Ha Jin was never terribly interested in learning English. After the Cultural Revolution ended and Chinese universities finally reopened in 1977, the 21-year-old applied to Heilongjiang University and had to list in order of preference five courses of study he was keen on pursuing. He named English last—after classics, philosophy, world history and library science—but that's what he got stuck with. Before long, however, Ha Jin, like many of his peers and teachers, fell in love with American literature and buried himself in the recently unbanned works of Faulkner and Hemingway—a welcome change from the acceptably "proletariat" Steinbeck, Jack London and Langston Hughes.
Thirty years later, that last-choice assignment has turned out to be the key to his success. Ha Jin went on to earn a master's in American literature from Shandong University, writing occasional poetry in Chinese, and then traveled to America to pursue a doctorate at Brandeis University. He published his first book of English-language poetry, "Between Silences," in 1990; nine years later he won the National Book Award for his novel "Waiting," about a Chinese Army doctor who keeps trying to divorce his wife so he can marry his sweetheart.
With his sensitive new novel, "A Free Life" (660 pages. Pantheon Books), Ha Jin crosses another literary threshold: it's his first book set in America. It follows Chinese poet and intellectual Nan Wu, along with his wife, Pingping, on the rapid journey from tentative new immigrant to successful Atlanta restaurateur and homeowner to discontented U.S. citizen hungering for more life of the mind. "The struggle had ended so soon that he felt as though the whole notion of the American dream was shoddy, a hoax," writes Ha Jin of his protagonist. "In just a few years he'd gone through the journey that often took most immigrants a whole lifetime … It seemed that he had forgotten his goal and gotten lost in making money. Why hadn't he devoted himself to writing poetry?"
Ha first conceived "A Free Life" in 1992, after a friend showed him a book of poems written in Chinese by a restaurant owner in Waltham, Massachusetts. "I was very touched by that," he says. "I began to imagine how it would be to write that book." It's populated by a rich assortment of complicated characters, both Chinese and American, who fret and argue over the purpose of poetry, as well as such subjects as religion, Chinese adoption and the perils of U.S. citizenship. Ha Jin gives them plenty of room to ponder and grow. He fills the last 25 pages with Nan's English-language poems—a few of which Ha Jin published previously, but most of which he wrote fresh from Nan's perspective. "The poems took a long time," he says. "It was a huge risk. But I realized I had to so Nan wouldn't appear as a total crackpot."
Still, Ha Jin is quick to point out that Nan's story is not his own. "I was more fortunate than Nan," he says. "I didn't work in a restaurant." In fact, his experience more closely resembles that of Nan's friend Dick Harrison, a well-regarded American poet and teacher. Yet there are certain elements of the narrative that directly mirror Ha Jin's life; the novel opens with Nan and Pingping traveling from Boston to San Francisco airport to greet their young son, who had been living with his grandparents until they got settled—just as Ha Jin's son did in the 1980s, after Ha Jin and then his wife moved to America.
Like Ha Jin, Nan grapples with whether to write in English—a metaphor for his growing comfort in America. At the novel's outset, he and Pingping converse largely in Chinese, denoted by italicized print, and their English speech is ungrammatical, heavily accented and rife with malapropisms. But as the story progresses, they get noticeably more fluent. Other characters remark on it, and at one point Nan observes with surprise that during an argument, neither he nor Pingping uttered a single word of Chinese. But no matter how facile he becomes at expressing himself in English, insecurity persists—a sense the author certainly shares. "I don't feel I'll ever be really at home in English," says Ha Jin, who calls the language in this novel more "playful" than in previous ones. "The question is how to use that to my advantage."
Ha Jin's preoccupation with what it means to feel "at home" stretches back to his childhood. His father was an Army officer, and the family never settled in one place for long. The eldest of five children, Jin Xuefei (he took the pen name Ha Jin later) was 10 when the Cultural Revolution started. His mother, a petty officer whose father owned a small parcel of land, was persecuted and "sent to pick apples intermittently for two or three years," says Ha Jin. With Ha Jin's father constantly on the road, an older cousin came to take care of them, and Ha Jin learned to cook at an early age. But he stresses that his family's hardship was hardly unique. "There were millions of Chinese in the same situation," he says.
At 14 he joined the Army and served as an artilleryman along China's border with Russia and North Korea, then moved on to the more peaceful job of telegrapher. He remained in the Army for five years before leaving to work for a railroad company. When he finally embarked on his education and traveled to America to earn his doctorate, he fully intended to return to China to teach. But then Chinese soldiers attacked and killed student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. "I was glued to the TV for three days," says Ha Jin. "I was in shock. I had served in the Army to protect the people. Suddenly the whole thing was reversed. I just couldn't reconcile it."
He has not been back since. To extend his student visa after Tiananmen, he applied to Boston University's creative-writing program—even though he had already completed his Ph.D. Before he could finish the course, Emory University hired him to teach creative writing. Today Ha Jin teaches at Boston University and lives in the suburbs; he became a U.S. citizen in 1997. For his first seven or eight years in America, he says, he felt painfully alienated from his homeland. Now, although he'd like to visit, he's not sure he could live in China even if he was welcome. "I've changed," he says. "The social fabric is very different from America. To live in China is hard. You have to learn to lie and give bribes. It would be very hard for me to learn to do these things again."
Despite the critical acclaim he's won in his new home, Ha Jin's works cannot be read in China. "Waiting" was published briefly and then withdrawn, he says; his short-story collection "Under the Red Flag" was sent to the censorship committee a year ago and banned. Even if "A Free Life" is approved, he says, it may be difficult to translate into Chinese because so many of the references are distinctly American. For Ha Jin, being coerced to study English has clearly paid off. But Chinese authorities no doubt wish he'd studied library science.