Tales of escape — and cultural resurrection

Chinese immigrants unwillingly revisit the past in Ha Jin’s latest collection.

A Good Fall. Ha Jin. Pantheon. 247 pages. $24.95.

Everyone has something he wants to escape: a job, relationship, family feud or — like the characters in Ha Jin’s new short fiction collection — a country. Rather than tell stories of emigration, though, Ha Jin, who left China in 1985, depicts moments when one’s old life crashes into new routines, resurrecting all that has been lost and gained via escape.

Each story in A Good Fall siphons readers into straightforward plots about Chinese immigrants from diverse backgrounds now living in Flushing, home to New York City’s second largest Chinatown. The characters’ 180-degree turns are most often made in response to stress and heartache inextricably connected to immigrant life. All grapple with an intense set of expatriate problems. Wanping’s love blossoms for a prostitute whose debts keep her tied to the water trade. A disenfranchised, 28-year-old monk thinks life is over because he can’t pay his debts back in China. Yet delicate generational and cultural differences subtly define their unique situations, and Ha Jin unpacks the small details of their largely indistinct lives in ways that reveal their larger-than-life personal implications.

With the breaking of a condom, Ha Jin cleverly pierces the gossamer separation between China and America in the atmospheric The House Behind a Weeping Cherry, allowing China to seep back into the lives of prostitutes living in a boarding house. When a customer blames the break on “a substandard rubber made in China,” one girl finally admits to the others, with unintended humor, that she “‘feel[s] so awful to be Chinese here, because China always makes cheap products.”’

In The Bane of the Internet, email is the infiltration device, bringing the narrator’s family troubles smack into her American life. “[T]he Internet has spoiled everything — my family is able to get ahold of me whenever they like,” she rants. “They might as well live nearby.”

Other times people crash the illusion of escape. When a young husband’s mother comes to stay in the United States for six months, In the Crossfire becomes a captivating tale of reevaluation forced by the son’s seeing life through his mother’s China-centric perspective. In Shame, a young Chinese man studying abroad is surprised by the arrival of his esteemed professor Mr. Meng, sparking a wrestling match between obligation and reinvention and a love affair with New York, which Mr. Meng quips, “‘is so rich even the air smells fatty.”’

And in Temporary Love Lina and Zuming’s spouses arrive from China, sadly ending their peaceful cohabitation, what they call a “wartime marriage” even though there’s no war.

Everyone in A Good Fall struggles with past and present, and Ha Jin requires dynamic change of them all. Though his slice-of-life stories hit every plot point, and his choices as a writer aren’t always evident, these understated clashes of culture reveal careful thematic design and provide an almost 360-degree view of this select human experience: The concerns of people everywhere trying to make a better life come alive, one deceptively simple story at a time.


Published 12/6/09 in the Miami Herald