A Free Life is the story of a Chinese family that emigrates to the United States not too long after the death of Mao Zedong. The primary protagonist, the father Nan Wu, is loyal to his wife and young son, but hasn’t been able to forget his first love who scorned him a few years before. He struggles to find what he wants to do in America, quitting his political science graduate degree, moving on to buy a Chinese restaurant in Georgia, and coming to realize the “American Dream.” But somehow he never feels content with his life, and struggles continually with the real definition of “success,” whether is should be defined as having the money to support your family, or producing some work that will keep alive your memory after your death.
This book took me an eternity to get through. However, that doesn’t mean it was bad. Let me explain – At the end of September I returned the US after spending 13 months in Shanghai. I have a deep interest in Chinese culture and people, and so I’ve meant to read more literature written by Chinese or Chinese-Americans. Ha Jin was one of the most recommended writers, and maybe I shouldn’t have chosen A Free Life as the first book of his that I read. I’m disillusioned with immigrant novels, finding them to be mostly the same – the struggle for a job and money, dealing with racism, trying to keep ties with their motherland. This book has much of that, and that is why it took me so long to get through.
I would have given up on the book, but Ha Jin presents China in a way different from other authors of immigrant novels. He came to the United States just before the Tiananmen Square massacre, and is quite critical of his home country. Throughout the book, Nan Wu confronts other Chinese immigrants who spout blind patriotism and scorn for Americans, while he himself finds himself increasingly detached from the country he came from. He presents a view of China from a middle ground, one that I haven’t seen before. Not to mention Nan is one of the most likable protagonists I have ever come across in a novel.
Final judgement, I’d have to say that I don’t recommend this book to most people. However, I am willing to read other books by Ha Jin in the future. I take no issue with his writing, only with the overall plot of the book.