Ha Jin’s fourth story collection, A Good Fall, consists of twelve short stories, each focusing on the experiences of Chinese American immigrants working hard to improve their lives in a country whose ways are foreign to them. The stories are equally divided between first- and third-person narration, and the viewpoint characters, primarily male but occasionally female, range from young twenty-somethings to elderly grandparents. Jin’s use of Flushing, New York, as a consistent locale for the stories is extremely effective; he paints a broad yet in-depth portrait of the Chinese American immigrant experience by featuring garment industry laborers, restaurant workers, and even prostitutes alongside the more prosperous businesspeople and academics with whom they share both a past and a present geographic identity.
As with Jin’s previous novels and story collections, the stories in A Good Fall resonate in large part because they successfully distill common experience into short, tightly woven narratives. Specifically, the collection focuses on the cultural and interpersonal conflicts encountered by those who have traded a culture that is largely based on familial responsibility for one that places greater value on personal independence. As such, a common source of conflict in these stories is that of age or generational differences.
In “Choice,” for instance, Dave Hong is hired by Eileen Min, a forty-year-old Chinese American widow, to tutor her daughter Sami for her college entrance exams. Dave and Eileen are immediately attracted to one another, but Dave, who is twenty-seven, knows that his parents back in China will be horrified if he marries a woman so much older than himself. Dave is willing to risk his parents’ disapproval, but a further complication ensues when Sami also develops feelings for Dave. Sami demands that Eileen break off her relationship with Dave, and Eileen does so, feeling disloyal in the face of her daughter’s outrage, which seems to stem in part from Sami’s sense that romantic and sexual feelings are not appropriate for a woman of her mother’s age.
Generational conflict also appears in the descriptively titled “Children as Enemies.” The story is narrated in the first person by a grandfather who has come to the United States with his wife to join their married son’s family. The narrator feels compelled to point out the flaws he sees in his daughter-in-law and grandchildren’s behavior, and he continually advises his son how to raise and educate his children. The final straw is broken when the children demand to change their legal surname in addition to their already Americanized first names. This story is particularly effective because readers can find fault both with the grandparents’ meddling and with the grandchildren’s lack of respect for their elders. In the end, it is perhaps members of the middle generation that engender the most sympathy, caught as they are between two warring factions and unable to please anyone.
Other stories in the collection touch upon the difficulty of working as an academic in a foreign language, an experience with which Jin himself is intimately familiar. In “Shame,” Hongfan Wang is a Wisconsin university graduate student who has come to New York to work for the summer and to broaden his American experience. He is initially delighted when his former teacher from China, Fuhua Meng, contacts him during a government-sponsored visit. Wang feels conflicted, though, because he believes that Meng’s work must be fundamentally inferior to that of Western academics as a result of the government censorship in China that has limited Meng’s access to genuine scholarship.
Meng then defects because his wife in China has extensive medical bills and he believes he can make more money in the United States, even working illegally in menial jobs, than he can make as an academic in China. Wang helps Meng elude the authorities, in part because he feels guilty that he will be free to pursue an academic career while Meng must give up any hope of continuing the scholarship he loves. This story is particularly poignant, highlighting the fact that educated immigrants cannot necessarily utilize their education once they are in a new country.
Similarly, in “An English Professor,” Rusheng Tang applies for tenure at a...
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