I was glad for a chance to read a new novel by Ha Jin, although it has been a long time since I read anything by him. I read The Crazed and Waiting, and it had left me with a good, if hazy, impression (that was before I started this blog, so we’re speaking of decades now). I especially remember The Crazed, which I must have read in Beijing or in Hong Kong around 2002-2004, and it was such a shocking enormity at that time to read about Tiananmen events. It is even worse now for sure, and I do wonder if Ha Jin’s books can be bought in foreign languages bookstores there now.
When the novel starts, Yao Tian is a professional and renowned singer in mainland China and he tours the U.S. with his (state) choir. A friend in N.Y.C. asks him to come and sing one night on his own for an overseas Chinese concert. The gig pays well and Yao Tian needs the money to save for his daughter’s U.S. college. He accepts, but upon his return in Beijing, he learns that the concert was funded by Taiwanese organizations and his participation is therefore treated like a treason. The scandal boils over and Tian, fearing that his passport will be confiscated and refusing to abandon any future prospects of singing internationally, takes the first flight to the U.S., leaving his wife and daughter behind.
What feels first like a temporary situation is actually a big turn in Yao Tian’s life. The Communist government tries several times to make him apologize and come back, but he refuses every time. Branded an enemy of the motherland, he won’t be able to return, even for tragic family circumstances. In the U.S. Yao Tian has to make himself a new life, find jobs, and try to never forget his passion for music.
I personally read the book like a page-turner. The writing is plain, and sometimes too detailed, but I really rooted for Yao Tian and I wanted to know if he could succeed in his new life and what would happen to him, his friends and family. Odds really seemed stacked against him, and his story is that of a determined person who discovers by chance how much freedom means to him. At the very beginning he says that politics is not important to him. In fact, he sings at the Taiwanese concert essentially by personal greed, and he leaves China because he feels that his career will be stifled without a passport. But the more he endures, the more he understands that he needs to choose freedom over and over again (every time the Chinese Embassy’s contacts make a proposal, or every time there’s something or someone back home that calls for his presence).
In the context of current US/Chinese tensions, this is a very interesting novel. It is squarely, almost naively pro-America, from a Chinese-born writer who has been living in the U.S. since just before the Tiananmen events in 1989. Of course it makes me wonder how autobiographical this whole story is, but it is most probably a mishmash of things that Chinese emigrants have lived through. As a European reader, I cannot help to find that his vision of the U.S. is a bit too idealistic, especially when Yao Tian gets good healthcare and keeps on being lucky with jobs opportunities and being so successful and adaptable. It’s almost as if Ha Jin was making a side-by-side comparison of the two countries over the course of a life (more like 7 or 10 years). The unforgiving position of the Chinese authorities is quite believable I’m afraid. And it’s also interesting to see how people change over the course of the book, although Yao Tian is probably not the one who changes the most.
This book changed a bit my perception of Ha Jin because I didn’t remember the previous books I read to be so rooted in mundane details of life, but I still enjoyed it a lot. It opened my appetite for more Chinese or Asian books!
Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.