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...
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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 teaching college and feels fairly confident of receiving it, until he notices that he has signed his cover letter “respectly yours” instead of “respectfully yours.” Tang becomes utterly convinced that he is a laughingstock among his American colleagues and that they will never approve tenure for an English literature professor whom they will see as incapable of mastering the English language. Like Wang in “Shame,” Tang expresses his feeling that a Chinese immigrant’s scholarship may never measure up to Western standards. In fact, Tang is so distraught that he seeks work as a salesman, convinced that his shame when tenure is denied will be too great to allow him ever to work in academia again. Fortunately, Tang does get tenure after all, but his relief is so great that he becomes hysterical, perhaps indicating that his underlying sense of inferiority is much stronger than he previously realized.
Perhaps the most common theme expressed in these stories is the burden of family ties that stretch halfway around the world when a Chinese immigrant to the United States has left family behind. The unnamed first-person narrator in “The Bane of the Internet” waitresses seven days a week at a sushi restaurant. She is trying desperately to save enough money to make a down payment to purchase a small apartment instead of wasting money on rent. Her parents and sister back in China, however, assume that she has an easy life and can send cash whenever they need it. The narrator’s sister, Yuchin, demands several thousand dollars to buy an American car, which is considered a status symbol in China, and threatens to sell one of her own organs to raise the money if the narrator will not help her. The narrator capitulates, reflecting bitterly that life was easier before e-mail and the Internet made it so easy for her family to stay in constant touch with her.
In “Temporary Love,” Lina prepares to end her relationship of convenience with Panbin because her husband will soon be arriving from China. Lina and Panbin have been living together as a “wartime couple,” or two lovers both married to other people who are still back in China. Lina has enjoyed her time with Panbin in spite of her guilt, but she is determined to pick up her marriage where it left off four years earlier when she came to the United States. Panbin argues that he now loves Lina, but he does not know how to proceed since his wife in China will undoubtedly get custody of their son if he tries to divorce her. Both Lina and Panbin’s spouses become aware of their infidelity; Lina therefore feels obligated to give her husband the money she has so painstakingly saved so that he can get an M.B.A. degree, even though she considers it a bad idea. In the meantime, Panbin’s wife divorces him from China, and Panbin bitterly declares he will no longer date Chinese women, because they all have too much past baggage and he wants to live more freely.
Marriage is also examined in the story “In the Crossfire.” Tian Chu quickly comes to regret inviting his mother to the United States for a six-month visit when she immediately begins criticizing everything about Chu’s wife, Connie. Although Chu feels his mother is unreasonable, his sense of parental respect is so ingrained that he simply cannot bring himself to defy her. The tension becomes so great that Connie threatens to leave, and Chu rather ingeniously quits his job, telling his mother he was fired for poor performance caused by the strain in his household. Although Chu is vastly relieved when his mother decides to return to China early, he cannot help but reflect on how selflessly both his parents helped him achieve an education, and he wishes things could be different between them now.
In “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry,” Wanping supplements his income as a garment presser by chauffeuring his three female housemates to their appointments as prostitutes. He soon develops feelings for Huong, a young woman from Cholon, the Chinese district in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Huong wishes to stop selling herself but still owes several thousand dollars of her “smuggling fee” to an unethical human trafficker. In addition, her parents expect her to send them a great deal of money toward eventually getting her younger brother into the United States as well. Wanping convinces Huong to leave New York to escape the trafficker’s clutches, but he realizes this means that neither of them can ever contact their families again because to do so would leave a trail that could be used to hunt them down. Wanping concludes, “In this place, we had no choice but to take loss as necessity,” a statement that can be applied to many of the characters in these stories, who so often must sacrifice something of value in order to survive.
In the collection’s title story, “A Good Fall,” twenty-eight-year-old monk Ganchin has also been taken advantage of by an unscrupulous trafficker of sorts. Ganchin has become too sick to teach, and the master of the temple where Ganchin teaches refuses to pay his promised salary, leaving Ganchin with the choice of going back to China in disgrace or becoming homeless. Ganchin ultimately decides to kill himself, seeing it as the only option without shame, but his suicide attempt fails. Ironically, the resulting publicity leads to the downfall of the corrupt temple master, who has similarly swindled other immigrants, and the story ends with Ganchin gaining a new chance at a prosperous life and perhaps even love.
Much of the success of this collection can be attributed to Jin’s ability to group together works that are deceptively similar in setting and situation while actually depicting a broad range of experience. His earlier story collections are similarly focused: Ocean of Words: Army Stories (1996) deals with members of the Chinese army serving near their country’s northern border during the tumultuous 1960’s; Under the Red Flag (1997) focuses on the Cultural Revolution; and The Bridegroom (2000) depicts the experiences of residents living in China’s fictional Muji City after the revolution. By moving the focal point of A Good Fall to the United States, Jin has produced an impressive body of short fiction that provides insight into the complex path that his own life has taken, along with the lives of so many other Chinese, Chinese Americans, and immigrants of other nationalities.
Booklist 106, no. 6 (November 15, 2009): 20.
Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 19 (October 1, 2009): 1038.
Library Journal 134, no. 17 (October 15, 2009): 72.
Publishers Weekly 256, no. 38 (September 21, 2009): 35-36.
New York 42, no. 41 (December 7, 2009): 76-77.
The Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2009, p. W7.