The dispute came out of nowhere. Nan Wu didn’t even notice that he had tapped another car with the side view mirror of his own vehicle, but the off-duty police officer driving the flashy sports car doesn’t care. He chases Nan down, threatens to kill him with his gun and then, as a parting shot, yells that Nan’s driver’s license is now invalid.
This unfair episode is just one small part of Nan’s plight as a Chinese immigrant in the US. He is a man with little power, an uncertain future, a family to support and a scant understanding of the world around him.
Similar immigrant tales – complete with cultural mismatches and mutual lack of understanding – have been the subject of many a book. The cultural clash is particularly violent between Chinese and Americans, who share neither similar financial statuses nor basic values. By comparison, an immigrant from Mexico or Argentina may at least share a Judeo-Christian upbringing with his American hosts.
Ha Jin explores the Chinese immigrant experience at length in his latest novel, A Free Life, the story of a group of people who came to the US in search of a lifestyle and freedom they could not find at home. At 600-plus pages, it is not a quick read and the language is at times a little stoic, but it is definitely worth it.
Ha’s central character, Nan Wu, wants to build a better life for his child Taotao. He moves to the US for graduate education with Pingping, a wife for whom he has respect but no love. Nan doggedly pursues the “American Dream,” abandoning university for a string of menial jobs, even though he sees this dream as the reason for his failure as a husband and father.
If anything, Nan is a lost man unhappily going through the motions. The fear of retribution for his part in a political dispute means Nan is unable to return home, so he vainly tries to find a niche in a land he understands just enough to know he doesn’t fit in.
Ha makes the most of the family conflicts and cultural clashes as he tracks the changes in Nan, Pingping and Taotao. Many of the challenges they face arise from issues that few immigrants consider before making the leap: a lack of good jobs and support networks as well as a massive loss of status that can make even the happiest man miserable. Inevitably, it is Taotao, the youngster, who settles in most easily.
A Free Life is hardly that for Nan and Pingping but it is a map to something different – although not necessarily better – than what they had in China. Making the most of it takes determination, motivation and, most of all, hard work.