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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