A Free Life
by Ha Jin follows a Chinese immigrant family living in America in the aftermath of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. The family, including father, Nan, mother, Pingping, and their son, Taotao, completely sever ties with the home country in protest of the atrocities committed by the Communist Chinese government. However, as the family struggles to find success in America, Nan realizes how challenging it is to truly cut oneself off from the place one comes from.
When the novel opens, Nan and his family are living in America while Nan completes a graduate degree at Brandeis University in political science. Nan feels good about the life he has created for his family – a degree from Brandeis essentially guarantees him a well-paying teaching job back in China once he a returns home. All of his dreams of success are crushed, however, when news breaks about the massacre in Tiananmen Square.
Nan cannot back the Communist government or the brutal slaughter of innocent people. He recognizes that the only way his family will truly be happy and safe is if he severs ties with China completely. Nan quickly leaves graduate school, choosing instead to focus his time on a pursuit that will make him feel happier and more at peace – poetry. Nan has always loved poetry, and it has always soothed him. Now, during this period of disillusionment and hopelessness, he returns to poetry to soothe himself.
Though Nan sees refusing to return to China as his only option, the opportunities for him in America are grim. He takes a series of menial jobs, and Pingping is forced to go to work as a housekeeper and cook for a wealthy white widow, who takes her in. The family moves all over the country in search of financial security, which seems to keep evading them. From New York City to Boston to Atlanta, Nan can't seem to find the break that he needs to achieve the American Dream.
During this twelve-year period in the life of the Wu family, many moments of dissonance mark Nan's experience as an immigrant. Visiting the Museum of Chinese Immigrant Culture, Nan begins to wonder how anyone can succeed in the arts when he is being beaten down, oppressed, forced to work to survive, without any time for peace or leisure. He understands that this pursuit is impossible because he is living it; with very little time for himself, Nan cannot seem to make it in his chosen field of poetry and literature.
The struggles with language and cultural barriers also make it hard for Nan to succeed. He speaks with a strong accent, talking primarily in Mandarin to his wife, son, and Chinese friends. He feels the boundaries of American culture in these moments, his non-Native English alienating him from others.
Nan cannot shake his accent; many parts of his life in China haunt him. He is torn by ties to his childhood sweetheart, an ex-girlfriend who remains in China and whom Nan still pines after despite his marriage to Pingping. Ultimately, the novel ends with Nan still living in the pain and struggle of assimilating and finding himself without his homeland to fall back on. He burns a five-dollar bill in the grief that comes from his inability to find the American Dream – a house, a wife, two cars – in short, a comfortable life.
Ha Jin, the pen name of Jin Xuefei, is a Chinese-American author and a professor of English at Boston University. He has written many books, including War Trash, The Bridegroom,
He began to write in English, his non-native language, as a political decision after the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Jin has also written poems, short stories, and other literary works.