The idea of Ralph’s “non-life” refers most broadly to his alienation from society and any specific national identity. Although this negation of what he views as his authentic life stays with him for a long time, he sharply feels this sense of separation and in-between status in his first years in the United States. Although Ralph had proper immigrant documents when he arrived from China, after the communist revolution succeeds there he grows terrified of being deported. Once he allows his permission to lapse, he becomes an undocumented immigrant who must try to remain undetected.
Ralph’s effort to stay under the radar of immigration services includes not leaving a paper trail. He becomes a fugitive, constantly on the move and taking whatever job he can get that pays cash. The idea of his metaphorical “underground” existence is accentuated by the description of one of his jobs. The phrase “Ralph’s non-life” is introduced in reference to his depressing existence at a butcher shop. He actually works in a basement, killing and plucking chickens.
The longer he continues to live like this, the more his sense of not fitting in anywhere deepens. The China he once knew has become a different place and would not be recognizable as his home. At the same time, he is conscious of not belonging in the US. Ralph’s non-life is the antithesis of the American Dream.