“A Free Life” by Chinese Born Author Ha Jin

Chinese born author Ha Jin.

I am a big fan of books written by those who are not born in the United States.  Not only is it a wonderful way to explore another culture, but it is a useful tool when examining your “home” through your own cultural lens.

I have recently discovered the writing of  Ha Jin, an immigrant from China.  His personal story is very moving- he was studying at Brandeis University when the Tiananmen Square broke out in 1989.  After seeing footage of the situation in China, he opted to immigrate to the United States.  He eventually went on to earn a PhD here and taught for many years at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia (USA). He is now a Professor at Boston University in Massachusetts.

While I just finished his short book, “In the Pond”, written in 1998, I am going to focus on his novel entitled “A Free Life.” This is his first book written about Chinese immigrants in the United States.  He tales the tale of a family that gets “stuck” in the US as a result of activities related to Tiananmen Square.  This is not autobiographical – but rather a book idea that sprung as a result of meeting the owner of a Chinese restaurant in the US many years ago.

Ha Jin’s main character, Nan, leaves university to work and focus on his dream of being a poet.  His tales of living the American dream are filled with the routine and mundane tasks of bill paying and going to work each day, yet each step in his journey is a lesson in cultural understanding.  The book is filled with reflection and humor. I read this several weeks ago and it still is resonating with me. Ha Jin’s writing leaves me with a better understanding of Chinese culture, but also of the human condition.  We all struggle on our paths, trying to live our dreams and deal in our realities. Something about his writing reminds me of one of my favorite authors, Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart.

I came across this thought provoking video (below) of Ha Jin speaking about “A Free Life.”  He reminds the audience that he did not write about his own experience in this book – for example, he did not drop out of graduate school or work in a Chinese restaurant. But he does talk about the emotion of fear in the immigrant experience.  This is a fear of not being able to return home – or that home is not ever going to be the same, fear of learning a whole new language and having to trust the processes that don’t make sense in one’s own life experience and fear of this new identity in the new homeland.

Ha Jin talks about the challenge of tackling the subject of language in his writing and how to present two languages into his writing.  He says that learning a new language comes with a childlike innocence and that he specifically uses and misuses the language to reflect this.  There is certainly humor in the meaning of many new American idioms and phrases, and he is a master at highlighting these.

He also talk about the importance of the physical land in his writing.  When he first came to the United States, his first impression was how different the actual land was in this country. He speaks about writing a letter home early on and how he expresses how his native country’s land was overused and that “nature was extraordinarily generous to America.” He clearly connects with the land and intended to write about it as part of the characters’ immigration experience in “A Free Life.”

One of the most beautiful pieces of his presentation in this video below is his commentary on the use of the word “homeland.”  Ha Jin says that in other parts of the world, people reference their “mother” or “father” land. But in the US we speak of a homeland, a place that is our land of origin AND a place where home physically is, and how the latter is primarily how the word is used now – even if it means “adopted homeland.” He feels that the word homeland is a very rich word in our language.

Ha Jin also speaks about immigrant authors not being simply “brokers of culture,” but responsible for also creating culture.  He cites the example of using old things to create new – such as how Chinese Americans created the fortune cookie, which is not really common in China, as a new phenomenon and twist for the American culture.

I would strongly encourage anyone interested in a learning about culture to pick up a copy of “A Free Life.” Meanwhile, check out this video of Ha Jin speaking in Boston about his novel:

  • ds8607a

    I strongly second this book recommendation. I read "A Free Life" during the first week that I arrived to mainland China. For me, it was interesting to relate cultural behaviors Ha Jin explains to my own observations as I settled in. Not only that, I felt as if I could somehow relate to Nan himself; feeling like a stranger suddenly in all aspects of life. But, like you said, the book–overall-is about the human condition. Dealing with cultural transitions is a feat for any person in almost any context. I suggest anyone interested in Chinese culture or who plans to go abroad read this book.

    • Missy Gluckmann

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this important book! I could not put this book down. It tells the story of being thrown into the deep end of the pool and having to figure out how to swim. Fast. During a tsunami. While wearing shoes. It also does an incredible job of allowing us to imagine how others perceive us. For me, his writing is perfect. PERFECT. I'm so glad you agree! 🙂