A Good Fall: Stories, by Ha Jin
(Pantheon; 240 pages; $24.95)
Multiculturism is a luxury, especially to immigrants, to whom being assimilated and accepted in the adopted land is often a far cry. The melting pot in Ha Jin's new collection, "A Good Fall," resembles a simmering Chinese hot pot, where varied ingredients complement each other in flavor, yet each keeps its distinct taste, rather than a smooth and well-blended broth.
All 12 stories in the collection unfurl in the United States - mostly in New York - and explore Chinese immigrants. His characters span a wide range: men and women, young and old, intellectual and blue collar, rich and poor. Despite contrasts in status and background, these people, unmoored and often lonely, face equally the precariousness of life and clashes between the past and the present, familial duties and personal desires, and the Chinese-ness and the American-ness.
For some of Jin's characters, taking root in America is the top priority. In "Shame," Mr. Meng, a Chinese professor, decides to stay in the United States illegally because he believes "a human being should live like a bird, untrammeled by any man-made orders." To earn a living, he becomes a busboy and, when tracked down, he escapes to Mississippi, resolving to "live in complete obscurity, dead to the world." In "The House Behind a Weeping Cherry," a garment worker and his lover, a prostitute, run away from pimps and gangs, dreaming of starting their life anew.
Some other characters are more socially and economically established yet cannot seem to shake off their cultural baggage. In "Choice," when Eileen Lin must choose between a lover and her jealous daughter, she picks the latter because she simply cannot let her down. A similar dynamic plays out in "In the Crossfire," in which Tian Chu sacrifices his lucrative accounting job to stop the endless squabbling between his carping mother and his wife, instead of confronting his mother, who once shouts at his wife, "Don't ever talk back to me in front of others!"
In tackling the cultural awkwardness immigrants often experience, Jin is straightforward at times, subtle and ironic at other times. In "An English Professor," Rusheng agonizes absurdly over the misspelled word "respectly" in his report to the college tenure committee. Dreading humiliation among his colleagues and the Chinese community, he considers becoming an encyclopedia salesman, even a monk. When he finally gets tenure, he goes berserk. Is he simply paranoid or do apprehension and uncertainty haunt the edges of an immigrant's subconscious? In "A Composer and His Parakeets," the love-deprived and lonely Fanlin seeks comfort in a dumb parakeet. When the bird dies, Fanlin's grief inspires him to write an emotionally fraught opera.
Although Chinese-ness rules throughout this collection, Jin emphasizes Americanness, a seeming homage to his own 24 years of observations and ruminations as an immigrant. His characters, regardless of their miseries and misfortunes, are eager to negotiate with the threatening situation and to take advantage of the newly discovered freedom in America at all levels - financially, politically, socially and psychologically. The narrator in "A Pension Plan" says, "I'm not sure if I'll be able to learn enough English to live a different life, but I must try."
In embracing Americanness, Jin occasionally stumbles into pedantry, heightened in the title story when the protagonist is told that America is "a land ruled by law, and nobody is entitled to abuse others with impunity," and also in "Temporary Love," when Panbin, preferring a Ukrainian woman he barely knows over his old lover, declares that he won't date a Chinese again because "every Chinese has so much baggage of the past," too heavy for him to "share and carry."
"A Good Fall" is a departure, in terms of setting, from Jin's three earlier collections, which focus on the Chinese people before the 1990s, when China strengthened its openness and reform efforts. But his masterful storytelling persists - meticulous, droll, convincing, populated with memorable characters - not to mention the indelible portrait of an immigrant life he gives us. What is also consistent is his prowess to study and reveal, often with heartfelt humor, the compromised and damaged heart and soul, and the impact of time and history on ordinary people.