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February 13, 2013

“A Good Fall”

by Anne Paddock

Nearly 10 years ago, I read the book Waiting by Ha Jin which won the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1999. Based on a true story that took place in China, Waiting is the tragic account of a man who enters an arranged marriage out of a sense of duty, not love. He later falls in love with another woman but is restricted from divorcing his wife without spousal consent so he is left to wait for his true love. Ten years after finishing the book and I can still recall feeling the seemingly endless wait for something desired that the author, Ha Jin so strongly conveys in his award-winning novel. In 2009, Ha Jin published A Good Fall – a collection of 12 short stories that center around a different aspect of the Chinese culture – the Chinese immigrant experience in the United States.

When I read a collection of short stories, I typically make notes on the Table of Contents page because I cannot always recall the story based on the title. Not so with A Good Fall. When I look at the Table of Contents of A Good Fall and see the twelve titles, I can instantly recall what each story is about and then wonder why these stories are so memorable. Could it be because each story had both heartbreaking and joyful moments of triumph?Possibly, but part of the reason is that I know what it’s like to live in a foreign country – the frustration of not being understood, the shame of being taken advantage of, the ineptitude of not knowing how things are done, and the enormous amount of time it takes to complete the most menial of tasks.To speak the language and know the culture of a country means a person can almost effortlessly float through the daily demands of life. Absent these tools and life is very different.

In three of the short stories from A Good Fall – A Pension Plan, The Household Behind a Weeping Cherry, and The Good Fall – the inability of Chinese immigrants to speak English limits employment opportunities making the characters easy targets to be taken advantage of. How these immigrants maneuver an unknown system to survive is both sad and inspiring. And, in Tenure the preoccupation with the spelling of a word and its ultimate meaning and importance is at the heart of the story of a Chinese teacher seeking tenure at an American college.

A few years ago, a book called The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was published. The author, Amy Chua, a Harvard graduate and law professor at Yale University wrote about raising her two American daughters in a strict home where both she and her husband demanded excellence from their children. Her approach was generally thought of as a Chinese inspired way of raising children where play dates and sports were eschewed for music practice and homework all in the name of achievement and recognition. It’s no secret that Chinese and Asian cultures put more emphasis on excellence because a child’s success is a reflection of successful parenting. Contrast the strict Eastern approach to raising children with the more relaxed Western style and a cultural clash is bound to erupt.

One of my daughter’s high school friends came over to complete a homework assignment recently. Over lunch, we started talking about colleges and I asked her where she was interested in applying. She countered my question with another question: “do you mean where I want to go or where my parents want me to go?” I smiled the smile of discomfort while she explained that her Korean born parents want her to major in a specific field and go to a US college that has big name recognition because friends and relatives in Korea value the well-known Ivy League colleges very highly. I thought of her answer often while I was reading A Good Fall because like the characters in the book, my daughter’s friend faces a struggle between two cultures: one that emphasizes acquiescing to parental wishes and one that places greater importance on self fulfillment.

In Children as Enemies and In the Crossfire, the author writes of the struggles between three generations: the elderly Chinese who only know their own culture where elders are respected and somewhat glorified, their adult children who know both their Chinese culture and their adopted American culture where the elderly are generally set aside, and the grandchildren who only know American culture and want nothing to do with traditions from another culture.

In The Bane of The Internet, A Composer and His Parakeets, Temporary Love, Choice, and Shame, the author writes of immigrants who are trying to balance their “old” lives in mainland China with their new lives in the United States. Expectations don’t go away when geographic moves are made and characters find solace in the most unlikely ways. In Beauty, a jealous husband discovers he is married to someone different from who he thought he married, which is rarely the case in Chinese culture where parents are often involved in the choice of a spouse.

Most people would say there is never a “good fall” because all falls are laced with pain and injury but every once in a while, something tragic like a fall can foster change and a better life and it is this message, Ha Jin conveys to his readers.

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