[LITERATURE] Ha Jin's Inexperience with America
- American Inexperience
He became a great novelist by writing about his communist homeland.
But can Ha Jin find the same success writing about his adopted
By Doug Most
READING THE FIRST LINE of a great novel is like peering inside the
author's window. Sometimes the window is only cracked open, so you
have no choice but to read on to get a better idea of where this
story is going. Call me Ishmael. Other times, the window is so wide
open that by the time you're done with the first line, you might as
well kick off the shoes, lie back, and forget about dinner and sleep
and idle conversation for a while. If you really want to hear about
it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was
born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were
occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield
kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to
know the truth.
Melville, Salinger, they had no way of knowing when they crafted
their lines that they would become their most memorable words, no
matter what they had written before or what would come after.
Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife,
For seven years now, this line from the bestseller Waiting has
defined the writing career of Ha Jin, a stocky and shy creative-
writing professor at Boston University who left his wife and baby
behind in China in 1985 to come to the United States and get his
PhD, intending to return home and work as a teacher. But he decided
to stay. That decision, while heartwrenching, launched a brilliant
career. That line about Lin Kong, from Jin's second novel, not only
gave the world a character, a Chinese doctor full of sadness who for
18 years could not bring himself to leave the woman he never loved,
it also introduced a talented Chinese-American author who writes so
beautifully in English that it's hard to believe he speaks the
language so haltingly. "I spend more time on the page," says Jin,
who learned English in his 20s. "Talking, I have to come up with the
words instantaneously. On the page, I get to go back and try again."
And go back he has. He has been prolific, putting out four novels,
three short-story collections, and three books of poetry, all in
English, all in the two decades since he came here. (His wife and
son joined him years ago.) He has won two PEN/Faulkner awards,
putting him in a group with writers like Philip Roth and John Edgar
Wideman. He is 50 now, with silver and black hair and oval-framed
glasses. He stands 5 feet 9, and he has a meek handshake and slight
slouch. Small paunch aside, he looks to be in good shape. But inside
he's nervous. Though he has shown tremendous range as a writer,
moving effortlessly from bawdy and naughty to graphic and violent,
all of his works, while written in English, were about China. That's
the land he knew best. But he can't say that anymore
His fifth novel, the draft of which he finished last winter, is due
to be published a year from now, and it will be his first that's set
here, in the country where he's lived for the last 21 years, not
where he lived for his first 29. "My heart's not there," he says of
China. "It's here."
HA JIN IS, BY ANY MEASURE, ignorant of American pop culture - he
hardly watches TV, he can't remember the last movie he saw, and the
first Celtics player he thinks of is Larry Bird. Which partly
explains why this book, to be called A Free Life, has taken him six
years, and counting, to finish. It has been a slow process, as he's
had to learn some mundane, even trivial details about our culture
that were no challenge when he was writing about his homeland: how a
will is prepared, where Chinese restaurants get their packets of soy
sauce, and how elementary school classes work. In China, for
instance, elementary school children have a different teacher for
each subject. Here, of course, as he discovered, young children have
one teacher. "Before this novel, when I was writing, everything was
set in China, a lot of certainty," he says. "I had a lot of freedom.
Now I have to reference at every turn. You can't say a Wal-Mart in
downtown Boston. There are a lot of references I have to pay
attention to to make my characters convincing."
This is what has him so worried, wondering how this next book will
be received. "I hope it will be a read American novel," he says in
his awkward English. "If it's not good enough, I might have failed
in making the transition."
No one expects that, of course. "Let us not worry about him writing
about America or any other subject he chooses," says Leslie Epstein,
the novelist and longtime chairman of Boston University's Creative
Writing Program, who first saw enough promise in Jin to allow him to
audit courses and later invited him back to teach. "The best is yet
Perhaps, but Jin's insecurity reflects the challenge immigrant
authors from Vladimir Nabokov to Chang-rae Lee have faced in trying
to understand America without losing the advantage of an outsider's
perspective. The Korean-American Lee's latest best-selling book,
Aloft, for instance, revolves around a 59-year-old white guy from
"If anything," Epstein writes by e-mail, "indifference to the
detritus of our popular culture only reinforces Ha Jin's fundamental
moral seriousness. I'd tremble if I saw him watching MTV or getting
a tattoo. And I say this knowing he has a satirical impulse, and the
most profound sort of humor, that might make our woebegone culture
grist for his mill. He is better off, and therefore we are better
off , if he continues to see through us without distraction."
Don Lee, a Korean-American novelist who edits the literary journal
Ploughshares at Emerson College, says Jin made his mark as an Asian,
rather than Asian-American, writer, and that that will make his
transition more difficult. "I think he'll be fine there, but if you
look at Asian-American literature these days, a lot of writers are
moving away from race and politics," Lee says. "People feel they are
done with it. They want to be recognized as writers first and Asian-
If Jin can do that, if he can show an American audience that a
middle-aged Chinese man who served in the People's Liberation Army
as a teenager, who struggled to learn English, who didn't come to
this country until almost 30, can produce a genuinely American
novel, then that will be his greatest achievement. Greater even than
the success Waiting. And if it fails?
"Every book, at any moment, can be a big flop," he tells me one
afternoon as we sit in the basement of a vine-covered castle on the
campus of BU, across the street from where he teaches. Outside it's
95 degrees, which is why we're cheerily inside this pub with our
cold bottles of Twisted Tea, a drink that neither of us realized was
alcoholic until we took our first sips. "You have to take the risk.
I don't think too much about the readers. If it's a flop, let it be
a great one."
BEFORE THERE WAS HA JIN THE MAN, there was Xuefei Jin the boy.
Xuefei (shu-FAY) Jin was born in 1956 in an ancient seaport city on
China's northern coast called Jinzhou. When he turned 7, with his
mother often working away from home, his father, a military officer,
shipped him off to boarding school. He studied there for two years,
until 1965. The year after, Mao Zedong ordered China's schools
closed, stopped the publication of all new books, and allowed old
temples and monuments to be destroyed, marking the beginning of a
decade-long period that came to be known as the Cultural Revolution.
At home, Jin watched as the Red Guards burned his father's books in
the yard. The interruption of his schooling meant he didn't become
literate in Chinese until his late teens.
Jin was 14 when he lied about his age and volunteered to join the
People's Liberation Army after rumors began circulating that Russia
was going to attack. It never happened, but it was too late. He was
He bought his first classic Chinese novel at 16. But laboring
through each page took hours. Only when he finally cracked the
dictionary, studying it for hours and days and weeks, did he grasp
enough words so that he could go back and read the novel. Finding
books proved difficult, especially for those working the Siberian
border, as Jin did. He was transferred from the front lines to a
base in a nearby city, where he had more access to books. He found
an illustrated version of Don Quixote, as well as two texts with
ancient Chinese poems, which his parents sent him and he read over
and over until he had memorized each line
At 19, Jin was discharged. He landed work as a telegraph operator, a
job that allowed him to read whatever he could get his hands on and
listen to a radio almost daily, tuning in to a program that taught
English with phrases like "This is a table" and "Long live Chairman
Mao Zedong died in 1976, and a year later the Cultural Revolution
ended and China's schools reopened. Also at this time, a mass exodus
of Chinese intellectuals eager to see the Western world began. For
the authors who came to this country, it took more than a decade for
them to blossom, as they needed time to learn English (at least our
alphabet has only 26 letters, compared with the 6,000 symbols used
in the Chinese language). But by the mid-1990s, a number of them had
written rich memoirs about their struggles growing up during the
Cultural Revolution. There was Anchee Min, who came to America in
1984 and whose memoir, Red Azalea, and last book, Empress Orchid,
were roundly praised, and Ji-li Jiang, whose memoir, Red Scarf Girl,
won a Parents' Choice Gold Award in 1998. Their books sold here,
even though back home in China, these writers were largely
invisible, some of their works banned. Even Waiting, which has been
translated into Chinese, has been discouraged by officials in China.
Jin was still unsure of his own career path when Heilongjiang
University in the northern city of Harbin accepted him in 1977 as an
English major. He spent four years there, devoting himself to
English tapes and discovering an American master from
Mississippi. "I loved William Faulkner," Jin says. "I read all his
books." The pen name he would later take, Ha Jin, comes from the
town of Harbin. But it was during his next stop, at Shandong
University, that his life took its most dramatic turns.
"It was a small graduate class," recalls Beatrice Spade, a history
professor at Colorado State University at Pueblo, who was teaching
American literature at Shandong at the time. "All of the students
were just really outstanding. [Jin's] spoken English was probably
the worst of the bunch. His pronunciation was not good. But he could
write like nobody's business." The class dissected novels chapter by
chapter. "You could tell, his writing, his intellect, he had
everything. He was just waiting to happen."
It all did happen, as luck would have it, at Shandong. It was there
that Jin earned his master's degree and met a mathematics teacher
who would become his wife. It was there that he encountered American
scholars like Spade, who urged him to travel to the West and study,
which the Chinese government encouraged as long as he left his wife,
Lisha Bian, and their baby, Wen, behind as collateral to ensure his
return. And it was there that he first heard a true story about a
Chinese doctor who had waited 18 years to get a divorce.
Jin said to himself: "This would be good for a novel. I am going to
write a novel based on this."
IN AUGUST 1985, a 29-year-old Jin landed at Logan and went straight
to Waltham to begin studying at Brandeis University. "Beautiful
weather" is how he remembers his first impression. "The pollution
was less. The sky feels closer. The moon is bigger. You can see the
ring around the moon." He also saw squirrels and mushrooms around
the big oak tree outside his dorm room. "In China," he says, "we
would have checked if the mushrooms were edible."
Leaving China was difficult, since it meant saying goodbye to his
wife and toddler son. But his plan was to work toward his doctorate
in modern poetry and then, degree in hand, return home to China. He
worked as a waiter, busboy, even night watchman while studying and
writing. In 1987, Bian left Wen with her parents in China and joined
Jin in Boston. Then, one spring day 1989, students, activists, and
intellectuals in China could no longer contain their frustration
toward their government and demonstrated in Beijing. Jin and Bian
sat terrified in their Boston apartment, watching on television as
the Tiananmen Square protests unfolded, knowing their young son was
stuck there while they were safe here. The couple scrambled to bring
him to Boston. "Miraculously, all his papers went through right in
the middle of it," Jin says. "He got a visa two days before the
massacre. He came over."
The boy was 5. He had not seen his mother in two years, his father
in four. They met him at the San Francisco airport, because he was
too young to transfer planes by himself. "He was the last one on the
plane," Bian says, still teary-eyed at the image almost two decades
later, "and he recognized me, but not him." She points to Jin,
sitting next to her on their couch. Today, Wen is 23 and has just
graduated with a master's degree in American history from the
University of Chicago.
The Beijing protests dragged on for two months. When they were over,
when the rebel in the white shirt and black pants had played his
unforgettable game of chicken with the tanks, when the bodies were
buried (estimates ranged from the government's claim of 23 to the
Chinese Red Cross's tally of 2,600), Jin knew he could never go
back. "I was in a daze. I could not work. I was devastated.
Suddenly, I realized I had heard about all these atrocities, but now
I realized all of them must be true."
Resolved to live in America, Jin turned his focus on his career.
Around 1990, he published his first book of poetry and audited some
writing workshops at Boston University. After getting his doctorate
at Brandeis, he moved with his family to teach poetry at Emory
University in Atlanta. He remained there until Epstein, his friend
and mentor (and also the father of Red Sox general manager Theo
Epstein), recruited him back north to teach. Jin's first collection
of short stories, Ocean of Words, won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN
Award for first fiction in 1996. He became an American citizen the
following year, by which time he was also well into writing Waiting
With the success of Waiting, which has sold close to half a million
copies and won a National Book Award, came pressure. He continued to
write about his homeland in his next book, War Trash, a fictional
memoir about a young Chinese POW held captive in the Korean War who
is forced to defend the communist cause. The subject matter alone
assured Jin that present-day China would never welcome him
back. "I'm a troublemaker," he says. "I've written books that are
offensive to authorities. The subjects are completely off-limits."
Imagine being allowed to write about anything in American history -
except, say, slavery, the Vietnam War, and the First Amendment. Jin
can't imagine. He has to write what he knows. That used to be China.
Now it's America.
Most of the time I write longhand and then put in the computer," he
says. "When I put it in the computer, it's a rewrite. I work at the
computer a long time." His computer doesn't exactly provide him with
solitude. It sits in his home office just off the main entrance of
the house in Foxborough, and the floor is a testament to his
voracious appetite for literature. At one point, he says, he had
collected about 4,000 books. On the day I visit, it looks as if half
of them are in this one room. One stack is topped by Joseph Conrad,
another by V.S. Naipaul, a third by Gore Vidal. In the corner is a
mountain of paper, the drafts of his next book. "It has to be
trimmed," he says with a smile. "It's about 700 pages."
THE GENESIS FOR A FREE LIFE CAME FROM HIS FRIEND Jennifer Rose, a
Waltham writer. Years ago, when Jin was a graduate student, she told
him of a Chinese man she knew who came to this country and managed a
restaurant but harbored dreams of being a poet. "I was touched by
this," Jin says. But as he describes the story line to me in greater
detail, I can't help but think that Nan Wu, the protagonist, sounds
a lot like Ha Jin, the author. Chinese man comes to the United
States. Dreams of being a poet. Lives in Boston. Works hard for his
family. I ask Jin if this book is really his autobiography,
disguised as a novel. He laughs.
"He returns to China," Jin tells me. "I never returned. I'm really
more fortunate than this guy. This book is about the American dream,
a house, two cars. But a lot of people come here for fulfillment. I
lived in the States 22 years as an immigrant. It is a soul-opening
experience, the immigrant experience, like a tree uprooted and
planted someplace else."
A few weeks later, on the day I drive to his home, he greets me
outside, walking gingerly. Throughout our interview on his living
room couch, Jin keeps slouching, only to have his wife lean in,
propping a pillow behind his back to keep him sitting straight. As
our interview ends, Jin insists on giving me directions out of his
property, which is buried deep in the woods, even though I am sure
of finding my way. His wife runs to get a map and lays it out on
their coffee table. A petite woman with streaks of silver in her
otherwise straight black hair, she affectionately drapes her arm
over her husband's shoulder, rubbing gently, as she helps navigate
"I hurt my back lifting a bag of mulch," Jin explains.
Mulch. It's such an American fascination. We use it to control our
weeds and retain water in our gardens and turn our properties into
the envy of our neighbors. That Ha Jin - the nerdy, soft-spoken,
bespectacled Chinese-American writing professor who became an
overnight sensation with his second novel seven years ago - strained
his back carrying a bag of mulch is as sure a sign as any that he is
ready for the literary transition on which he is about to embark.
Even if he doesn't believe it.
"He's suffering from second-book syndrome. Except delayed," says
Lee, the Ploughshares editor. "Perhaps because of the subject
matter. Most writers feel that pressure after success. I don't think
his anxiety is warranted, but we shall see."
Jin says he is too close to his book to praise it. But he does have
one wish: "I view myself as a Chinese-American writer. I need the
hyphen. I lived in China for 29 years before I came here. I can't
lose my past. It would be impossible. But nationality is not that
important to me. I want to write beautiful books about the American