December 2009

Ha Jin on the immigrant life

By Ha Jin
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The characters who inhabit the stories in A Good Fall, a new collection by National Book Award-winner Ha Jin, are Chinese immigrants of various stripes, all living or working in the Queens, New York, neighborhood of Flushing. Like most immigrant stories, these tales are at once universal and particular—marked by the familiar adjustments needed to survive in a new place, which in this collection, are specifically Chinese in tenor.

Frequent conflicts occur across generational lines, as older Chinese parents fail to accept the Americanized ways of their children. The overbearing presence of a mother visiting from China threatens to destroy a marriage, forcing the son to take extreme measures. A recently arrived grandfather cannot abide the manners of his American-born grandchildren and is horrified when they reject their Chinese family name. Inextricably-bound concerns over money and honor drive a Buddhist monk to attempt suicide, and motivate a young woman to grudgingly send home money she cannot spare to a sister with the finely honed sensibilities of a seasoned extortionist. Some stories, set in the 1980s—around the time that Ha Jin himself first came to the U.S. as a student—unfold under the shadow of the oppressive Red Chinese government. Those set in more recent times embrace the freewheeling capitalist impulses that send Chinese immigrants, both documented and undocumented, to American shores.

Jin writes with a direct, unfussy style that captures the odd cadences of these lives lived in translation. His most memorable characters are often irrational: the professor gripped with panic because he has misspelled a word on his tenure application, the young husband convinced his homely infant daughter could not possible be his, or the suicidal monk who, at 28, thinks himself an old man ready for death. Jin tells every character’s story with a mixture of compassion and humor, conveying the validity of his or her daily worries, but showing too that, as with all human complications, and no matter our cultural heritage, we are often our own worst enemies. 

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