With A Free Life, celebrated and major award-winning Chinese American writer Ha Jin offers a new novel set primarily in the United States, as opposed to his previous works taking place in mainland China or Korea. A Free Life features an honest, perceptive look at a Chinese American immigrant family struggling to make it in their new country.
The story begins when Nan and Pingping Wu are finally reunited with their six-year-old son Taotao, who is permitted to leave the People’s Republic of China to join his parents in America. In the aftermath of the historic Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, when troops of the People’s Liberation Army violently crushed student dissents in Beijing, Nan Wu has decided not to return to his native country after his Ph.D. studies are finished at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Instead, he drops out of college and seeks to pursue the American Dream as an alternative to earning an American degree and returning to a Communist Party-approved position in China.
Throughout the novel, A Free Life raises the issue of what to do with one’s life. Nan Wu deliberately breaks with his past life that would have offered some stability, modest privileges, and material security at the price of political acquiescence and subjugation to an often capricious, arbitrary communist government that subjects its citizens to the petty harassment of its officials. Instead, Nan wants to live in freedom, even though this means initial social demotion and cultural alienation and years of financial hardship and struggle.
With the Wus, Jin creates a Chinese American immigrant family that needs to cope as much with survival in their new country of choice as with personal ghosts and hardships that threaten to destroy their fragile union. When Nan decides to become editor of a struggling Chinese-language literary magazine in New York City and takes on a restaurant job to pay living expenses, Pingping and Taotao are left at the mercy of their landlord and Pingping’s employer, the rich Bostonian widow Heidi Masefield. Behind the facade of Heidi’s friendliness lurks the ugly reality that she considers her Chinese household help a foreign burden, despite all that they do for her and her two teenage children. Pingping realizes that, despite drinking wine with them at Thanksgiving, Heidi will never consider the Wus as true equals. She even unjustly accuses Taotao of stealing her son’s new calculator.
Escape from this form of mental and economic bondage occurs when Nan buys a Chinese restaurant in a suburb of Atlanta. Suddenly, the Wus are on their own and ready to pursue the material aspects of the American Dream. Jin perceptively describes the various struggles they go through as they try to establish themselves in America, and he offers a clear view on what it takes to succeed in the free, capitalist economy.
The deepest problems of the Wu family do not center on material issues. Nan is still in the thrall of his lost first love, Beina Su, who coldly rejected him back in Beijing. He cannot bring himself to fully love his wife Pingping, who has completely overcome her own callous betrayal by a young naval officer. With an emotional brutality mindful of many of Jin’s earlier works set in China, for example his short stories collected in Under the Red Flag (1997), Nan tells Pingping repeatedly that he does not really love her. In a similarly brutal vein, their son Taotao often talks back at and rejects his father when Nan openly scolds and even once strikes his son. Pingping serves as a mediator holding together the fragile family at moments of utter mental stress.
As Nan gradually succeeds with his restaurant, the Golden Wok, in the middle of the 1992 recession and beyond, emotional issues begin to loom even larger. There is the question of his ambition to be a poet, not a businessman, and his unresolved issues with Pingping. Whenever his friend Dick Harrison, who has moved from New York City to Atlanta as an associate professor at Emory University, visits his restaurant, Nan is reminded of his unfulfilled literary aspirations. Dick is a good friend but is also caught in the web of academic vicissitudes. Through him, Nan learns that a poet’s life in America can be full of political and professional pitfalls.
Eventually Nan hires the Chinese American couple Shubo and Niyan Gao, who serve as literary foils to the Wus. Like Nan, Shubo quits academia, but only after obtaining a Ph.D. in...
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