Ha Jin – A Good Fall: Stories (Final installment)

Ha Jin – A Good Fall: Stories (final installment)

I have finally finished this collection. If it sounds like an arduous task I undertook, well, yes, I suppose it was. These last stories – “A Pension Plan,” “Temporary Love,” “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry,” and “A Good Fall”- were far more interesting than the first stories, in that I felt like I was reading about real people in various degrees of extremis due to culture clash. But I can’t say I enjoyed them, exactly. Ha Jin’s writing is just not my style.

All four stories describe Chinese immigrants having serious problems with their American lives. In “A Pension Plan,” Jufen, a 58-year-old woman, in New York for ten years, works as a health care aide to Mr. Sheng. She’s happy with the job, in spite of the difficulties of caring for someone with multi-infarct dementia (she makes the distinction between MID and Alzheimer’s which is pretty sophisticated). But he starts making sexual advances towards her, and the situation escalates to the point where Mr. Sheng’s daughter asks Jufen if she has designs on her father. Despite Jufen’s protestations, the daughter takes it a step further and asks her to marry her father, which Jufen considers (a step I found fascinating) until a prenup is offered barring her from any inheritance. She is greatly offended, and quits the assignment. She asks her agency for a pension plan, which of course is not available, and is told she will have to learn English before she can work for an agency that does offer a pension plan. Bless her, Jufen decides that’s exactly what she’ll do. I found a lot of very interesting attitudes in this. But the writing, well, as I’ve said, it’s not my style.

“Temporary Love” introduces us to a “wartime couple” – two immigrants who are here alone, their spouses stil in China, in a sort of roommate-with-benefits situation. The woman’s husband is expected to arrive, so she ends the relationship, which the man has begun to take very seriously. Various complications ensue Again, it was a fascinating look into a particular culture with certain expectations.

“The House Behind a Weeping Cherry” is about a brothel where a group of women, smuggled in from China illegally, work to pay off their enormous debt. I’ve never seen anything about the sex xlave trade outside of a cop drama on TV. Why these particular women found it preferable to take this route than to stay in China is not examined, though, which disappointed me.

“A Good Fall” is another immigration mess, this time of a monk who finds himself without a work visa when he is fired from his job teaching Tai Chi at his temple because he is getting ill. It’s almost tragic throughout, but I’m glad this story, and thus the book, has a happy ending.

There’s so much anger in parts of this country about illegal immigrants. The people I’ve met in this book are not the stuff of anger; they are the stuff of the American dream, and somehow in most cases they got lost, tangled in red tape, or just have a hard time reconciling beliefs of their homeland and native culture with “the system” here. While I can’t say I liked the book, I’m glad I met these people, to see another point of view.

Ha Jin – A Good Fall (continued)

When we last left A Good Fall, I was struggling with the style – sparse and choppy, a little awkward in places, to me at least. And the stories themselves, which seemed to be, well, not all that much. And just so we remember, I take full responsibility for not “getting” it. I wish someone would show me what I’m missing.

And now we start with “In the Crossfire” and I go back to where I rethought some things: this is a comedy. Tian Chu works at a company that is laying people off regularly, his wife Connie is almost done with her nursing classes but not quite, and his mother is visiting – for six months. Now, one of the interesting aspects of this that is unique to the Chinese background is that it’s easier for her to visit for six months than for three weeks, both in terms of travel and in terms of her visa. The problem is, she’s one helluva mother. He’s doing nothing right. Her daughter-in-law is doing nothing right, and then some. There are some oddities in here – he is sleeping in a separate room from his wife, which is not explained, other than to say that if he does sleep in the same room with his wife, his mother will admonish him not to have sex because his wife will suck him dry. I’m not sure if this is a cultural thing or if she’s being the Mother from Hell. In any case, he and wife Connie are struggling, after a couple of weeks, to tolerate Mom. Tian does the cooking, which Mom doesn’t appreciate. She also doesn’t appreciate Connie’s allergy to beans (which I was certain would become a point of high drama, but nope) or that she goes to school or that her family is not as educated as hers. She makes friends with a neighborhood woman and they all have dinner together, but this, like the bean allergy, is pretty much a dead end. The story crawls forward through various pointless plot points until Tian thinks of a clever way to get Mom to go home. I’m guessing the point is how far Tian will go to avoid telling his mother to go away, but I wish I didn’t have to read the whole story just to get there.

Next I read “Shame” – now here’s what I was waiting for. I enjoyed “The Composer and the Parakeet” but this, this was what I’d expected all along. The style is still cramped to my tastes, but there’s a story here, and there are people who are dealing with things I don’t know about. I know several folks who can’t get their families off their backs, who can’t say “No” or can’t change their lives even when they are miserable, but I know few who harbor a defector at the possible cost of their own residency. And again I had a bit of an “aha” moment over the exchange of gifts with the publisher – several books vs. a mahjongg set, which was shocking to the protagonist, and I’m still not sure why but I can only assume the tiles are cheap and the books are considered valuable. Maybe the reason so much of these stories go by me is because I don’t understand how this social rigor, this culture, is so ingrained that it’s really unthinkable to do anything else but let Mom stay on, or to stop seeing Mom because Daughter doesn’t like it, or send Sister money, or let the Professor stay. I think of the difference between these stories and between those of my friend Marko, and I remember the multi-generational family in “Children as Enemies” and I am amazed at how quickly generational shifts occur. My “not getting” the stories is the reason to read them.

I continued with “An English Professor” which I enjoyed thoroughly for a very narcissistic reason – I could see myself in his shoes. For very different reasons. The professor in question is, much like Ha Jin, a native Chinese speaker who now teaches English Literature and is applying for tenure at his university. He prepares the materials, and signs the cover letter, “Respectly yours.” What’s fascinating to me is that he doesn’t recognize it should be “Respectfully” even after looking it up and finding that word: he thinks it should have been “Respectedly”. Now, that’s interesting. “respectfully” means “I have respect for you” whereas “Respectedly” means “I am respected by you.” I love this. Any native English speaker who’s ever read a business letter knows it should be “Respectfully” but his uncertainty, and his research that to him means it should be “respectedly”, is very touching and sad. In any event, it doesn’t matter because the letter has been submitted, and he is obsessed with the error, and is convinced it will not only disqualify him for tenure but it will get him fired by marking him as incompetent to teach English literature since he can’t even write a letter. I understand this; I know the sinking pit of his stomach when he sees the error, I know how he tosses and turns at night imagining the faces of the faculty members who will sneer at him, I understand how it takes over his life. And it does, as he looks for other jobs before having any feedback whatsoever on his application. First he goes to a Chinese language newspaper and finds out he will make about half what he would make as a professor, and then he applies for a sales job that turns out to be… selling encyclopedias! Now, at this point, I got it, I really did. I’m thinking, NO NO DON’T DO IT because, well, we all know how those things work out (the story was set in the mid-90′s, and a fellow applicant tells him the encyclopedias will soon be obsolete because of the Internet). My brother sold encyclopedias in the 70′s. I bought a children’s set from an earnest young man, for my nephew. You don’t go from being a professor – ok, an associate professor, or lecturer, or whatever he is pre-tenure – to selling encyclopedias! And he doesn’t know this. He can analyze prose and text and use technical methodology to write a book on “Immigrant Literature” but he does not know this, just as he does not know “Respectfully.” Now I get it! Finally, I get it – this is the book I should’ve read when I studied TESOL back in 1988, when we saw the movie about non-English speaking college students struggling with everyday life – they’d do great in their engineering courses and even in their poli-sci and English courses, but they’d go to Burger King and be stumped by “For here or to go?” That is what this book is about, all these people who are so talented, so smart, so hard-working, so determined, and they are not getting it, just as I was not getting it. I’ve got “for here or to go” down fine, but why is she sending money to her sister to buy a car and why doesn’t he tell his mother she has to stop being such a pill or go back home and why oh why would he even consider selling encyclopedias? These behaviors, so normal to them, are as incomprehensible to me as fast-food-speak. I was in their shoes.

I get it now.

Except, I don’t think that’s really what it is. I don’t really think Ha Jin wrote this book of stories to make me feel lost and befuddled just like a Chinese immigrant who’s been here long enough to function perfectly well as a composer or professor or accountant, but is befuddled by trying to adhere to cultural standards that aren’t made for American life. But maybe that’s what it is for me. I hope I can figure out what it really is, but for me, I think that’s what it is. Then again, there are four stories left to go, and I may discover something new in them, too.

Ha Jin – “Choice” and “Children As Enemies” from A Good Fall

I’ve been avoiding A Good Fall, the short story collection by Ha Jin, because it makes me feel stupid. I don’t get it. I feel like I’m missing something, but try as I might, I can’t figure out what. Earlier I discussed “The Bane of the Internet,” “A Composer And His Parakeet” (which I enjoyed), and “The Beauty.” I’m not one to give up lightly, so onward.

“Choice” concerns a grad student, Dave Hong, who applies for a job tutoring high schooler Sami Min to get her SAT scores into college application shape. Dave’s father, a plastic surgeon, withdrew financial support for his Masters studies and does not see history, or a professorship, as worthy of his own son. Here I am intrigued by my own memory. My father was an immigrant, at a very young age, from Sweden. He made every effort to Americanize and by the time I happened on the scene, he’d sanitized our home of anything Scandinavian. Had it not been for a couple of my aunts, I would not have the four words of Swedish I know, nor would I know how to make Vetebrod. And my father once said of his sister’s oldest son: “He teaches classes at Harvard, and he wrote a book about cults, but I don’t really know what he does for a living.” (The cousin is, in fact, a Harvard sociology professor specializing in group behaviors, including cults). Had he sold shoes, or owned a coffee shop, my father would have understood what he did for a living. So I can understand how there is generational confusion about what constitutes a profession and what does not.

Back to the story. Dave works with Sami, and begins to join the family for meals. He becomes, in fact, part of the family, and finds himself drawn to Eileen Min, his tutee’s very recently widowed mother. All the while, it’s obvious Sami has a crush on him.

The story proceeds about how you’d expect from there. The situation is rich with the essence of humanity and short stories. Everyone has lost something: Sami, her father; Eileen, her husband and possibly her husband’s dream that Sami will go to college; Dave, his family’s support and respect. They all want something, sometimes several things. Dave starts out wanting to pay his bills and ends up wanting to be part of a family, then wanting to be part of Eileen’s life. And Sami, so recently defathered and in love with Dave herself, does not like that idea. Yet it all feels flat, cartoonish. In fact, I wondered if this was a spoof of some kind. If I read the opening paragraph in a workshop, my heart would sink and I’d think, “Oh, dear, how can I react to this honestly and painlessly?”

I don’t get it. Fortunately, the NYT book review also didn’t get it. Colm Toibin reviewed the collection on 12/31/09: at the same time he praises Jin’s “lack of color” and “quiet, careful, restrained prose” he admits “some of the early stories seem to have been weakened by this approach… runs the danger of being too obvious and predictable, and so the stories read more like sketches or fables. No one behaves out of character; each confrontation is inevitable and schematically rendered.” Whew. Maybe I’m not completely stupid. He also indicates that the stories proceed and become more complex, more unpredictable. Tick, tock.

In “Children as Enemies” the themes are heartbreaking, and true, and universal. Kids scorn what their parents treasure; kids innovate while grandparents conserve. My father hated “papercover” books, not realizing that the dime novels – Westerns, early pulp fiction – are not the paperbacks of today even when I waved copies of John Updike and Herman Wouk in his face. He was distraught that I moved into a “brownstone” when I moved away from home, a type of housing he considered synonymous with poverty and dissolution. He was never able to see that some things in the world had changed, and as a result, now that I’m an old fart I make every effort to keep an open mind – about Twitter, rap music, polygamy… well, you get the idea.

Again, back to the story. One thing in this saved it from spoofery: the parents came to the US from China, selling their candy store and apartment, to be with their children and grandchildren, and end up having to move out because they can’t accept that the grandchildren wish to change their names. This breaks my heart. In an effort to reunite the family, they destroy it. Their rigidity about names is not based on something abstract, but on a quasi-religious belief in Fate: a child with a name that means “amazing courage” can’t just change his name on a whim without losing something. And again, they are seeking to preserve their heritage, while the grandchildren view heritage as a burden (other kids make fun of their names). And the parents are caught in the middle. But the almost comical sparseness of the prose makes it unsatisfying to me.

I suppose it’s a matter of style and preference. I’ve read sparse stories that were moving, and there are elements of that here, especially in “Children as Enemies.” But the sparsity here detracts. I wish I were sophisticated enough to recognize the greatness of these stories. After all, Ha Jin has won many prestigious awards. And I don’t get it, which makes me feels stupid. If this was a memoir, nonfiction, I would find it more interesting, but it is fiction, and I don’t see the pull. Yet. I will read on, and see if I find the magic in later stories.

Ha Jin – “The Beauty” and reconsideration of “The Bane of the Internet”

Since reading more of Ha Jin’s stories, I’ve reconsidered “The Bane of the Internet.” No, that isn’t exactly true – I discovered something I hadn’t seen before, and now I feel stupid that I didn’t see it immediately. It’s the irony. The sister who has come to America, the one who is in China. The ant and the grasshopper. The planner and the flirt. The goal-driven and the status-driven. The perennial immigrant and the soap-opera star. And how that will change, once the sister in America has her own shop and her kids will live the soap opera. I’m not sure how to articulate it, but there is something clever there.

This came to me after reading “The Beauty” where I see a similar cleverness, couched in a story that is, well, not much. It reads like something out of a 40′s pulp mag. Or a fable – or a Zin story! A real estate agent has a beautiful wife and is so concerned because his child is so plain, and he is beautiful, his wife is beautiful, so where did this ugly child come from, this child who cries all night and keeps him awake? The wife is friends with an ugly man and that raises suspicions. It’s the focus on beauty, the disappointment that his wife’s beauty isn’t genuine but artifical via plastic surgery – and thus tarnished – that makes it interesting. He’s so focused on status. There’s a couple that wants to move from Switzerland to Flushing so they can get real Chinese food (a notion that made me giggle). He wants to leave Flushing because there are no English bookstores. I didn’t realize Flushing was now predominantly Chinese, but I guess it is. This guy left China once, and he isn’t happy to find it being recreated around him. I found myself wanting to know about his daughter, in the coming years, whether they became close or whether he continued to see her as ugly and disruptive, if he ever changed. This was more of a character portrait. Aha! I think that’s the thing, in these stories, there are plots, but the characters do not change, they never have any insight, their efforts are driven to keeping things the way they are. Then there’s the whole aspect of him publicly renouncing his Communist party membership after Tiennamen Square. I didn’t realize that was possible, at least not if one wanted to live outside of a political prison, and certainly not if one wanted to emigrate. I come back to something that was said, I believe, on The West Wing (“everything I needed to know about politics I learned from The West Wing”) – that China started out 100% communist and America started out 100% capitalist, and now China is 80% communist and America is 80% capitalist, and one day they will meet in the middle (uh oh, don’t show that to any Tea Partiers, they’ll think it’s cause to shoot somebody).