chris asks: “Is this part of what upsets us about immigration — that these strangers are so wrapped up in old languages, and their own damned dramas?” Maybe. But what also upsets people in so many immigrant receiver nations today, what stirs and boil the xenophobia pot, is that their cultural landscape and their sense of self is shifting and they no longer know the way back to their nostalgic homelands.

    So maybe what also upsets people about immigration is that other Americans are “so wrapped up in their old languages and their own damned dramas” their old ethnic and racial hatreds, and they battle over which earlier period of blending created the “heart and soul” of the morphing web simplified in the term America.

    The immigrant story is always that of America’s next becoming. Embrace it!

  • Potter

    Hello Sidewalker, very good point, good post.

    Last night we were at the Boston Symphony and Yo Yo Ma ( French-born American of Chinese descent) was featured in a new piece by Osvaldo Golijov (Argentine- born American of Rumanian/Ukrainian/Jewish descent. Both were in a sense Americanized but they through their extraordinary artistry change us in the process.The audience was totally thrilled. Immigrants!

  • I was there, too, Potter, at Symphony last night, and it was a thrill in many dimensions. But most especially, as you say, that these two young men were leading the sometimes stodgy Boston audience (and on occasions sullen, resistant corps of professional players) in an ecstatic exploration of new sounds, new forms, new rhythms (and rhythm players) and what looked like improvisation, discovery and even self-discovery on the part of Yo-Yo Ma, for example, in those half-uncharted exchanges with the guest percussionist Jamey Haddad. Symphony Hall, where “Exit in Case of Brahms” signs were suggested a century ago, had the excitement last night of a bullfight arena.

  • Potter

    The percussionists were totally outrageously wonderful- the bird sounds reverberating ( those big black hanging speakers as though we were at a rock concert)- oh oh oh!. This is accessible but totally modern music- that grabs deeply through it’s romanticism and then takes you, while it has you, beyond. How can we talk about music- but if you could get Golijov I would be thrilled.

    Somehow I knew you would be there- I was looking for a tall white head sticking out but did not see you. ( Don’t think me odd for that). We bumped into a friend of ours there too!

    We were saying never had we seen the entire audience stand in applause in the middle of a concert. It was the Dvorzak at the end after that Golijov that had folks racing to get to the parking lot. But the people next to us Golijov fans that would not miss Saturday’s after their Thursday experience said the Dvorzak had come alive unlike Thursday. It was beautiful but old… trolls and elves dancing in the meadow.

    Forgive me folks I wish you were all there.

  • Next time… tell ’em you’re from Open Source, and walk in.

    Meantime: three quick notes.

    You’re right again, Potter, about Dvorak as a slightly tapioca dessert after the Golijov. My ears and heart didn’t really tune into brother Dvorak until the third movement of that 8th Symphony, which was delicious. And then that gorgeous repeated melodic line in the fourth movement had me thinking of the light singing theme which — like the melody in Proust’s Vinteuil Sonata — is still playing itself in my head this morning.

    The great Sonny Rollins says so much for this thread and the other conversation with Oliver Sachs and commenters about the nature of souls, and the related mysteries of art. “It’s hard to delineate music, just what happens when and how you play — it sort of happens by itself, music does. Jazz is a great healing force, and a great social force. People all over the planet can be reached through jazz..” And then: “it’s all about making the invisible visible” he says.

    Finally, I have been hearing Ha Jin in my head all weekend, as well as the Dvorak theme. He says in our conversation: Immigration is not mainly an issue of jobs — for the immigrtants, or the workers who are here already. It’s a quest for individual freedom and expression, and it partakes as much of the metaphysical as the mundane. It is full of risk, as life must be. It answers a universal human impulse to seek one’s opportunities, to grow into one’s own life. It is not just an American thing… it just happens that this wondrous country gives many people their chance. The process rewards all of us, as we were lucky to see at Symphony Hall on Saturday night. I recapitulate this ony because with Ha Jin’s accent, one could miss the depth of his meaning and the long trial, error and considered experience that produced it.

  • Potter

    I just listened to the interview and I must say it was so nice to hear a mature soul- speaking of souls. I loved the wisdom: if a culture is strong it will not be easily overcome by immigrants. The corollary is that it will make the culture stronger, enrich it, improve it. Embracing immigrants has been our culture. Ha Jin says, and I believe this, we can turn ( we do turn) mixing to our advantage. As well immigrants tell us about ourselves.

    The notion that people come here to find a place, the space, and a home to follow their own hearts, mentally, spiritually, is such a compliment! And then that they feel, because of this, that they cannot go home.

    I perked up at Ha JIn’s reference to Jews who came here having no homeland so they had to take root. They had to take root wherever they went. I was so touched by his understanding and, it seemed, admiration for Jews.

    Finally regarding the point Ha JIn makes about the dignity of the immigrant who is not ashamed to work hard to earn a dollar: my grandfather was an intellectual and a choir leader in Russia. When he came here he worked in the garment industry in New York City, making children’s snowsuits. My other grandfather who was running from the Russo-Japanese war and the Russian pogroms ended up in Brooklyn, New York first as a plasterer and then a general contractor, constructing buildings.

  • Potter