Chinese Author Pens 'A Good Fall'

Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with author Ha Jin, who writes about the Chinese experience in his new book of short stories A Good Fall. Ha Jin sets his stories in Flushing, New York. The area is home to one of New York's largest Chinese immigrant communities.

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LYDEN: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up, renowned poet Nikki Giovanni tells us what music she's been listening to lately in our occasional series In Your Ear.

But first, an author who focuses his attention on the Chinese immigrant experience. Ha Jin knows a few things about immigrating to America. In 1985, he left his native China to attend Brandeis University. As a writer, Ha Jin has kept a literary eye trained on China. He's taken the Chinese experience and rendered it for American readers.

Ha Jin's new book of short stories, "A Good Fall," is set in one of the most American of cities, New York. Flushing, Queens, is home to one of New York's largest Chinese immigrant communities. In painting the portrait of this slice of society, Jin considers many generational perspectives in characters who are trying to discover their place in America. Ha Jin joins us from our member station WBUR in Boston. Thank you so much for being a part of our show today.

Mr.�HA JIN (Author, "A Good Fall"): Thank you, very happy to be here.

LYDEN: You know, I have been your fan for years, and I spoke with you a couple of years ago about your book, "A Free Life." And this was a novel about a young man who flees communist China in the 1980s, and he comes to the United States to study political science. And Nan Wu(ph), the protagonist of this book, has been dreaming of this freedom. He reads poems, and it was lovely to learn that these were poems that you actually wrote in this really lengthy, over-600-page book. So might I just go back to a lesson, to that classic immigrant dream of freedom that these poems embody?

Mr.�JIN: (Reading) You must go to a country without borders, where you can build your home out of garlands of words, where broad leaves shade familiar faces that no longer change in wind and the rain. There's no morning or evening, no cries of joy or pain. Every canyon is drenched in the light of serenity. You must go there quietly, leave behind what you still cherish.

LYDEN: So what I love about this is the whole notion of building your home out of gallons of words. And that's kind of what you have tried to do for these characters because there's so much tension between cultures in this collection of stories, between each other, between their dreams and expectations, between the desire to assimilate and the really hard task of forgoing heritage, which is in a way impossible, isn't it?

Mr.�JIN: Yes, big struggle for everyone. I think, in essence, main character in this book is in the struggle of looking for home, the first generation of immigrants. That's why it's very hard for them to feel at home. So that is very difficult. Even if they have a place to stay, but they don't have the feeling of being home.

LYDEN: Right, and of course, the way that the new world collides with the old can be as slight and yet somehow tethered as the Internet. The collection begins with a story that takes place between two sisters over the Internet and then goes into what happens when people really move in to the immigrant's home. Tell me about the characters in "The Crossfire."

Mr.�JIN: Oh, sure. The mother in that story can be somebody, a messenger from the native land. So the values are different and so, in that case, I think the clashes between the two places, the old land and the new place, become intensified. There was no way to reconcile.

LYDEN: This is the story in which the character - am I pronouncing it right, Tian Tzu(ph)?

Mr.�JIN: Yes.

LYDEN: His mother has decided to come for an extended stay from China, and has decided that his wife, Connie, is completely wrong for him because she won't cook.

Mr. JIN: Yeah. It's an old story. I think I have a lot of Jewish friends that will say the same thing and the mother-in-law will say no woman is good enough for her son. That's an old story. But in this situation like this, it becomes more manifested.

LYDEN: This all comes to a head in this family at this really tense dinner. The husband, the moment he got home he went into the kitchen. He was going to cook a spinach soup, steam the eggplant and fry the flounder. As he was gouging out the gill of the fish, his mother stepped in. Could you pick it up from there?

Mr. JIN: Let me give you a hand, she said. I can manage. This is easy, he smiled, cutting the fish's fins and tail with a large scissor. You never cook back home. She starred at him, her eyes glinting. What's the good of standing six feet tall if you can't handle a small woman like Connie, she often said. In fact, he was 5 foot 10.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JIN: He nudge each side of (unintelligible) with his knuckle. Mom, the American husband and wife both cook, whoever has the time. Connie is swamped with school work these days, so I do more household chores. This is natural. No, it's not. You were never like this before. Why did you marry her in the first place if she wouldn't take care of you?

LYDEN: You know, who wouldn't just love having a relative visit like that?

Mr. JIN: That I think, again is a normal - a lot of the details, in fact, I read them in newspapers, Internet. And most of them, the complaints always came from women. I never heard a man speak about these things, that's why I got idea of what if the story was told by a man?

LYDEN: And he becomes desperate to restore tranquility in the house. And without completely giving it away, can you talk about the measures to which he's willing to go.

Mr. JIN: He has to surprise or shock his mother with wrong piece of information that he have no job anymore. So as the result, she believe that he was totally bankrupt. So I think that's, again, there is based upon misconception, a misunderstanding because most people in the native lands would believe that the new immigrants could pick up cash right and left, and everybody would be rich, and it was nothing like that at all.

LYDEN: What is it about Flushing, Queens that made it the natural setting for this collection of stories?

Mr. JIN: Flushing is the second biggest Chinatown in New York City. It also is inhabited by most recent arrivals. Not only Chinese, they are lot of Koreans and European immigrants as well, so it is a vibrant place. And, in fact, in the beginning of 2005, I was invited to a conference out in the center of Flushing. I was very touched by the scenes on the streets, so that's why I decided to set all the stories in that place.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, I'm Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm talking with the author Ha Jin about his new short story collection "A Good Fall."

Mr. Ha Jin, I'd liked to ask, I have read very lengthy books of yours that cover a lot of geography...

Mr. JIN: Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: "War Trash," of course, "Waiting" and "A Free Life." This is a compressed piece. This is like, instead of a big canvas painting, a really compressed small mosaic. Why did you decide you wanted to do short stories?

Mr. JIN: I do feel that in fact I'm a better short story writer.

LYDEN: You feel that way?

Mr. JIN: Yeah, I feel that way. Before this, I'd written three volumes of short stories. Each book was set in one place, basically. They are all, not linked stories but they are unified stories for a book. So this book, in a way, follow the same thing I had been doing. Short stories are closer to poetry, so very often one has to compress the stories in order to make it more concise and more poetic in that sense.

LYDEN: It's always fun to - when one reads your work to wonder how much of, in your case I do this perhaps more than with other authors, how much of your own biographical experience is in it. I mean, you set a lot of these stories in the 1980s. You wrote your first novel or short story in English I believe in the mid-1980s, right?

Mr. JIN: Yes.

LYDEN: And then there was the story that we have in here which you call "Shame," again, the generational divide between the old and young. A young man is working in between terms - young Chinese man, just getting some money in Manhattan. He's going to school out in Wisconsin and a professor from China, his old professor comes to visit and asks him, how much money are you making?

Mr. JIN: Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: And he's so impressed. This guy's just a garment industry worker.

Mr. JIN: Yes. That again, a common story. But it was not autobiographical. I never worked in New York at all. Really it was different. But again, lot of the details were factual. That was also common when two people met, one of them from the native land would ask how much you make. That was very common. One thing in that episode, in that story was very true, a teacher of mine went to -came to visit the United States and stayed in the Chinese consulate. I went to visit him. I was not allowed to enter the consulate.

LYDEN: Really?

Mr. JIN: I was - yes, that was true. From there on I had never set my foot in that building again.

LYDEN: Oh, you haven't? Have they invited you back at all?

Mr. JIN: They invited me but I haven't. I haven't gone to that place.

LYDEN: Why did they tell you that you weren't welcome the last time you tried to go there?

Mr. JIN: Not because of me, all the visitors.

LYDEN: Okay.

Mr. JIN: All the Chinese visitors were just denied access to that building.

LYDEN: In this short story, the professor believes, you know, we're just trying to get at some of how difficult it is to make your way in a new world and bring what you think is important. And there's just one little moment that sort of talks about the divide, in this case not between old and new generations of Chinese people, but the visiting scholar and his American counterpart. The American professor gives the Chinese professor this beautiful book and collection she's written.

Mr. JIN: Yes.

LYDEN: And he gives her something kind of a little I would say, mass-produced?

Mr. JIN: Mah Jong. Yes.

LYDEN: The Mah Jong box.

Mr. JIN: Yeah. Yeah. In fact, that's a shameful moment for the student but the professor couldn't see it.

LYDEN: But the final shame, I think we can say it here in this one, is that the professor doesn't go home. He defects, stays in this guy's apartment and leaves behind him work that was his best work on Hemingway. He was going to call it "Hemingway in China."

Mr. JIN: Yeah. It's a secret project the professor aspired to do. But again, but it was another bigger shame in a way, yes.

LYDEN: Because it really was shoddy.

Mr. JIN: Yes. Again, that was based on a fact. I know of people who did the similar thing. Not exact the same but similar thing.

LYDEN: When people emigrate or come to America, whether they decide to just go to school here and try and stay on or possibly just choose not to return home, what is the hardest jump? Is it letting go of the past or not being able to understand the present?

Mr. JIN: You know, all those are hard. The hardest things are really to face your own life and be able to take that road. That's the hardest part because it's a lonely road very often. Freedom also means uncertainty and a lot of people who grew up in a different kind of a social environment very often can be frightened, intimidated by freedom.

LYDEN: Ha Jin, it has been a real pleasure having you with us.

Mr. JIN: Thank you.

LYDEN: Ha Jin is the author of the new short story collection, "A Good Fall." He joined us from member station WBUR in Boston.

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Excerpt: 'A Short Fall'

By Ha Jin

The Bane of the Internet

Ha Jin i i

Ha Jin, author, A Good Fall Jerry Bauer hide caption

itoggle caption Jerry Bauer
Ha Jin

Ha Jin, author, A Good Fall

Jerry Bauer

My sister Yuchin and I used to write each other letters. It took more than ten days for the mail to reach Sichuan, and usually I wrote her once a month. After Yuchin married, she was often in trouble, but I no longer thought about her every day. Five years ago her marriage began falling apart. Her husband started an affair with his female boss and sometimes came home reeling drunk. One night he beat and kicked Yuchin so hard she miscarried. At my suggestion, she filed for divorce. Afterward she lived alone and seemed content. I urged her to find another man, because she was only twenty-six, but she said she was done with men for this life. Capable and with a degree in graphic design, she has been doing well and even bought her own apartment four years ago. I sent her two thousand dollars to help her with the down payment.

Last fall she began e-mailing me. At first it was exciting to chat with her every night. We stopped writing letters. I even stopped writing to my parents, because she lives near them and can report to them. Recently she said she wanted to buy a car. I had misgivings about that, though she had already paid off her mortgage. Our hometown is small. You can cross by bicycle in half an hour; a car was not a necessity for her. It's too expensive to keep an automobile there—the gas, the insurance, the registration, the maintenance, the toll fees cost a fortune. I told her I didn't have a car even though I had to commute to work from Brooklyn to Flushing. But she got it into her head that she must have a car because most of her friends had cars. She wrote: "I want to let that man see how well I'm doing." She was referring to her ex-husband. I urged her to wipe him out of her mind as if he had never existed. Indifference is the strongest contempt. For a few weeks she didn't raise the topic again.

Then she told me that she had just passed the road test, bribing the officer with five hundred yuan in addition to the three thousand paid as the application and test fees. She e-mailed: "Sister, I must have a car. Yesterday Minmin, our little niece, came to town driving a brand-new Volkswagen. At the sight of that gorgeous machine, I felt as if a dozen awls were stabbing my heart. Everybody is doing better than me, and I don't want to live anymore!"

I realized she didn't simply want to impress her ex. She too had caught the national auto mania. I told her that was ridiculous, nuts. I knew she had some savings. She got a big bonus at the end of each year and freelanced at night. How had she become so vain and so unreasonable? I urged her to be rational. That was impossible, she claimed, because "everybody" drove a car in our hometown. I said she was not everybody and mustn't follow the trend. She wouldn't listen and asked me to remit her money as a loan. She already had a tidy sum in the bank, about eighty thousand yuan, she confessed.

Then why couldn't she just go ahead and buy a car if that was what she wanted? She replied: "You don't get it, sister. I cannot drive a Chinese model. If I did, people would think I am cheap and laugh at me. Japanese and German cars are too expensive for me, so I might get a Hyundai Elantra or a Ford Focus. Please lend me $10,000. I'm begging you to help me out!"

That was insane. Foreign cars are double priced in China. A Ford Taurus sells for 250,000 yuan in my home province of Sichuan, more than $30,000. I told Yuchin an automobile was just a vehicle, no need to be fancy. She must drop her vanity. Certainly I wouldn't lend her the money, because that might amount to hitting a dog with a meatball—nothing would come back. So I said no. As it is, I'm still renting and have to save for the down payment on a small apartment somewhere in Queens. My family always assumes that I can pick up cash right and left here. No matter how hard I explain, they can't see how awful my job at a sushi house is. I waitress ten hours a day, seven days a week. My legs are swollen when I punch out at ten p.m. I might never be able to buy an apartment at all. I'm eager to leave my job and start something of my own—a snack bar or a nail salon or a video store. I must save every penny.

For two weeks Yuchin and I argued. How I hated the e-mail exchanges! Every morning I flicked on the computer and saw a new message from her, sometimes three or four. I often thought of ignoring them, but if I did, I'd fidget at work, as if I had eaten something that had upset my stomach. If only I had pretended I'd never gotten her e-mail at the outset so that we could have continued writing letters. I used to believe that in the United States you could always reshape your relationships with the people back home—you could restart your life on your own terms. But the Internet has spoiled everything—my family is able to get hold of me whenever they like. They might as well live nearby.

Four days ago Yuchin sent me this message: "Elder sister, since you refused to help me, I decided to act on my own. At any rate, I must have a car. Please don't be mad at me. Here is a website you should take a look at . . ."

I was late for work, so I didn't visit the site. For the whole day I kept wondering what she was up to, and my left eyelid twitched nonstop. She might have solicited donations. She was impulsive and could get outrageous. When I came back that night and turned on my computer, I was flabbergasted to see that she had put out an ad on a popular site. She announced: "Healthy young woman ready to offer you her organ(s) in order to buy a car. Willing to sell any part as long as I still can drive thereafter. Contact me and let us talk." She listed her phone number and e-mail address.

I wondered if she was just bluffing. Perhaps she was. On the other hand, she was such a hothead that for a damned car she might not hesitate to sell a kidney, or a cornea, or a piece of her liver. I couldn't help but call her names while rubbing my forehead.

I had to do something right away. Someone might take advantage of the situation and sign a contract with her. She was my only sibling—if she messed up her life, there would be nobody to care for our old parents. If I had lived near them, I might have called her bluff, but now there was no way out. I wrote her back: "All right, my idiot sister, I will lend you $10,000. Remove your ad from the website. Now!"

In a couple of minutes she returned: "Thank you! Gonna take it off right away. I know you're the only person I can rely on in the whole world."

I responded: "I will lend you the money I made by working my ass off. You must pay it back within two years. I have kept a hard copy of our email exchanges, so do not assume you can write off the loan."

She came back: "Got it. Have a nice dream, sister!" She added a smile sign.

"Get out of my face!" I muttered.

If only I could shut her out of my life for a few weeks. If only I could go somewhere for some peace and quiet.

Excerpted from A Good Fall by Ha Jin Copyright © 2009 by Ha Jin. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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