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.