Essays and Criticism
The Layers of Deception in Ha Jin's Short Story
Ha Jin's short story ‘‘In the Kindergarten’’ is filled with deceit, which is used for several different purposes. Characters manipulate one another for personal gain, to ease sorrow, to avoid social persecution, and in order to seek revenge. Some characters fabricate stories in an attempt to preserve someone else's innocence. Some are subtle in their deception, whereas others carelessly expose their dishonesty in their haste to meet their needs. Even the narrator cannot be fully trusted, as the reader is led to make certain assumptions that upon closer examination turn out to be false. By the end of the story, the reader is left to ponder if Jin's short story is a morality tale or merely a statement of fact: people just tend to lie.
"In the Kindergarten'' begins with little Shaona being unable to sleep at naptime. Unlike her fellow classmates in her kindergarten, Shaona's mind is active with thoughts about missing her home and wondering if her parents' love has been withdrawn from her since the recent birth of her baby brother. As she lies awake on her cot, she overhears her teacher talking on the telephone. The voice is fuzzy in the background, however, and Shaona must press her ear to the wall so she can hear better. Teacher Shen is upset, but Shaona is not sure why. Her teacher is using words that Shaona does not understand. The words that Shaona does understand are used in ways that do not make sense to her. For example, Teacher Shen is referring to a loss of blood in connection to having a baby. This conflicts with the image that Shaona has in her head. Shaona's grandmother had told her that babies come from pumpkin patches. Surely, her grandmother would not lie.
When the students finally wake up, they go outside, where the sweet smell of dichlorvos greets them. The potent pesticide will rid the city of flies, fleas, and mosquitoes. Could it be that something with such a pleasant fragrance could be so deadly? Then Shaona sees two jet fighters drawing a long double curve in the sky. Her eyes tell her that the planes are no bigger than pigeons. If this is true, how could a pilot fit inside them? Could her own eyes be deceiving her?
Teacher Shen follows the children outside. She has conceived of a plan. She will treat her students, who trust her completely in their innocence, to a day outside of the isolating walls that surround their school. She will take them to the turnip field behind their kindergarten, where they will learn to recognize and pick purslane, a tasty salad green that grows like a weed in the garden. In order to persuade her students that the work they will be doing in the hot sun is worthwhile, Teacher Shen accentuates the tasty meal of purslane, which she has promised them at the end of their toil, smacking her lips and saying, ‘‘It tastes great, different from anything you've ever had. Tell me, do you all want to have purslanes for dinner or not?’’ Of course they do. Their normal meal is bland and boring. Anything new added to the menu would be exciting, even if they have to work in the noonday sun to get it, instead of playing during their recess. Teacher Shen would not lie to them.
Teacher Shen herself, however, has also been lied to. She used to be more fun, Shaona reflects. She used to sing and smile. Recently, however, she has become sullen. Rumor has it that she divorced her husband because he was sent to jail for embezzlement. Poor Teacher Shen: she has a liar for a husband.
As the children continue to work in the garden, Uncle Chang reminds the students from time to time, from his reclining position under the broad, shady leaves of a tree, not to step on the young turnip plants as they pull out the purslanes. Uncle Chang is in charge of several gardens in the area. He must be smiling at the children and especially at Teacher Shen, who has figured out a way to weed the garden for him for free. Sneaky Uncle Chang: in the end, not only will he receive a long noontime nap and a weed-free garden but he will, in effect, take home the students' portion of the bounty to enjoy with his dinner meal.
One slightly bright boy, named Dabin, recalls that he once ate purslanes and that they tasted "like crap, more bitter than sweet potato vines.’’ He was forced to eat it for medicinal reasons and would not have done so if his mother had not insisted. His memories can't be true, of course, because the children around him recall that Teacher Shen just told them that it tastes great. The young boy must be a liar. When a fight breaks out between the boy and one of his accusers, Shaona is the final judge of who will be punished. She points to Dabin, who is taken away and put into isolation to...
(The entire section is 1916 words.)