Sunday, November 22, 2009

Book 4: Waiting by Ha Jin

Ha Jin's "Waiting" tells the story of Lin Kong, a meek, obedient doctor in the Chinese Army who is torn by his duty to Communist China and his desire to find love. Lin is married to Shuyu, a woman who represents the old ways of China through her bound feet and their arranged marriage, but while in the army he meets Manna, a young nurse who falls for him despite the fact that he has a wife and daughter in the country. Lin does not love Shuyu; he only married her to please his dying mother. She looks much older than her years, and he is embarrassed by her bound feet. He only spends 10 days a year at home with her and Hua, their daughter, during leave from the army. In contrast, Manna is young and attractive, and over time they develop a desire to be with one another. Manna convinces Lin to divorce his wife, and so on his annual trips home, he takes Shuyu to the local courthouse to obtain a divorce. And year after year, his wish is denied. However, according to military rule, after 18 years of living separately, a husband and wife can divorce without the wife's consent, so on his 18th attempt, Lin wins his divorce, and he and Manna are free to marry. From there, the story moves quickly, and by the end of the book, Lin has realized that he has spent his entire life doing nothing but waiting - for a divorce, for marriage to Manna, for him to finally experience that elusive thing called love.

The most interesting thing about the book was the glimpse it gave into life in Communist China. Growing up as the Cold War was ending, I don't recall having the spectre of Communism hanging above my head. For as long as I can remember, our enemies have been in the Middle East; our major conflicts have been the first Gulf War and the current mess in Iraq. I don't even recall learning much in history class - it was mostly Civil War, World Wars I & II, and then Mother Russia hated us and the Berlin Wall fell. The end. (Ok, history was my least favorite class, and I may have spent most of my time daydreaming, but I really don't recall learning much about Communism.) Ha Jin was himself in the army while he lived in China, so his portrayal of the Lin's struggle to remain true to both his country and his desires is very realistic. It's amazing to realize just how devoted Lin's countrymen were to their duties. There's also some descriptions of everyday propaganda used by the government to promote their ideals and keep their citizens in line.

And I struggled at first to try not to despise Lin. His reasons for wanting to divorce his wife angered me - she was ugly & looked old, and her feet embarrassed him? She was also very devoted to him, took care of his parents on their deathbeds, and raised his daughter single-handedly. However, I realized that I was letting a cultural divide prevent me from enjoying the story. In America, arranged marriages are very rare, and divorces are incredibly easy to come by. If a guy doesn't like a woman, he won't marry her just because his mother wants him to... but if he does, he can easily divorce her shortly thereafter. In 1960s China, one of the most important values stressed by the government was the idea of a strong family - which meant divorce was frowned upon and hard to obtain, particularly in the country. Once I got over my biases, I found the book to be a vivid, well-written glance into a culture that I admittedly know little about, but came to understand a little better.

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