I was so excited to read Ha Jin's new collection of stories that I ordered it the day it was released, and began reading it at once. By the time I finished the third story, I was disappointed with the visible machinations of each: the forced turns of plot and the abrupt and seemingly tacked on endings. Could it be Ha Jin's editor had failed him? Fortunately, the answer is no, not entirely. While Ha Jin writes needlessly coy statements such as "It was The Old Man and the Sea, by an American author, whose name has just escaped me", he makes up for these lapses with a spare and direct prose that has a "grasshopper snapping its whitish wings in the air" and an American boss with a "stout red nose and his balding crown." The later stories are the best, with "The Bridegroom", "After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town", and "The Woman From New York" being my favorites. Ha Jin's magic -his ability to see inside people - illuminates these stories, even the weaker ones, from within; he seems to reserve his talent for the hearts of the stories and not their resolutions. When he is at his best, the lack of resonance doesn't matter because getting to that final paragraph is a trip well worth taking.
I considered giving this book only three stars because of its unevenness, but to do so would be to neglect the truly fine stories inhabiting the same space. Certainly, lovers of Ha Jin's writing should read this book, as should avid readers of short stories, but hold off reading this if you haven't yet read any of the author's other works.
on June 6, 2001
I was delighted with these 12 short stories by Ha Jin. What a refreshing change to read about another culture, especially life in contemporary China. I learned a lot about the Chinese socialist form of living, and the different traditions and beliefs of their people. It certainly makes me appreciate more the freedom & wealth that we take for granted here in the United States. The author uses a flat writing style of simple sentences that it takes a while to adjust to. The stories do seem to end rather abruptly at times. However, this is only a small complaint from me. I stayed glued to the book until I finished it.
My favorite story, of course, was the title story, "The Bridegroom." A model husband joins a secret men's literary club and is arrested for the crime of loving other men, homosexuality. "The Woman From New York" was another favorite, about a Chinese woman who finds out things are just not the same in her hometown after an extended stay in New York. She finds she is not welcome anymore in her former life.
I think these stories held my attention and proved so interesting for the mere fact that it opened up a whole new world for me in understanding how other cultures think and rationalize everyday living. I thank my friend, Grady, for recommending this wonderful book, and now I am recommending it to you. You won't be disappointed!
on November 3, 2004
If you want to read some clever tales about daily life in China because the place seems too dense to tease out the individual stories, then you will probably like this collection of short stories, written by an author who grew up there, and who now writes in English. Taking as his models such writers from Checkov to the post-modernists, he does a good job of taking the masters and filtering through a cultural and personal imagination that few Westerners are privy to. My favorite is "In the Kindergarten," a truly masterful piece of writing--unpretentious and astoundingly complex if you analyze it thoroughly. The others are a bit gimmicky--epistolary stories, oddball characters and set-ups, for example, a tale of a low budget film company trying to edit a socialist/heroic film by matching shots of a hero fighting a real tiger, which, after it dies, is replaced by a man in a tiger suit. What Ha Jin seems to have done for China is similar in some respects to what post WW II Italian filmmakers did with cineam: open up a world that is hidden to many of us despite the purpoted "global village."
on December 20, 2003
I loved Ha Jin's novel, "The Crazed," so I was really eager to read this collection of short stories. In general, I have to say I was a bit disappointed.
The prose was almost as lovely as in "The Crazed," and Ha Jin certainly knows how to write without the "fat," but I just didn't care for most of the characters in these stories. They seemed too naive to be believable. For me, at least, some of the stories never really achieved any emotional depth or resonance despite being interesting.
I do have to add that I think the best stories in this volume are the ones toward the back of the book, with the final story, "After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town," being the very best of all. In fact, this story is so good that it makes up for the weaker stories in the book. I think the book is worth its price just for this story alone. In it, Ha Jin shows beautifully (and sometimes comically) the vast differences between Chinese communism and US capitalism.
I think Ha Jin is a writer teetering on the edge of greatness. His prose is beautiful, his stories are good. Now, if only he could create characters that aren't so shocked by the natural progression of life, that lose their naivete with their years, he'll have won me over for good.
on December 21, 2004
These stories were written before Ha Jin's larger works. I've read "The Crazed" and thought it was a masterpiece. There's no question these stories are not as even as Ha Jin's longer works, but they certainly are worth reading and give an excellent peek into attitudes and social mores of China today. The collision of the West with China is very interesting and the result is somewhat unexpected. I'm surprised how far the West has made inroads into China. I agree that the Cowboy Chicken story is one of the best here. Ha Jin is a major literary force and as such, all his output is worthy of our attention.
on February 25, 2009
My parents grew up in Taiwan, the political arch-rival of Communist China. Growing up, I heard stories from them about the horrible living conditions, the cut-throat approach to surviving, the backwardness, the complete lack of control of one's own destiny, the regimented communal lifestyle, and contrarily, the utter chaotic systems in hellish Communist China.
As a result of the recent waves of immigrants from Mainland China, I've had numerous occasions to interact with these folks here in America, both at the work place and personally. Slowly, the stories from my parents begin to make sense to me. The depth at which the core of my being (I'm a Chinese American) differs from those of these immigrants; our thoughts, our desires, our ambitions, our principles, what gives us joy, what irks us, how we see and treat others; intrigues me.
This collection of short stories by Ha Jin resonate so true in me; in the stories I've heard from my parents, and in the new waves of immigrants I've encountered. It's as if I've known people just like the characters in these stories. The average westerner would not be able to fully relate; the absurdity and the outrageousness would be taken as mere fiction, or something culturally interesting at best. And for someone still living in the world of these stories, there is no other standard by which him/her could compare, in order to become aware of the existence of the absurdity and the outrageousness. Only someone with the right amount of understanding of both the culture in these stories AND another culture that's different enough, someone like Ha Jin and readers like me, can fully appreciate the truth reflected in these stories.
(I apologize; I can think of no other way to express this in order to come across more humble. By no means am I suggesting that these stories are not worth reading for the average westerner. Perhaps the depth of enjoyment would be different; that's all.)
My favorite story is "An Official Letter". Ha Jin masterfully takes us inside the mind of a petty, invidious, narrow-minded, ignorant, arrogant, typical Chinese Communist party member by showing us a letter of recommendation he is writing on behalf of someone whom he could never fully understand, appreciate, or match; whose passion, intellect, character, and overall inner beauty he could never grasp. The ultimate irony is that in that particular society, naturally, it would be Chairman Zhao who holds the position of making a recommendation over Prof. Fang; instead of the other way around. Also, other than reading his letter of recommendation, I can think of no other way to tell this story! Masterfully done!
There is a Chinese idiom: From the viewpoint of a dog's eyes, everyone is lowly. (In the Chinese culture, to refer to someone as a dog is an extremely insulting act.) Had this story been told in Chinese, this particular idiom would have been most appropriate as its title.
(There were moments while I was reading "An Official Letter" when I thought perhaps Ha Jin was writing about his own experience as an underappreciated talent back in China.)
This may sound far-fetched. "Animal Farm" and "1984" came to mind when I read these stories.
on October 12, 2003
Ha Jin has such a clean style of writing. I really like his novels, but I have to say that I think his short stories are a lot more lively! Each story was connected by the fact that most of its characters lived or worked in Muji City. Furthermore, most of the stories commented on the legal and social system in China, where much of one's reputation was staked on hearsay and not fact, for example. Basically, take your pick, there isn't one story in this book that won't surprise you in terms of how Communism controls every aspect of people's lives.
It was funny to read how different people's perceptions are in China. Especially funny was reading "After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town," and seeing how the Western Capitalist fastfood workplace quickly turned the Chinese workers into angry, disgruntled angst-ridden youth. (Welcome to our nightmare!) I enjoyed "Alive," where I was shocked to see how quickly the government expected widows to remarry and start new lives in the aftermath of a disaster such as an earthquake. I also liked "Broken," which was a simple story about a man's desire which quickly turned into revenge, and came back to haunt him. Some of the stories were told in first person which turned out to be extremely vibrant. One of my favorites was "An Entrepreneur's Story," in which a man tells how the world treated him differently after he became wealthy.
Actually, all of the stories were well-written, moved quickly, and were filled with everyday realism. Each one was told with a clearly different, individual voice, complete with its own quirks. It took me only a few days to finish this. I think I'll read more of Ha Jin's short stories.
In this collection of twelve short stories ("The Bridegroom"), Ha Jin manages to portray a deep sense of what life is like in general, and perhaps more interestingly, what life's like in Communist China. Like his brilliant novel "Waiting", these stories are set in modern day Muji City, China. These stories provide more than mere insight into Chinese living, they speak to the human condition.
More than a few are about revenge and what leads humans to enact it (the brilliant "Saboteur" about a man who's imprisoned for speaking out against the police, the curious "In the Kindergarten" about a little girl's method of dealing with unfairness, and the closing "After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town" about employees of an Americanized chicken restaurant and their quest for a (misplaced) sense of justice). Others leave the reader with the sense that the protagonists got what they deserved and mostly deal with relationships ("Flame" tells the story of a longtime flame's promise of revenge and a woman's desire to see him again, "Broken" is a curious tale about an employee's fascination with a former co-worker reassigned for lascivious behavior, and "The Woman from New York" is commentary about what happens when a mother leaves a family and tries to return four years later). A personal favorite, "An Official Reply" is a well-told commentary on intellectuals and trustworthiness. All in all, a fine collection of stories that allows the reader to vicariously experience an unfamiliar culture (for those not living in China). Highly recommended.
on October 5, 2003
I am a westerner who has traveled and worked (and married) in this region of China. The books of Ha Jin make me believe that I am in Dalian or Harbin. The characters have such an intresting nature but as I have found there isn't one China there is 1.5 billion China's. Ha Jin characters have a chinese nature and a personal independence I like. These tales are multifaceted and no repetitious. The setting and the characters change from story to story, but all are in this beautiful complex world of northern China. This region of China is still the least settled and the most political corruption and non western thinking happens here.
The stories I liked most are:
the Sabatour which is about a professor who is arrested for standing up to the police and who is utterly defeated, but is looking for an unlikely form of revenge.
The Woman from New York. About a chinese woman who has gone to the west and comes back to reestablish connection with her family only to find she doesn't fit.
Cowboy Chicken comes to China
A story about Chinese workers in an American francies trying to make sense of a formulated system that suprisingly works but doesnt fit China. This tale is mircaulous in how the west and east often miss the essence of each other.
A tale where a young class of students is cheated by there teacher to do work so that the down trodden teacher can survive. It is a tale of maturity and vengeance and misunderstanding. The story is from a young girls eye who understands something is wrong but not understanding the causes.
Ha Jin's novels Waiting and In the Pond are good reads as well
In the dozen short stories in this collection, Chinese author Ha Jin shows that he is a master of the craft. Writing about the themes of modernization, conflict of generations, and the growing pains in post Mao China, Jin draws us into a world where no one is a hero, though there are a few villains. He sets most of these stories in the fictional Muji City, a third tier city, where opportunities and distress abound in equal measure.
In 'Alive', the main character loses his memory in an earthquake while working far from home. He gets married and starts a new family, but when his memory begins to return, he is left with a decision to make that has no easy solution. The eponymous story involves a conflict between sexual identity and slow changing mores. Although we might be quick to judge, it demonstrates more the similarities to American attitudes 50 years ago. The final story 'After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town', the ultimate in American capitalism - a fast food franchise - comes to Muji City. The locals don't quite know what to make of it, nor do its Chinese employees, who have an American boss. In addition to the cultural and gustatory clashes, it is the abject lesson in labor relations that captures our attention.
Ha Jin gives us a sharp insight into people and their motivations. At the same time, none of his stories are predictable, keeping us our toes when reading this masterful collection.