A Free Life

by Ha Jin
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A Free Life

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1847

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.

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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 sociology and finding no academic job. The Gaos appear just one step behind the Wus, forsaking parenthood for money issues.

A Free Life continues to chronicle the Wu family’s struggles in achieving the American Dream. Jin does so in a quiet, humane way that refuses the literary ploys of big drama and sudden catastrophes. The Wus are portrayed with a humane gentleness that focuses on their realistic struggles as new citizens in a foreign land that is not always free of racist prejudices and squabbles within the immigrant community.

While European American characters like Janet and Dave Mitchell befriend the Wu family and, to a certain aspect, prove more genuine than many of their Chinese and Chinese American compatriots, there are some racist Caucasian home owners in the subdivision where the Wus purchase a home. Then there are conflicts with fellow Chinese who are torn between loyalties to a country in the grip of a communist government but still representing the ancestral home. Mei Hong is a Chinese American activist violently denouncing America and trying to solicit support for Chinese flood victims and the athletes of the Chinese Olympic team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Nan stands up to her anti-American diatribes at one of the few meetings of the Chinese diaspora he attends. Their enmity remains deep despite the help she raised when Hailee, the Mitchells’ adopted Chinese daughter, needs a bone marrow donor to treat her acute leukemia. Jin always portrays his characters in a multidimensional fashion, pointing at both their moral strengths and weaknesses.

Severe personal tragedy strikes the Wus when Pingping’s new baby girl dies in her womb. Jin describes the event unflinchingly, and an international reader may wonder at the speed at which Pingping is dismissed from an American hospital on the afternoon after the dead fetus is removed from her womb, causing her severe loss of blood. The hospital machinery runs its course, and the Wu family is unable to obtain the aborted fetus to bury it in a Chinese jewelry chest in their garden, causing mental trauma to Pingping, who is denied this form of closure.

Nan is finally able to go back to China when he wins a raffle drawing. This plot twist allows Jin to describe the changes in China after the Tiananmen Square massacre, adding yet another dimension to A Free Life. With Nan’s trip, the novel also explores an immigrant’s ambiguous feelings when visiting the native land.

Back in Beijing, Nan meets his friend Danning Meng, who made the opposite choice of Nan. Returning from America and accommodating himself with the communist authorities, he has become a minor writer who counts as his friends privileged army writers. Danning is able to enjoy part of the late 1990’s economic boom of mainland China, dining at fancy restaurants and being chauffeured by a friend’s army-owned import car, whose driver runs red lights unmolested by the intimidated police.

Reuniting with his parents proves traumatic for Nan, for he realizes that even his mother is out to gain materially from her son’s new prosperity in America. The passages of Nan’s return to China in A Free Life stand out for their bitterness in their portrayal of Nan’s home country. This is reminiscent of Jin’s earlier short stories and novels set in China that expose the pettiness of common people, their envy and selfishness.

Meeting his long-lost first love Beina Su back in America, Nan is finally freed from this ghost of his past. Now he can recognize Beina for who she isnot his muse in the style of Petrarch’s Laura, for example, but a selfish, middle-aged woman out for herself.

The novel achieves closure when Nan decides to give up his restaurant to devote himself to poetry. In his only major breakdown in A Free Life, Nan defiantly burns some money at the altar of the money god in his restaurant, throwing Pingping into a fit. Soon after, she suffers from a prolapsed disk, temporarily disabling her, and Nan sells the Golden Wok to Shubo and Niyan and takes a job as night watchman at a Korean-owned motel. This frees him to read and to write his poetry.

Even as the Gaos disappoint Nan when they put their new business interests above friendship, refusing to hire Pingping, Nan finds fulfillment as a poet. It is through his poem “Belated Love” that he finally acknowledges his love for Pingping, who stood by him all the years. If a reader may object to her portrayal as a long-suffering and patient wife as a stereotype, the truth is that Jin drew her character from real people.

Stylistically, A Free Life closes with homage to Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago (1957), a book the author and his character Nan admire very much. As in the Russian novel, A Free Life ends with the poems supposedly written by Nan that capture his life in America in a nutshell. Another successful literary device employed by Jin is to render all the Chinese spoken by characters in italics and their often rudimentary English in regular roman type. This technique works beautifully to show the difference in their ability to express themselves in the two languages, a common problem for recent immigrants.

Overall, A Free Life offers a fascinating, heartfelt account of a Chinese American family’s struggle to make it in America. This unique novel touches on some common issues, such as the question of family, love, sacrifice, and the decision to adopt a new home country. Even though Jin dedicated his novel to his wife, Lisha, and his son, Wen, both of whom “lived this book,” A Free Life is by no means an autobiography or a memoir. Jin’s life in America has differed considerably from that of Nan Wu. Ironically, for example, the author never worked in the restaurant business at a position higher than that of a waiter and even was demoted to busboy. Jin also finished his Ph.D. in English literature and found academic employment in 1993, one year after his graduation.

In sum, the internal and external struggles of the Wu family ring true. While the Wus are based on slivers of stories collected from many contemporary Chinese American immigrant lives, they are also given their own specific and genuine character and life circumstances. A Free Life is a captivating book that can hold its readers’ attention throughout. With its quiet, loving portrayal of personal and family struggle, it is one of Ha Jin’s finest achievements by 2007.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 27

The Atlantic Monthly 300, no. 5 (December, 2007): 114.

Booklist 103, no. 21 (July 1, 2007): 9.

Elle 23, no. 3 (November, 2007): 250.

Entertainment Weekly, no. 982 (November 2, 2007): 66.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 16 (August 15, 2007): 815.

Library Journal 132, no. 13 (August 1, 2007): 67.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 29 (July 23, 2007): 40.

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