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Waiting : A Novel (Vintage International)
by Ha Jin

Published: 2000-09-19
Paperback : 308 pages
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"In Waiting, Ha Jin portrays the life of Lin Kong, a dedicated doctor torn by his love for two women: one who belongs to the New China of the Cultural Revolution, the other to the ancient traditions of his family's village. Ha Jin profoundly understands the conflict between the individual ...
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Introduction

"In Waiting, Ha Jin portrays the life of Lin Kong, a dedicated doctor torn by his love for two women: one who belongs to the New China of the Cultural Revolution, the other to the ancient traditions of his family's village. Ha Jin profoundly understands the conflict between the individual and society, between the timeless universality of the human heart and constantly shifting politics of the moment. With wisdom, restraint, and empathy for all his characters, he vividly reveals the complexities and subtleties of a world and a people we desperately need to know."--Judges' Citation, National Book Award

"Ha Jin's novel could hardly be less theatrical, yet we're immediately engaged by its narrative structure, by its wry humor and by the subtle, startling shifts it produces in our understanding of characters and their situation."--The New York Times Book Review

"Subtle and complex--his best work to date. A moving meditation on the effects of time upon love."--The Washington Post

"A high achievement indeed."--Ian Buruma, The New York Review of Books

"A portrait of Chinese provincial life that terrifies with its emptiness even more than with its all-pervasive vulgarity. The poet in [Jin] intersperses these human scenes with achingly beautiful vignettes of natural beauty."--Los Angeles Times

"A simple love story that transcends cultural barriers--. From the idyllic countryside to the small towns in northeast China, Jin's depictions are filled with an earthy poetic grace--. Jin's account of daily life in China is convincing and rich in detail."--The Chicago Tribune

"Compassionate, earthy, robust, and wise, Waiting blends provocative allegory with all-too-human comedy. The result touches and reveals, bringing to life a singular world in its spectacular intricacy."--Gish Jen, author of Who's Irish?

"A remarkable love story. Ha Jin's understanding of the human heart and the human condition transcends borders and time. Waiting is an outstanding literary achievement."--Lisa See, author of On Gold Mountain

Editorial Review

"Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu." Like a fairy tale, Ha Jin's masterful novel of love and politics begins with a formula--and like a fairy tale, Waiting uses its slight, deceptively simple framework to encompass a wide range of truths about the human heart. Lin Kong is a Chinese army doctor trapped in an arranged marriage that embarrasses and repels him. (Shuyu has country ways, a withered face, and most humiliating of all, bound feet.) Nevertheless, he's content with his tidy military life, at least until he falls in love with Manna, a nurse at his hospital. Regulations forbid an army officer to divorce without his wife's consent--until 18 years have passed, that is, after which he is free to marry again. So, year after year Lin asks his wife for his freedom, and year after year he returns from the provincial courthouse: still married, still unable to consummate his relationship with Manna. Nothing feeds love like obstacles placed in its way--right? But Jin's novel answers the question of what might have happened to Romeo and Juliet had their romance been stretched out for several decades. In the initial confusion of his chaste love affair, Lin longs for the peace and quiet of his "old rut." Then killing time becomes its own kind of rut, and in the end, he is forced to conclude that he "waited eighteen years just for the sake of waiting."

There's a political allegory here, of course, but it grows naturally from these characters' hearts. Neither Lin nor Manna is especially ideological, and the tumultuous events occurring around them go mostly unnoticed. They meet during a forced military march, and have their first tender moment during an opera about a naval battle. (While the audience shouts, "Down with Japanese Imperialism!" the couple holds hands and gazes dreamily into each other's eyes.) When Lin is in Goose Village one summer, a mutual acquaintance rapes Manna; years later, the rapist appears on a TV report titled "To Get Rich Is Glorious," after having made thousands in construction. Jin resists hammering ideological ironies like these home, but totalitarianism's effects on Lin are clear:

Let me tell you what really happened, the voice said. All those years you waited torpidly, like a sleepwalker, pulled and pushed about by others' opinions, by external pressure, by your illusions, by the official rules you internalized. You were misled by your own frustration and passivity, believing that what you were not allowed to have was what your heart was destined to embrace.
Ha Jin himself served in the People's Liberation Army, and in fact left his native country for the U.S. only in 1985. That a non-native speaker can produce English of such translucence and power is truly remarkable--but really, his prose is the least of the miracles here. Improbably, Jin makes an unconsummated 18-year love affair loom as urgent as political terror or war, while history-changing events gain the immediacy of a domestic dilemma. Gracefully phrased, impeccably paced, Waiting is the kind of realist novel you thought was no longer being written. --Mary Park

Excerpt

Lin Kong graduated from the military medical school toward the end of 1963 and came to Muji to work as a doctor. At that time the hospital ran a small nursing school, which offered a sixteen-month program and produced nurses for the army in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. When Manna Wu enrolled as a student in the fall of 1964, Lin was teaching a course in anatomy. She was an energetic young woman at the time, playing volleyball on the hospital team. Unlike most of her classmates who were recent middle- or high-school graduates, she had already served three years as a telephone operator in a coastal division and was older than most of them. Since over 95 percent of the students in the nursing school were female, many young officers from the units stationed in Muji City would frequent the hospital on weekends. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the publisher:

1. Ha Jin has not returned to China since he left in 1985; in 1990, he made a commitment to write and speak solely in English. Speaking of that decision, he says, "There was a lot of fear. It's like changing your body, to write in a different language. And it wasn't just a matter of finding an audience, it was a matter of survival—I have a family to support. Finally I decided to write in English, absolutely uncertain of whether I could do it. I'm still uncertain! In the end, though, every project is a risk, not just the language. And that's true for every writer."** How would you characterize the style in which this novel is written? If you have read the work of Vladimir Nabokov or Joseph Conrad, two other emigré writers who adopted English as their literary language, how would you compare Ha Jin's use of the language?

*Atlanta Journal, 15 Nov 1999
**From "A conversation with Ha Jin," by Mary Park, amazon.com

2. Ha Jin has said that the idea for Waiting came to him when he read a newspaper story about a woman who described her husband as loveless: "She wished her husband could have an affair with another woman.... At least that would prove he was capable of love" Atlanta Journal, 15 Nov 1999, E1]. When late in the novel Lin realizes that "he had never loved a woman wholeheartedly and that he had always been the loved one" (p. 296), do you think Ha Jin is calling attention to an individual problem -- his protagonist's passive temperament -- or a universal one?



3. Lin Kong is a man who seems to want to move beyond the values of traditional village life, with its familial bonds and rootedness. If marrying Manna Wu will bring him the more modern life he desires, one based on self-fulfillment and independence, why does he have such difficulty obtaining his divorce? Is he undecided as to what he wants? What does he stand to lose in giving up Shuyu? How do the choices he faces relate to similar ones faced by men and women in America today?

4. Geng Yang tells Lin, "You're always afraid that people will call you a bad man. You strive to have a good heart. But what is a heart? Just a chunk of flesh that a dog can eat. Your problem originates in your own character, and you must first change yourself" (p. 167). How insightful is this remark? Should Lin try to be more heartless with regard to his wife? How is the remark tempered by what you know of Geng Yang's character?

5. Ha Jin does not present Manna and Lin as perfect characters; what are their weaknesses? Could anyone, no matter how strong and forceful a personality, fare better than they did in the coercive social system in which they live? Does Ha Jin imply that people like Geng Yang can thrive only because they have no conscience?



6. In Western culture and in Freudian psychology, the goal of true adulthood is individuation, as well as the ability to realize one's desires through will and action. In the world of this novel, such ideals are considered corrupt and bourgeois. Is it possible for readers raised in this Western way of thinking to find Lin's passivity admirable? Do you find both Lin and Manna too childlike? Or are they simply trapped in a no-win situation?

7. Why is the situation so much more difficult for Manna Wu than for Lin? Should she have pursued other possible mates more aggressively? At the beginning of the novel, we're told that Manna is "almost twenty-six, on the verge of becoming an old maid" (p. 19). How sympathetic are you to her difficulty in finding a mate? The narrator has said that "Men and women were equal" in Maoist China (p. 37); do you find this to be the case in the novel, or is Manna Wu at a serious disadvantage?



8. How does the character of Manna Wu compare with that of Shuyu? Does Shuyu's traditionalism protect her from suffering the tug of neurosis that affects Manna Wu as time grinds on? Would you say that, especially after moving to Muji City, Shuyu is more free to enjoy her life than either Lin Kong or Manna Wu? Do both women really love Lin Kong?

9. Why does Ha Jin choose Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass as the book given to Manna by Commissioner Wei? Does the book, which celebrates democracy and the self, indicate that Commissioner Wei is not a model revolutionary? Do you accept the idea that Manna's handwriting wasn't up to his expectations, or do you think that her "report" on Whitman was too cautious? What do you find most comical about Manna Wu's date with the commissioner?



10. While the political background of the novel underscores the reality of an ongoing Marxist revolution, the personal issues focus more upon what might be considered "bourgeois" concerns, like the desire for a fulfilling domestic life with its attendant personal and sexual comforts. Do the personal desires of Lin and Manna necessarily conflict with the ideals that Mao Tse Tung's revolution has thrust upon the Chinese people? How do you respond to the description of their wedding ceremony, in which they bow three times to a portrait of Chairman Mao?

11. It is a romantic notion that true love will survive all sorts of trials and separations. While Manna and Lin are together in a sense, the fact that their relationship cannot be a sexual one surely constitutes quite a long trial and separation. Are you surprised at Lin's feelings when they finally are married? What do you find comical about the long-awaited sexual encounters between Manna and Lin?



12. When Lin leaves the house in a rage after Manna scolds him for burning the rice, a voice in his head tells him, "Actually you never loved her. You just had a crush on her, which you didn't get a chance to outgrow or to develop into love.... In fact you waited eighteen years just for the sake of waiting" (p. 294). Is this a moment of real insight in the novel, devastating as it is?

13. What is most remarkable about the scene in which Lin, standing in the snowy darkness outside their window, watches as Shuyu and his daughter prepare dumplings (p. 301)? Why is this sight both nostalgic and painful for him?



14. The narrator doesn't reveal much about Shuyu's feelings; why not? What does Shuyu most desire? Why does she seem to be in such control of her own emotions, as contrasted with Manna? Is it surprising that she remains generous toward Lin even after he is married to Manna?

15. Ashamed of the things he said to Shuyu while drunk, Lin tells Hua, "Tell her not to wait for me. I'm a useless man, not worth waiting for." She responds, "Don't be so hard on yourself, Dad. We'll always wait for you" (p. 308). Does Lin deserve this unwavering loyalty from his first wife and daughter? Do the traditional values which he tried to escape in divorcing Shuyu triumph after all?

16. Many critics have commented on the affinity between the work of Ha Jin and that of such nineteenth century Russian writers as Turgenev and Chekhov, who also wrote about ordinary people caught up in times of wrenching change, and about communities in which simple peasants come into conflict with more sophisticated, modern and complex characters. How are the peasants in Waiting represented, and how are they different from those who are more educated and ambitious?



17. Much of this book is given up to what happens while its characters are waiting. How does Ha Jin overcome the danger of stasis, and the reader's impatience, in constructing the novel? How would you describe the structure and pace of the plot?

18. What do you notice about the way Ha Jin describes the physical details of everyday life like food, housing, clothing, people's bodies? How does the material culture of this novel differ from that of America? Do you feel that, because Ha Jin is consciously writing for an American audience in his adopted country, such details have greater resonance?

19. Ha Jin has not returned to China since he left in 1985; in 1990, he made a commitment to write and speak solely in English. Speaking of that decision, he says, "There was a lot of fear. It's like changing your body, to write in a different language. And it wasn't just a matter of finding an audience, it was a matter of survival -- I have a family to support. Finally I decided to write in English, absolutely uncertain of whether I could do it. I'm still uncertain! In the end, though, every project is a risk, not just the language. And that's true for every writer" [From "A conversation with Ha Jin," by Mary Park, amazon.com]. How would you characterize the style in which this novel is written? If you have read the work of Vladimir Nabokov or Joseph Conrad, two other emigré writers who adopted English as their literary language, how would you compare Ha Jin's use of the language?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

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Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "Engaging and, ultimately, depressing"by megdoug (see profile) 02/25/12

I found this was an easy read, I got through it very quickly. The suspense kept me interested, and I found I was concerned about the characters (as frustrating as some of them were). The setting of Communist... (read more)

 
  "Wwaiting: a novel"by jeanettebrooker (see profile) 02/24/12

 
  "this book is 'just ok'"by carehoff (see profile) 03/01/09

I didn't finish the book, so I can't say much. I just didn't get into the story or the characters. From what the rest of the people in my club had to say, who did finish the book, it just wasn't that... (read more)

 
  "Culture and tradition"by teatime (see profile) 07/11/08

Good to learn about culture and traditions in China. Very sad. Moral issues present much discussion for a book club read.

 
  "Love in communist china"by mitznmutts (see profile) 06/24/07

Overall at the end of this book you will feel depressed but I would still recommend the book because it generates a lot of discussion. It is the age old story- man meets woman and he falls in love but... (read more)

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