Waiting by Ha Jin: 11/8/07

Waiting Waiting
A Novel by Ha Jin

17 of us met to talk about Ha Jin’s book, and most comments were very positive. I was not so enthusiastic about it, however, which may explain the ridiculously long time it’s taken me to post this summary!

Many in the group were fascinated to read about life in China during the Cultural Revolution. In Never Let Me Go the protagonist’s passivity drove people crazy, but in the case of Lin Kong, it seemed to make sense, given the power of centralized political, economic and social control in China at the time. We struggle to imagine living in a place with strict rules governing every aspect of our existence, from our job assignment to which people we are allowed to walk with and where.

Our group generally empathized with Lin’s disappointment with his situation and with himself. We noted that his gentlemanly behavior poorly hides his fear and selfishness. At the same time that he is trying to get along well with everyone, he is causing great pain to the most important women in his life.

J told us about the interview with Ha Jin she heard on the radio that very morning, and talked about the culture of shame to which Lin belongs, where the power of other people’s opinions can be crushing.

JS pointed out that the story can be seen as a tale of urban versus rural cultures. To be from the country seems so shameful to the urban educated Lin. But his ex-wife Shuyu – illiterate, with tiny bound feet – is the one who is able to adapt well to life in the city when she finally gets there, and she’s the one who knows how to treat his new wife’s seriously ill babies. In the end, Shuyu strikes us as the strongest character, even though she also seems the most subservient.

Shuyu went through years of pain to have her feet bound, creating perfection to be shown only to her husband, only to have him refuse to look at them. She gathered the courage to offer herself to him so that she could give him a son, only to have him send her back to her own bed.

Speaking of beds, TL wondered about the brick beds they slept on. Turns out they’re known as Kang, and they are heated from underneath!

As CS said, the book raises many questions. For us these include: What does it mean that the one violent and ruthless character is the one who achieves fame and riches? How could Lin have so little insight into himself? Does he really learn to appreciate Shuyu or is he just in love with waiting and yearning for the greener grass on the other side of the fence? Are we also sometimes in love with waiting? Why wasn’t Lin able to try bringing Shuyu along with him, teaching her to read and to live in the city? And JW wants to know what about all the insects flapping around the characters in this story?

Ha Jin
Ha Jin Interview with Ha Jin
Review of Waiting
  For more articles on Ha Jin and his books, tryInfotrac Onefile, available at the library,or from home (with a Minuteman Library Network card).
*Wikipedia on Ha Jin  
*Other Books by Ha Jin
*New book released October 30, 2007: A Free Life


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  1. Comment by Chris
    November 7, 2007 @ 8:08 pm

    Kate –
    I wanted to drop a line and say I won’t be able to make it to book club this month. Things came up. I also haven’t finished the book, and am not sure I will. I’m 120 pages in and still waiting (ironic…) for it to become something more than melodrama, tinged with a little communist Chinese culture and politics. It’s been disappointing, and while I hope I find time to finish it, I’m not sure I’ll feel any less enriched if I don’t.

    On a lighter note, I wanted to relate my children’s Halloween party preparation experience. There I was late at night mixing green food coloring into mayonnaise and using cookie cutters to cut bread into the shape of ghosts, so that there would be spooky green egg salad sandwiches for the kids the next day. And all of a sudden, I realized I was having a Kate Reddy moment (from “I Don’t Know How She Does It”).

    Not 2AM, and not artificially distressing mince pies with a rolling pin, but the same idea…

    All the best,

  2. Comment by Chris
    January 1, 2008 @ 11:11 pm

    Well. This post is long in coming, but I wanted to get it up here. Although I couldn’t attend, I did manage to finish the book around the time the club met.

    I’m with you, Kate. I found it extremely disappointing. This was a book I wanted to like, by an author I’ve heard many good things about over the past several years. I was bothered by a number of things that I felt were executed poorly, not the least of which was that none of the characters ever became truly interesting. The setting was squandered. And the author had a weird aversion to following through on any of the (many) tragedies that he set up for his characters. By the last hundred pages of the book, I was no longer fooled, and anytime something bad was about to happen, I just sighed and read on, knowing that the real dramatic tension wouldn’t rise above soap-opera melodrama and that the story would just stumble forward…as it had already up to that point.

    At the end, the thing that bothered me the most was that this book won a major award. This cannot be the best our literary lights have to offer.

    Rather than try to explain more, I’ll post this link to a review I stumbled across. While the reviewer is heavy-handed on the side of blaming things on a “PC” mentality, I think he’s dead-on with just about every particular criticism.


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