Ha Jin's characters play a waiting game in first novel

July 16, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

"Waiting" (Pantheon, 1999, $24) is the first novel by Chinese poet and short story writer Ha Jin, a professor of English at Emory University.

It is written in a simple but elegant style that at first glance masks deep irony.

It tells the tale of a doctor, young when the novel opens, who works at a city hospital far from his wife and daughter. The parents of Lin Kong arranged his marriage to a peasant woman from his home village and it is to that village he returns for two weeks every summer.

But also assigned to this city hospital is a young nurse named Manna Wu who develops a crush on the doctor. Her feelings are returned. Since the doctor is married, the couple is not allowed to walk together outside the hospital compound, much less sleep together. Their relationship is everyone's business in China of the 1960s and 1970s.

Lin Kong believes himself to be an honorable man and to prove this to himself and others he obeys all the rules. He obediently restrains his relationship with his girlfriend and returns home every summer for 17 years to ask his wife for a divorce. She compliantly agrees, then backs out at the last minute.

"Waiting" is described by reviewers as a love story, but it is not. Lin Kong is neither in love with his girlfriend, Manna, nor with his wife. When he is finally granted a divorce by a city court, he is free to marry Manna, which he does. How could he not? She's waited a long time. But after the ceremony she complains of not feeling well and leaves the wedding reception. Lin Kong dutifully remains at the party chatting with guests and sampling traditional delicacies.

"Lin was tired and couldn't stop wondering how his bride was doing alone at home," Ha Jin writes. "How bored he was by their wedding."

After waiting for nearly 20 years, the ceremony and indeed the marriage itself has to be something of a letdown. But Lin Kong is a lucky man. Even though Manna is in her 40s, they are blessed by the birth of twin boys. So now he has everything that he could ever want, right?

Ha Jin weaves the tale in a hypnotic manner. American readers might be tempted to look for an American-style ending, something like this:

"Lin Kong finally decided he couldn't take it any more. He took his babies to an orphanage and returned home where he barricaded himself in the bedroom with Manna.

" 'You'll never take me alive!' he screamed when the police arrived. He turned his gun first on his wife, then on himself."

Fortunately, this never happens and Ha Jin's ending is all the more disturbing for its lack of action. After all, his doctor, Lin Kong, has made a lifestyle out of waiting.

Ha Jin, born in 1956, grew up in Communist China. At age 14 he joined the People's Liberation Army, where he served five years before going to work for the railroad. It was on the railroad job that he began to learn English by listening to English-language radio programs.

He studied American literature at Shandong University, where he earned a master's degree.

Ha Jin came to Brandeis University in 1985, intending to return to China in four years. But the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989 convinced him to remain in the United States. He earned his Ph.D. at Brandeis.

He began writing poetry in English in 1987 and 10 years later his first short story collection, "Ocean of Words," was published. His second short story collection is "Under the Red Flag." He also has published two collections of poetry, "Between Silences," and "Facing Shadows." He has won numerous awards for poetry and literature.

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