A Free Life

What does it mean to have a free life? When you have the freedom to fly, you have also given up the power of gravity to keep you grounded.

One of the most famous contemporary Chinese-American writer, Ha Jin 哈金, came to the United States 15 years ago and began to write only in English. His book Waiting , which I also like, won him the prestigious National Book Award. (By the way, Ha Jin's real Chinese name -- 金雪飛, means "Golden Flying Snow"-- sounds just like a kung fu novel character. )

I recently read both the English and the translated Chinese version of his novel "A Free Life". It is about a family that immigrated to the US and how the father spent years trying to make a living, but consequently did not follow his dream to become a poet. As an immigrant who has just started to blog in English, I find so much comfort, mixed with sadness, in his words.

First Generation Immigrants

This book vividly tells the story of how first generation immigrants struggle to feed and shelter themselves and their families. Often times, toward the end of their lives, they might own a house or a business. Their children, having grown on the foundation the parents had built, would have different kinds of dreams and ambitions.

This book made me understand why my parent's generation thinks or behaves the way they do with a deeper level of understanding. Since reading this book, I further appreciate my freedom to be ambitious and am proud of where I came from.

Freedom to Follow Your Dreams

The main character in the story had always wanted to "do something moneyed people cannot do", which was to write poetry. Instead, he spent years working like a brainless machine to make money. After he achieved some financial freedom, his unhappiness led him to realize that he needed something more fundamental and important -- the courage to face failure.

Below is the most touching paragraph in the book that I would like to share with you: Many things previously unclear to him had become transparent. The notion of the American dream had bewildered him for a good decade; now he knew that to him, such a dream was not something to be realized, but something to be pursued only... To be a free individual, he had to go his own way, had to endure loneliness and isolation, and had to give up the illusion of success in order to accept his diminished state as a new immigrant and as a learner of this alphabet. More than that, he had to take the risk of wasting his life without getting anywhere and of becoming a joke in others' eyes. Finally, he had to be brave enough to devote himself not to making money but to writing poetry, willing to face failure.

Nine years ago, I moved to Boston with two suitcases and nothing else. Everything I owned back home sometimes made me strong, and sometimes made me weak. Ha Jin pinpointed exactly what any immigrant must go through consciously, or subconsciously. Back in Taiwan, I tutored English and made $20 USD per hour. In Boston, I was lucky to find a helpdesk operator job to practice English and get paid minimum wage. Was I lonely, isolated, feeling like I was wasting my time, and becoming a joke in others' eyes? Yes, and I have the courage to admit this.

Life In A Second Language

Reading the English version of this book, you would constantly be reminded of the gap between the main character's fluent thoughts and his broken speech. I have my own personal share of this struggle. When I moved to Boston in 2000, it took me a good 5 years to be able to say almost everything on my (Chinese) mind, in English, in a way that people can actually understand. But in certain rare circumstances, I still find myself speechless with not enough vocabulary to translate what's on my mind, for example, when I was furious about someone who was rude to me, or when I got pulled over by a police car for speeding...

The main character in the story finally made up his mind to start writing. But he needed to decide whether to write in Chinese or in English. Writing in English leads him into the future; writing in Chinese secures him to everything he owns from the past. In the end, he chose English, and he wanted to write something "that could speak directly to the readers' hearts regardless of their cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Above all, his work should possess more strength than beauty, which he believed often belied truth."

I absolutely LOVE this. Who cares if the words or speeches are beautiful or not?!! If beauty hides the truth, or the lack of truth, I'd rather be ugly but influential.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Love your thoughts. Keep it up!