Writer's Journey Marked With Dreams, Sacrifice
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Just about every week at this time, we dig into the pages of The Washington Post Sunday Magazine for interesting stories about the way we live now. This week, the magazine featured it summer reading issue. It includes four essays by well-known writers about an important event or time in their lives. With us now is one of those writers, National Book Award winner Ha Jin, author of "Waiting" and "A Free Life." Ha Jin joins us now. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. HA JIN (Author, "Waiting" and "A Free Life"): Thank you.
MARTIN: I don't know whether your life seems that way to you, but to me your story is so interesting. You joined the army at the age of 14. You started teaching yourself English while working on the railroad. You were among the first to go to college after the Cultural Revolution. You came to the U.S. to work on your advanced English studies. You've managed to bring your wife here. Of all these experiences, how did you choose the moment in time that you chose to write about for the magazine?
Mr. JIN: You know, my editor, David Rhode (ph), told me that it should be a piece about the summer. So for me that is really one of the most important summers, a summer of transition that would change my life. That's why I just could not forget a lot of the things that happened during that summer. That's why I decided on that summer.
MARTIN: I'm going...
Mr. JIN: The summer of '85.
MARTIN: The summer of '85, when you came to this country...
Mr. JIN: Yes.
MARTIN: The first sentence of the essay reads, "In college, English meant humiliation to me."
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JIN: Sure, yeah, because I was among the first - the group of young people accepted by college after the Cultural Revolution. That means for more than a decade there had been no students accepted through the entrance exams. That also means in the society all kinds of patterns had to be accumulating. And so, there were all kinds of people who were very knowledgeable. And for instance, in my grade, there was a student who wouldn't go to English classes. He just stayed in bed reading Charles Dickens and whereas like people like myself, we just knew a few words of the language.
MARTIN: You didn't realize how far behind you were until you got there?
Mr. JIN: I had no clue at all. And in fact, in the whole year, there were five classes so people were divided into five levels. And for me, the humiliation was that for five years, I stayed at the lowest level.
MARTIN: How did you manage to get into an American doctoral program, starting so far behind and having to sweat so hard just to manage the basics?
Mr. JIN: In the early '80s, suddenly, American literature became very popular. The students - we were very fascinated by the new literature, which was really unheard of before. And - because of the subject matter was not always political, and there were all kinds of new techniques we didn't know before. I got somehow caught up with this trend at the time, so I decided to study American literature.
MARTIN: So you just loved it so much that it kind of...
Mr. JIN: Yeah.
MARTIN: Kept you at it. It kept you...
Mr. JIN: Yeah.
MARTIN: At it. I must say that just about every sentence in this essay has something marvelous to think about, like what you had to go through to actually get your tickets, which involves a bribe of cigarettes. But we'll skip past that. The core of the piece is what you had to go through to bring your wife because you weren't allowed to bring her with you. Why weren't you allowed to bring her with you by the way to begin with? And your son?
Mr. JIN: At the time, almost all Chinese students were going to foreign countries were not allowed to take their spouses and children with them because that was a way to prevent them from staying. And in fact, also the authorities would not give permission to take in your family with you.
MARTIN: So you were planning to be separated for four years.
Mr. JIN: Yeah.
MARTIN: Did you realize how hard that was going to be when you got on the plane? After paying your bribe of expensive cigarettes?
Mr. JIN: I didn't. I think most of the Chinese students going abroad assumed that that was part of our life. You had to take it.
MARTIN: How did you realize that perhaps you didn't have to take it? That perhaps you could, you know, buck the system, as it were?
Mr. JIN: Once I was here, I had - I began to have friends. We talked, and I saw students from other countries. They have their children and their spouses, so gradually I realized that fact that everybody had their right to be with them. So I began to try harder to find out the procedures for achieving that.
MARTIN: Just wondered how you were treated as a Chinese student when you came to the U.S. I just wondered, did you ever feel any sense of distance from the other students?
Mr. JIN: Yeah.
MARTIN: I just wondered if you had some thoughts there?
Mr. JIN: There was a moment where I actually talked to a wife of the officers at that university and trying to figure out how to bring my wife over. And basically, I was stonewalled. And that was the only unpleasant moment that I remembered. But it really - it was a shock at the time. On the whole, I think I had a good a time. As you know, Brandeis was a very liberal minded - liberal and open place. But on the other hand, because I had grown up in China and had no sense of freedom, didn't know how to use freedom and all basic human rights, I really had - these things were alien to me. So I felt, psychologically, kind of isolation from others. Not because of them, but because of my own past. But gradually, I got out of that, gradually.
MARTIN: Was there anything good about that time, looking back on it?
Mr. JIN: Of course! I think the good - great libraries was fabulous, and also one could buy books for like a quarter at yard sale. And that, really - I began to collect books, and I wanted to bring back a personal library with me. I was very naive at the time. So there were a lot of good experiences. Also, I began to have friends from other countries. Also, I began - soon I began to learn how to drive. That was an amazing experience.
MARTIN: In Boston, no less.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JIN: I know. I know. Sometimes, I got into the wrong way. That's the hard part. I mean, to know the roads. A lot of the driving.
MARTIN: And I should mention that when you came here, you never expected to stay. It was - you always saw it as sort of a brief sojourn, especially because you couldn't bring your wife with you. Why did you decide to stay?
Mr. JIN: That was - at the time when I was finishing my degree in 1989, suddenly, the Tiananmen tragedy happened. That really threw me off my plan, and I was really in a shock after that for many weeks. And then, my son came out by himself, and I realized I wanted him to become American. And so, that also meant I would have to stay some years in this country. And then gradually, gradually I realized I should emigrate and to make a new life here.
MARTIN: The piece is so rich with wonderful details, as of course one would expect. But I wanted to ask - what do you think you'd like people to get from your piece?
Mr. JIN: I think I want people to have some king of a glimpse into the new arrivals' beginning, I think, because there are a lot of wonderful things. There are also a lot of, I think, traps. For instance, money was a big attraction. A lot of people got lost in making money. I could have easily. And so, I think by giving - providing some details and unify them, I hope the readers can see that the arrival was not always wonderful, but still it is amazing.
MARTIN: Ha Jin is the author of "Waiting" and "Free Life." He's also a creative writing professor at Boston University, and he was kind enough to join us from WGBH in Boston. If you want to read his piece in its entirety, you can find a link on our website, as well as a link to the other pieces which are all quite remarkable, at npr.org/tellmemore. Mr. Jin, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. JIN: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News.