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Ha Jin's new collection of short stories features members of the Chinese émigré community in and around Flushing, N.Y. America exacts a high price from the set of characters we meet. They worry about breaking with tradition and about failing to assimilate. America divides family members and makes intimacy a chimera. The TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam is a formidable adversary that consigns Chinese speakers to schedules of sweatshop labor and home health-care jobs. And always, Ha Jin's characters worry about money.
Ha Jin has been an émigré since 1985 and his works have been coldly received in China, when they have been noticed at all. For all that, the vision of China that lives in the minds of his creations is ambivalent. Yes, the triads are frightening and political corruption goes unchecked. But in China, life's choices are firmly and reassuringly defined when compared with the pervading uncertainties of life in Flushing. Although the Chinese are often reputed to be the most adaptable people on Earth, "A Good Fall" reveals the psychological cost of emigration.
Education offers no protection to Ha Jin's characters, and a number of the stories involve academics. "An English Professor," for instance, centers on the professional insecurities of a Chinese-American who has written "Respectly yours," in the case letter he includes with his tenure portfolio. This error leads him into one overreaction after another. In "Shame," Hongfan, a master's candidate in an English program, is put in the uncomfortable position of having to house Mr. Meng, his former literature professor, who decides to stay on as an illegal while on a cultural visit. Meng's resourcefulness is commendable -- everything about him says survival -- yet Hongfan has assumed American notions of decorum and regards everything Meng does as disgracefully shabby. America, Ha Jin appears to argue, encourages the Chinese to hate the Chinese dimension in themselves.
My favorite story in the collection is "A Composer and His Parakeets," at once a meditation on the conditions that foster creativity and a love affair between a man and a bird. When an actress leaves her parakeet, Bori, with her composer boyfriend, Fanlin, the composer suspects it is her way of saying goodbye. More and more, the bird fills the emotional void. While Fanlin argues that "no art should be accidental," the feelings that Bori engenders inspire the composer to his best work. Such a story melds loneliness and laughter. Who says that the pain that leads to great art should make sense?
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.