Review of A Good Fall: Stories, by Ha Jin. New York: Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., 2009. ISBN 978-0-307-37868-2. 240 pages. Hardcover.
Award-winning fiction writer Ha Jin’s new collection of twelve stories introduces us to a cast of characters living in Flushing, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens. Once dominated by Italians and Greeks, since the 1970s it has been taken over by Chinese and Koreans, so that Flushing is now the second - largest “Chinatown” in New York, after the one in Manhattan. It’s also an upscale shopping district, but the folks we meet in the stories are mostly from the margins of society.
Mostly relatively recent arrivals from Asia, they span the gamut: A lonely composer; children of young professionals who have “made it” in America; a visiting Chinese professor; a graduate student; prostitutes. One young woman works at a sushi house; after only two years, Tian Zhu has acquired not only a decent job but US citizenship; two young men work as delivery boys; at 50, Ju Fen seems stuck in a job as a nanny for an old man. Lina earns a barely-decent living in a tax office. Ganchin, in his mid-thirties, just lost his job as a kungfu teacher and must return to China soon.
Living in a university town in central Virginia, and relating to Chinese students and researchers, most of whom earn good salaries and own suburban homes more expensive than mine (or soon will), I thought at first that these Chinese in Flushing would bear little or no resemblance to my highly-educated professional friends. I was wrong. Despite the huge gap between an urban Chinatown and our sparsely-populated, semi-rural area, immigrants from China share a wide range of common hopes and fears, pressures and frustrations, temptations and triumphs.
First and foremost, they struggle for economic survival. Aside from the new crop of undergraduates from wealthy Chinese families, most Chinese from Asia must fight hard to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. Intensely pragmatic (some, including themselves, would say opportunistic) they will do almost anything to stay afloat and to get ahead.
Don’t look for moral scrupulosity or ethical punctiliousness here. Coming from the dog-eat-dog environment of Asia, they are used to cutting corners, pushing the envelope, or evading the law to make a living. Working for pay on a student visa? No problem. Paying in cash to avoid taxes? Why not? Young women (and some older ones, too) sell their bodies to work their way through school or to bring in really big money from men twice their age (who, by the way, are otherwise “faithful” to their wives).
Aside from food and shelter, everyone wants sex. If you are not restrained by traditional values, or if passion is irresistible, temporary liaisons will not bother your conscience too much. Affairs with someone else’s spouse up the ante a bit, but can be rationalized if married couples are separated by the Pacific Ocean and lonely people can comfort each other in a land far from home. Besides, how can one be sure that those left behind aren’t doing the same thing, and for similar reasons?
So, many of these stories include, or even revolve around, sexual encounters of the irregular kind. The description of these trysts is explicit, but brief and not graphic, like the events themselves, which seem so natural and “of course, what else can you expect?” The inevitable heartbreaks receive more attention, and evoke our pity for those who have brought unnecessary pain into their lives.
For most, gaining legal status looms large. How do you acquire a working permit, then a green card, then the ultimate prize, citizenship? What happens if you fail? Do you just take off into the vast interior of America, hoping that the Chinese government and the Homeland Security people won’t find you? For some, that choice is preferable to returning to China, where you either lose face for failing in “the Beautiful Country” or find yourself swimming with the sharks once more.
Speaking of face, one must not forget the folks back home. With what high hopes they sent you to the United States! There you will gain a better education, perhaps a Ph.D., then a high-paying and prestigious job, enabling you to send money back to your parents. A large house will not only allow you to host them when they come for a six-month visit, but also give them something else to brag about with their envious friends in China.
Not without difficulty, however, some of it unforeseen. Life is harder here than it was portrayed before you left. Competition is keen. English, never an easy language, seems much more difficult when these Americans bombard you with rapid, slang-and-idiom-laced sentences that share little with the textbook examples you studied in cram school in preparation for the TOEFL (test of English as a foreign language) exam.
You’re fine with scientific, mathematical, and technical language, but writing a paper in good English poses a formidable and, for some, insuperable challenge.
If you do make it and settle down into the American Dream, what do you do with your children? They come home from school saying things you aren’t sure would pass a Miss Manners test. They pickup saucy habits of speech. They want to take an English name to replace the unpronounceable one your parents so thoughtfully gave them at birth. Once they have started in the American school system, they can never re-enter the vastly different one in China, so you are almost stuck in America until they have gone off to college, where, by the way, they might choose some useless major rather than business or pre-med.
When your parents visit, they are charmed at first by the better environment, the big house, the fancy car, the impressive salary. But then they discover that the streets are empty (at least outside of Chinatown), not like back home, where you encounter lively crowds as soon as you exit your door. Hardly anyone speaks Chinese. Both children work, so the older people are left alone at home all day, their hearts longing for what is familiar, but not wanting to leave their grandchildren.
So, how do these ambitious exiles cope? Some can’t make it of course. They return to China in disgrace; a few commit suicide; or hang on grimly in hope that things will get better; or – like most of Ha Jin’s characters – stride forth boldly to construct a new future. After all, the Chinese haven’t become a world power by giving up easily. No! They tighten their belts; adopt a new strategy; and move on.
A significant proportion of them find this strength by becoming Christians, as the author hints in a couple of places. One distraught woman is told flatly, “You should believe in Jesus Christ” by a Christian friend. American Christians reading these stories will respond to all of them by thinking, “If only this person knew God!” (May I suggest also that you study Fenggang Yang’s Chinese Christians in America for a sociologists’ account of how Christianity can make a huge difference? For a review, visit http://www.globalchinacenter.org/.)
In the end, you have to admire these people. Though I often wept with them, I just as often rose up in my heart to cheer them on and applaud their true grit.
I think you will, too, if you take time to read Ha Jin’s beautifully-woven tapestry of these strangers and sojourners among us.
G. Wright Doyle