One of the Best Books of the Year: Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Entertainment Weekly, Slate
In A Free Life, Ha Jin follows the Wu family — father Nan, mother Pingping, and son Taotao — as they sever their ties with China in the aftermath of the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square and begin a new life in the United States. As Nan takes on a number of menial jobs, eventually operating a restaurant with Pingping, he struggles to adapt to the American way of life and to hold his family together, even as he pines for a woman he loved and lost in his youth. Ha Jin's prodigious talents are in full force as he brilliantly brings to life the struggles and successes of the contemporary immigrant experience.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:February 21, 1956
Place of Birth:Liaoning, China
Education:B.A. in English, Heilongjiang University, 1981; Ph. D. in English, Brandeis University, 1993
Read an Excerpt
Chapter OneFinally Taotao got his passport and visa. For weeks his parents had feared that China, even if not closing the door outright, would restrict the outflow of people. After the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989, all the American airlines except United had canceled their flights to Beijing and Shanghai. At the good news, Pingping burst into tears. She quickly rinsed the colander in which she had drained the shredded turnip for her jellyfish salad, took off her apron, and set out with her husband, Nan Wu, for the town center of Woodland, where the office of Travel International was located.The plane ticket cost seventy percent more than the regular fare because it had not been purchased three weeks in advance. The Wus didn't hesitate; as long as Taotao could get out of China in time and safely, it was worth any price. They also bought round-trip tickets from Boston to San Francisco for themselves.Neither Pingping nor Nan could go back to China to fetch Taotao, who had been staying with Pingping's parents for the past three years. And since no one in Pingping's family had a passport—not to mention the difficulty in getting a visa from the U.S. embassy—the boy would have to fly by himself. Pingping's brother, a middle school physics teacher who had just returned to their parents' home for the summer vacation, had agreed to take his nephew from Jinan City to Shanghai. There Taotao would be left in the hands of the American flight attendants. Barely six, he wasn't allowed to change planes unaccompanied, so his parents would have to go and collect him in San Francisco. The travel agent, a bosomy brunette with olive skin and long hair, helped Nan make a reservation for the least expensive room at a hotel near Union Square, where the three of them would stay the first night before flying back to Boston. Altogether the trip would cost them close to $3,000. Never had they spent money so lavishly.They arrived in San Francisco in the early morning of July 11. They hadn't expected it to be so chilly; nippy gusts were ruffling pedestrians' hair and forcing people to squint. A storm had descended the night before, leaving shop signs tattered and soggy; a few traffic lights were out of order, blinking endlessly. But the ebony facades of some buildings had been washed clean and glossy, and the vigorous wind smelled of the ocean. Pingping, without any warm clothes on, couldn't stop shivering and then began hiccupping violently on their way to the hotel. Nan tried massaging the nape of her neck to relieve her spasms, and once or twice he slapped her back in an attempt to shock her out of them. This trick had worked before, but it didn't help today.Nan had called United Airlines twice to find out whether Taotao was actually on the plane, but nothing could be confirmed. He was told that the boy's name didn't come up in the computer. Things were still chaotic in China, and many passengers had been switched to this flight from other airlines that had canceled their services, so there wasn't a complete passenger list yet. "Don't worry, Mr. Wu," a pleasant female voice consoled Nan. "Your son should be all right.""We were told zat he is on zer plane." Nan often mismanaged the interdental sound that the Chinese language doesn't have."Then he should be.""Do you have anozzer way to check zat?""I'm afraid I don't, sir. Like I said, he should be okay."But between "should be" and "is" stretched a gulf of anguish for the boy's parents. If only they knew where their son actually was!Nan's brother-in-law had said on the phone that he left Taotao with a group of American air stewardesses, one of whom was an Asian and could speak a little Mandarin. Now the Wus just hoped he was on the plane.Three hours after they had checked into the hotel, they returned to the airport by a shuttle bus. The plane wasn't supposed to arrive until 12:30. Since it was an international flight, the Wus were not allowed to enter the restricted terminal. All they could do was stand outside customs, staring at the chestnut-colored gate that seemed resolved to remain shut forever. Several times they asked the people at the information desk whether Taotao was on the plane, but nobody could tell them that for certain. A thin, broad-faced woman in a dark blue uniform appeared. She looked Chinese but spoke only English. Hoping there might be another way to find out their son's whereabouts, they asked her to help. Her round-chinned face stiffened. She shook her head and said, "If that lady at the desk can't do anything for you, I can't either."Distraught, Pingping begged her in English, "Please check it for us. He is our only child, just six year old. Three years I didn't see him.""Like I said, I really can't help you. I have work to do, okay?"Nan wanted to plead with her too, but the woman looked annoyed, so he refrained. In her eyes, which had more white than black, Nan had caught a flicker of disdain, probably because she knew they were from mainland China and suspected they were still red inside, if not red to the bone.He wrapped an arm around Pingping, whispering in Chinese, "Let's wait a little longer. I'm sure he'll come out soon. Don't worry in advance." Between themselves they spoke Mandarin.The way his wife had begged that woman upset him. Pingping, though thirty-three, looked almost ten years younger than her age, with large vivid eyes, a straight nose, a delicate chin, and a lissome figure. Perhaps that woman was jealous of her pretty features and liked seeing her in agony.At last the gate opened and spat out a string of passengers. Most of them looked exhausted, their eyes dull and inert, and several walked unsteadily, pulling wheeled suitcases or lugging bags. The Wus stepped closer and gazed at the new arrivals. One by one the passengers went by. A tall black man in a baggy blazer cried, "Hey, Toni, so great to see you!" He stretched out his right arm, a dark canvas ukulele case hanging from his left shoulder. Toni, a skinny girl wearing a nose stud and a full head of cornrows, buried her face in his one-armed hug. Except for that cheerful moment, though, most passengers seemed groggy and dejected. Some of the Asians seemed uncertain what to do, and looked around as if wondering who among those standing by were supposed to receive them.Within five minutes all the new arrivals had cleared customs. Slowly the gate closed. A chill sank into Nan's heart; Pingping broke into sobs. "They must have lost him! I'm sure they lost him!" she groaned in Chinese, holding her sides with one arm. Tugging Nan's wrist, she went on, "I told you not to let him take the risk, but you wouldn't listen.""He'll be all right, believe me." His voice caught, unconvincing even to himself.The hall was hushed again, almost deserted. Nan didn't know what do. He said to Pingping, "Let's wait a little more, all right?""There was only one flight from China today. Don't lie to me! Obviously he was not on it. Oh, if only we had let him wait until somebody could bring him over. We shouldn't have rushed.""I know."Then the gate opened again. Two stewardesses walked out, the tall one, a blonde, holding a young boy's hand while the other one, slight and with smiling eyes, was carrying a small red suitcase. "Taotao!" Pingping cried, and rushed over. She swooped him up into her arms and kissed him madly. "How worried we were! Are you all right?" she said.The boy in a sailor suit smiled, whimpering "Mama, mama" while pressing his face against her chest as if shy of being seen by others. He then turned to Nan, but his face registered no recognition."This is your daddy, Taotao," his mother said.The boy looked at Nan again and gave a hesitant smile, as if his father were a bigger friend being introduced to him. Meanwhile, Pingping went on kissing him and patting his back and stroking his head.The two stewardesses asked for Nan's ID, and he produced his driver's license. They compared his name with their paperwork, then congratulated him on the family's reunion."He was fine on the plane, very quiet, but a little scared," said the short woman, who looked Malaysian. She handed Nan the suitcase.He held it with both hands. "Sank you for taking care of him on zer way.""Our pleasure," said the blonde, who wore mascara and had permed hair, her face crinkling a little as she smiled. "It's wonderful to see a family reunited."Before Pingping could say anything, the women left as if this were their routine work. "Thank you!" she cried at last. They turned their heads and waved at her, then disappeared past the gate.Chapter TwoNan had not seen his son for four years. Taotao seemed frailer than in the photos, though he was definitely more handsome, with a thin nose and dark brown eyes, like his mother's. Together the Wus headed for the bus stop, both parents holding the child's hands. Approaching an automatic door, the boy somehow stopped and wouldn't exit the building. He asked his mother, "When are we going back?" His Mandarin had a slight Shandong accent, since he had lived with Pingping's parents."What? What are you talking about?" said Pingping."Uncle and Aunt are waiting for us in Shanghai.""Really?""Yes, they'll meet us there.""Who said that?""They told me to come and take both of you back. Let's go home now.""Can't we stay just another day?" Nan stepped in, having realized that his in-laws must have tricked Taotao into traveling with the flight attendants."No, I want to go home."Nan forced a smile and choked back a wave of misery. "Don't you want to see dolphins and whales?" he asked."Real ones?""Sure.""Where are they? Here?""No, we're going to make a stop in a city called Boston, where there're lots of whales and dolphins. Don't you want to see them?""Yes," Pingping chimed in. "We'll visit a few places before heading for home.""All right?" Nan added.The boy looked uncertain. "Then we'd better let Uncle and Aunt know our plan. They're still waiting for us at the Shanghai airport.""I'll call them. Don't worry," said his father.So Taotao agreed to return to the hotel with them. Nan was carrying him piggyback on the way to the bus stop while Pingping went on talking with him, asking what food he had eaten on the plane and whether he had been airsick. The din of the traffic muffled the voices of mother and son, and Nan couldn't hear all their conversation. His mind was full, in turmoil; but he was happy. His child had come. He was sure that, eventually, the boy would become an American.But what about himself? He was uncertain of his future and what to do about his life, not to mention his marriage. The truth was that he just didn't love his wife that much, and she knew it. Pingping knew he was still enamored of his ex-girlfriend, Beina, though that woman was far away in China. It seemed very likely to Nan that Pingping might walk out on him one of these days. Yet now he was all the more convinced that they must live in this country to let their son grow into an American. He must make sure that Taotao would stay out of the cycle of violence that had beset their native land for centuries. The boy must be spared the endless, gratuitous suffering to which the Chinese were as accustomed as if their whole existence depended on it. By any means, the boy must live a life different from his parents' and take this land to be his country! Nan felt sad and glad at the same time, touched by the self-sacrifice he believed he would be making for his child.On the bus Taotao was sitting on his mother's lap. A moment after they pulled out of the airport, to his parents' astonishment, the boy said, "Mama, there was a big fight in Beijing, do you know? Hundreds of uncles in the People's Liberation Army were killed.""It was the soldiers who shot a great many civilians," his father corrected him."No, I saw on TV bad eggs attacking the army. They burned tanks and overturned trucks. Grandpa said those were thugs and must be suppressed.""Taotao, Dad is right," his mother broke in. "The People's Army has changed and killed a lot of common people, people like us."That silenced the boy, who looked cross, biting his lips, which puffed up a little. He stayed quiet the rest of the way.It was two o'clock. They decided not to return to the hotel directly, and instead went to Chinatown for lunch. At a fruit stand Nan bought a pound of Rainier cherries for Taotao, who had never seen such yellow cherries, each as big as a pigeon's egg. Pingping rinsed a handful of them with the water from the bottle she carried. The boy ate a few and found them delicious; he saved the rest for his younger cousin Binbin, the daughter of Pingping's sister. He didn't want to throw away the stones and instead slotted them into the patch pocket on his jacket so that he could plant them in his grandparents' front yard, where there were already two apricot trees.They didn't go deep into Chinatown but just entered a Cantonese restaurant close to the ceramic-tiled archway at the intersection of Bush and Grand. A stout middle-aged woman showed them to a table beside a window. As soon as they sat down, she returned with a pot of red tea and three cups and put everything before them. She glanced at them quizzically and seemed to be wondering why they were dining at such a place. She must have known they were FOJs—fresh off the jet—who would scrimp on food to save every penny.After looking through the menu and consulting Pingping, Nan settled on two dishes and a soup and ordered all in the large size. He avoided the cheaper dishes on purpose, though he had no idea what "Moo Goo Gai Pan" and "Seafood and Tofu Casserole" tasted like. They sounded strange to him. The "Three Delicious Ingredient Soup" didn't make much sense either, but, unable to speak Cantonese and ashamed of asking what was in it, he just ordered it. He disliked these nebulous names. Why not call things what they were? The Chinese here just wanted everything to sound fancy and exotic.The waitress smirked, collected the menus, and left.
Reading Group Guide
“Exquisite and resonant. . . . Jin has fashioned a ruminative, capacious, covertly ironic and quietly revealing tale of one family's pursuit of the American Dream.”
—Los Angeles Times
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading and discussion of A Free Life, the first novel set in America from Ha Jin, the widely acclaimed, award-winning author of Waiting and War Trash.
1. From the beginning, the novel presents a structure of very short chapters. Why might Ha Jin have chosen this means of organizing his story, and what is its effect? In what ways does the pace of the novel reflect the rhythms of daily life?
2. What is likable about Nan's character, and what is less so? Do his continuing infatuation with Beina, his lack of love for Pingping [pp. 23, 57–60], and his emotional distance from his son affect your opinion of him, and if so, how?
3. The use of language is an important focus of A Free Life. Ha Jin writes Nan's mistakes and mispronunciations into the dialogue when Nan is speaking in English; when characters speak in Chinese their speech appears in italics. What is the effect of the occasional misuse or noncolloquial use of a word or phrase in English, as when Nan says, for instance, that Sam is “bibulous” [p. 260], that a poet is “well endowed” [p. 305], or when he says in a job interview that he and his co-workers “all got laid together” [p. 25]?
4. The Wus' friendship with Janet and Dave Mitchell involves them in the emotional events of Hailee's adoption from China, as well as the discovery and treatment of her leukemia. At one point Nan is amazed at how emotional Dave becomes when having to choose between two orphan girls; he thinks, “Probably it was their Christian faith that had instilled in them the sense of guilt and enabled them to commiserate with the babies more than they—the Wus—could” [p. 313]. Do you think Christianity is the reason for the Mitchells' sensitivity? Does the episode suggest something about cultural difference or about Nan's own powers of empathy?
5. Responding to Mr. Liu's statement that China should attack Taiwan to maintain its territorial integrity, Nan says, “For the individual human being, what is a country? It's just an idea that binds people together emotionally. But if the country cannot offer the individual a better life, if the country is detrimental to the individual's existence, doesn't the individual have the right to give up the country, to say no to it?” [p. 320]. Do you agree with this statement? What are the reasons that Nan feels he must say no to China?
6. When they deposit the $50,000 check and the woman at the bank looks at them strangely, Pingping realizes, “There was no way this woman could imagine the sacrifice and labor this check embodied” [p. 185]. Would you agree that most native-born Americans are no longer capable of the self-sacrifice and unremitting labor that the Wus engage in? What are the effects of a capitalist and consumerist economy on people's values and behavior, as seen through the eyes of Nan and Pingping?
7. Throughout the story, Nan holds onto the memory of Beina and wants to see her again “in order to preserve her in his memory as a lovely woman beyond his reach, as someone who still possessed his soul, so that the flames of inspiration would blaze in him again” [p. 562]. How do his feelings change after he sees Beina in Illinois [pp. 586-90]?
8. Nan tells Dick that “zer core of American culture” is “obsessed with two s's ... self and sex” [p. 307]. How does Nan react in episodes related to sex [pp. 31–34, 86–90, 544–46, 595–99]? What is the difference between Nan's self-absorption and the self-obsession he sees in Americans?
9. When the Wus sell their restaurant to their friends Shubo and Niyan they are shocked to learn that Shubo won't let Pingping work there [pp. 613–15]. What does this incident, as well as Nan's later visit to his parents in China [pp. 557–60] make clear for Nan about the bonds of friendship and family? How does he respond to the celebration of Halloween in their suburban neighborhood [pp. 271–73], and why?
10. After paying off the mortgage on their house, Nan has a brief period of elation which is followed by a profound sense of disappointment: “The struggle had ended so soon that he felt as though the whole notion of the American dream was shoddy, a hoax. . . . He should feel successful. But somehow the success didn't mean as much to him as it should” [p. 418]. What is the cause of his dismay? How is his distress affected by his conversation with Shubo about the idea that immigrants must sacrifice their own dreams for their children and grandchildren [pp. 420–21]?
11. Observing the culture of moneymaking on his trip to China, Nan thinks, “Now he wanted all the more to live and die in America. How he missed his home in Georgia” [p. 568]. Throughout the story, Nan has felt almost no nostalgia for his life in China. Is this lack of emotional connection to his native culture partly the reason that Nan is willing to risk writing in English? What had come to define “home” for Nan?
12. The story's arc brings to Nan's attention only belatedly what the reader perhaps already feels: that Pingping has proven herself from the beginning the stronger and steadier character. She has left her native country to be with a husband she knows does not love her, she accepts his moods and his anger, and she works daily with their son to make sure he succeeds at school. How do Pingping's pregnancy and the loss of the baby girl affect their marriage [p. 469]? How does Nan come to realize Pingping's worth [p. 612]? What does his poem “Belated Love” [pp. 619–20] express about his new knowledge?
13. How would you describe the prose style of the novel? What are the notable aspects of the narration and what kinds of details does it bring into focus? Do you assume that the narration is mainly from Nan's point of view; is it a more objective third-person narration, or does it shift between the two?
14. Regarding his poetic vocation, Nan thinks, “The truth was that he had been frightened by the overwhelming odds against writing in English artistically, against claiming his existence in this new land, and against becoming a truly independent man who followed nothing but his own heart. To date he had tried every way to wriggle out of the struggle” [p. 472]. How do the poems at the end of the volume reflect Nan's new independence? What does the “free life” of the title mean for him?