Yours truly is currently feeling about as “Chinese” as one can get, especially after having spent most the entirety of one’s life denouncing the backwardness of Chinese culture (can’t sound more self-hating, can I? but hey, if we make allowance for the self-hating Jew, why not for the self-hating Chinese too?). Thus is the effect of having read Ha Jin’s Waiting, a slyly executed novel that convulses with hopeless submission to a totalitarian system, and cultural obligations specific to Chinese society.
It’s easy to see why I picked up the book. Who'd be able to resist a first line that so boldly declares: ‘Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu’? We later find out that Lin Kong has been trying to legally part ways from his wife for seventeen years, and he finally succeeds in the eighteenth. The trouble with stretching time out like that, however, is that there isn’t much room left for the fluctuations of human attachment – people get fed up, grow old, resentful, say stupid things, and eventually “relationship” becomes a hollow word, signifying only the years spent holding onto “maybe”s.
Contrary to what fellow readers have suggested, this story is not a critique of Mao’s regime. Certainly the rituals and lifestyles Mao imposed – the confiscation of foreign books, the reciting of On Contradiction, the salute to a picture of the patriarch at weddings – provide the context for Lin Kong’s dilemma, but too often his life is already dwarfed by the sheer load of work in the army (which would doubtfully be lighter under any another regime at war), his own submission to the initiatives of his girlfriend, Manna Wu, and the honour-bound code of conduct within Chinese society, long established before Mao. After all is said and done, the novel is much less concerned with the consequences of Maoism than the heart of a man who knows neither passion nor honour, and who ultimately craves only a place to call home.
It occurs to me that “waiting” ( 等 ) rhymes with “tolerating” ( 忍 ) in Mandarin. Let it never be said that the Chinese have no sense of humour.