Chinese Lessons

Chinese immigrant story
A Free Life by Ha Jin. Image source: Goodreads


Chinese immigrant Ha Jin is a prolific writer who writes exclusively in English, even though Mandarin is his native tongue. He’s a prize-winning author, including two Pen|Faulkner awards. A Free Life was published in 2007 and lauded at the time.

It is then with great trepidation that I say: I gave A Free Life one star on Goodreads.

the american dream

In A Free Life, the Wu family – husband Nan, wife Pingping and young son Taotao – is stranded in the US after the Tiananmen Square massacre. The family never intended to remain in America. Nan was to obtain his PhD in political science and get a top job back in China.

Instead, Nan is thrown out of school, loses his passport and is reduced to taking on menial jobs. He’s variously a janitor, a caretaker, a night watchman, the editor of a fly-by-night Chinese literary journal, a waiter and a cook. Through scrimping and saving, the Wu’s realize the American dream. They buy their own business (a Chinese restaurant), their own house and soon will be sending their son to college.

At the meta level, this is a journey of language as the Wu’s relinquish their native Chinese and embrace English instead. They have practical concerns, like how to fill out a US income tax form. But Nan wants more. He wants to write poetry in English.

a chinese nightmare

It’s a hard road to hoe. Nan’s English is less than perfect. His working days are long and exhausting. With little time to read and even less to write, Nan’s poetic longings remain unfulfilled until the very end of the novel. The epilogue consists of extracts from Nan’s poetry journal, in which he records his progress and ultimate success, and some of Nan’s poems.

Success is neither immediate or permanent. In his poetry journal, Nan quotes from a rejection letter he receives from the editor of a literary journal. She writes:

I admire your courage, but I should let you know you are wasting your time. English is too hard for you. You may be able to write prose in English eventually, but poetry is impossible. So don’t waste your time anymore.

Harsh words but I have to agree. I could hardly make it through the novel, burdened as the language is.


For one thing, there’s the use of pidgin English to mark Nan and Pingping for the immigrants they are. Maybe I’m reacting like the American-Born Chinese that I am. My parents speak impeccable English but I always hated to listen to their friends and their multitude of linguistic defects.

How much that cost? she asked.

“What we do and make this legal? asked Pingping.

Was it really necessary to use pidgin to convey that the Wu’s are immigrants? Or to italicize each and every time the Wu’s converse in Chinese? How stupid is the reader presumed to be?

To hear Ha Jin tell it, there are more PhD candidates working in your average Chinese restaurant than there are woks in the kitchen. Maybe it’s true and I’m the snob for never having tried to converse with a cook or a waiter. Whatever the level of education, it seems like such a disservice to portray a character like Pingping as someone to laugh at.

plain speech

The blurbs on the back cover seem to point at another problem, perhaps even more troubling than stereotyping immigrant behavior. These blurbs all refer to other novels by Ha Jin but could equally apply to A Free Life. “The plainest declarative sentences” (The New Yorker on The Crazed). “Spare prose” (USA Today on The Bridegroom). “The stripped-down simplicity of a fable” (Los Angeles Times Book Review on Waiting).

Simple language to tell a complex tale can be highly effective. In A Free Life, however, the bareness flattens the narrative arc. Things happen to the Wu family. Jin tells us how the characters feel, Nan in particular, but I can’t see it or sympathize at any level.


I think it’s the voice and I think I recognize it from other works by Chinese authors. I’ve seen it in works written originally in English like Wild Swans by Jung Chang. But also in works translated from the Chinese into English like Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu. The events play out in a monotonous, chronological order. There is a resistance, possibly even a refusal, to engage with the reader at an emotional level. I feel distance and, in the end, disaffection.

Sadly, this is all very recognizable in my own writing. When I first started on the manuscript that became The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, I contacted a London editor thinking I had a publishable work. He begged to differ. He said it really nicely and in a way that helped me move forward but in essence his complaint was: where’s the emotion?

When you’re writing about horrific events as in Jung Chang does, it makes sense to dial back the drama. Let history speak for itself. Or, if you’re a writer like Qian Zhongshu, the product of a society that does not prize emotional expression, perhaps you can’t help yourself. I was raised to be stoic, too. Are all Chinese bred to be emotionless, no matter where or when they were born? That seems like an awfully gross over-generalization.

In any event, I’m not the only reader underwhelmed by this book. John Updike, writing for The New Yorker, was no fan either. He, too, took issue with the writing in the literal sense of the term. In the end, it’s all about the writing. This one left me cold.