America was a sparkling new world, but it was a world apart

By Ha Jin
Sunday, July 13, 2008

In college, English meant humiliation to me. When I was assigned to major in the language in 1977 at Heilongjiang University, I knew only dozens of English words and was put in the lowest class, where I stayed four years. We were the first group of undergraduates admitted through the entrance exams after the Cultural Revolution, after colleges had been closed for a decade. There was no hope for a late starter like me to catch up with the students in the faster English classes, so I kind of gave up and avoided

working hard on my English. But in 1980, writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow and Malamud suddenly became immensely popular in China after American literature had mostly been banned for three decades. I was fascinated by their fiction: Their literary subject matter was not confined to politics and social movements, as it was in China, and the techniques they used -- such as stream of consciousness and multiple narrative points of view -- were unheard of to me. I made up my mind to study American literature after college. For that, I would have to pass an advanced English test, so I began applying myself.

In 1982, I got into the graduate program in American literature at Shandong University, but I was not a good student -- at least, my professor didn't like me, probably because I married in my first year there when I was supposed to concentrate on my studies. There were only three graduate students in my year, and we had American professors teaching us most of the time. Back then, no doctoral degree in our field was offered in China, so the only way to continue my graduate work was to go abroad. Beatrice Spade, my American literature professor, encouraged me to apply to some U.S. universities, and in the winter of 1984, I started sending out applications.

The next spring, Brandeis University, which I knew nothing about and which had been recommended to me by Prof. Spade, notified me of my admission and offered me a scholarship, but I wasn't very excited. I was 28, and unable to imagine living outside of China.

Since childhood, I had lived a peripatetic life, most of the time separated from my parents, so I was quite independent. But the United States was so far away and so enigmatic that ever since I had started the application, I had been possessed by a restless emotion, as if I was about to fall ill. The previous October, Prof. Spade had introduced me to a group of top American scholars in a delegation that visited our university. They were staying at a hotel in Jinan City, and I spoke with Prof. Alan Trachtenberg, the head of American studies at Yale, for a preliminary interview. I was a bundle of nerves, and when he asked if I had questions for him, I blurted out, "I don't know if I can survive in America." The question, more existential than literal, must have been tormenting me for months and just gushed out. Prof. Trachtenberg's eyes flashed behind his glasses -- he was surprised, but there was no way for me to clarify, to say that physically I could survive for sure, but that I was more concerned about my quest for a meaningful existence, which I had no idea how to accomplish in the United States.

So, I blew my opportunity with Yale. I had my scholarship from Brandeis, though, and now I had to get permission from my university to go abroad. That meant I would have a J-1 visa that required its holder to return after graduation. To me, this was no problem, as I viewed my studies in America as no more than a sojourn. Besides, the authorities, to prevent me from defecting, would not allow my wife and child to go with me, so I would have to return anyway, the sooner, the better.

A schoolmate, Yafei, and I were allowed to leave together. He was going to MIT to study linguistics. After mid-August, we went to Beijing to go through a few days of "the training," which was more like a formality consisting of speeches given by officials and brief introductions to the United States.

One of the officials, a squat, smiling man, told us to be careful about sexual contact with foreigners and not to catch VD, but he also said, "It's understandable if you have a fling with someone when you are there, because we are not puritans."

Everything went smoothly in Beijing, except that three days before our scheduled departure, we were informed that the plane tickets were no longer available, though our school had paid for them long before. Apparently, our tickets had been given to "more important people." Desperate, Yafei contacted a distant relative who had some pull with the airport. To get the tickets, we would have to give the man some brand-name cigarettes. His wife was fond of 555's, and we decided to offer him two cartons. I didn't smoke and had no idea where to buy the foreign cigarettes, which regular stores didn't carry. Yafei, always resourceful, got them without difficulty, and we split the cost, each paying 30 yuan, almost half our monthly salary. We took a bus to the man's home to hand him the bribe. He met us in the doorway of his apartment and gave us the plane tickets after taking the cigarettes. Though he didn't let us in, through a narrow pane of glass on a door I caught a glimpse of his wife lying in bed smoking. On our way back to our dorm, Yafei said that the woman's father was a high-ranking official. Years later, whenever I thought of going back to China, the image of the young woman with a haggard face and bedraggled hair smoking expensive cigarettes would come to mind and make me wince.

Yafei and I boarded a plane without anyone seeing us off. I had never flown before, so the shifting and tilting cityscape of Beijing viewed from the air was exhilarating. However, the Boeing had a peculiar smell that nauseated us. It was a typical American odor, sharp and artificial, like a combination of chemicals and perfumes. Even lunch, Parmesan chicken and salad, tasted strange and gave off the same awful smell. I would find it everywhere in America, even on vegetables and fruits in supermarkets, but in a week or so I would get used to it, unable to detect it anymore.

Prof. Peter Swiggart, a middle-aged man with chestnut hair and a roundish, good-natured face, was assigned by the international program at Brandeis to be my host, so he agreed to pick me up at Logan International Airport.

The moment I sat in the passenger seat of his car, he told me to "buckle up." I had no clue what he was talking about. He pulled his seat belt; still, I didn't know how to use mine, never having seen one in a car before. I thought to myself, This is like a ride on a plane. That was the only connection I could make with the seat belt. Prof. Swiggart helped me push the buckle into the slot.

My graduate dormitory at Brandeis was a three-story building by the Charles River. I had two roommates. Benny was from Israel, and Hosan from South Korea. Hosan, a broad-framed man with a square face, was a second-year graduate student in the chemistry department, which had a number of Chinese students, so he spread the word among them about my arrival, probably because I was an oddity studying literature instead of science.

The next afternoon, I strolled along the Charles. The sky was clear and high, much higher than the sky in China, thanks to the absence of smog. A pudgy angler was fishing with a tallboy of beer in his hand. Behind us, Canada geese strutted and mallards waddled. A young mother and her toddler boy were tossing potato chips at the waterfowl. Soon the man caught a bass, about a foot and a half long, wriggling like crazy. He unhooked the fish, observed it for a few seconds. "Dammit, it's you again," he said, and, to my amazement, dropped it back into the water.

"You don't keep your fish?" I asked him.


"You can't eat it?" I was still baffled.

"I'm fishin' jus' for fun."

It occurred to me that people here had a different view of nature. That night, I wrote in my first letter to my best friend: "By comparison, our old land must be overused and exhausted. Nature is extraordinarily generous to America."

My roommate Benny was a first-year graduate student in Judaic studies. He was a skinny man and had a German girlfriend, Bettina, who had just arrived as a special student, doing graduate work at Brandeis for one year. At first, I thought that they both spoke English fluently, but I soon discovered that their vocabulary wasn't that rich and that they might not know more English than I did. Yet compared with theirs, my spoken English was quite shabby, partly because I had learned it mainly from books. For example, several times I introduced myself as "a freshman," assuming that the word referred to a first-year grad student as well. I couldn't understand the news on TV at all, and it took me two months to be able to follow TV shows. Some Chinese students in our dorm loved watching American wrestling, believing that the stunts, the moves, the pain were all real.

Below us, on the first floor, lived a young Indian couple, both graduate students. The wife, Aparna, was tall and vivacious, specializing in social policy and management. One evening, as we were having tea in their living room, she asked me, "Why didn't you bring your wife and child with you?"

"They were not allowed to come with me," I said.

"Who didn't allow them?"

"The government."

"Why not sue your government?"

Stumped, I didn't know how to answer. But the question has stayed with me since. It shook me, as I realized that democracy fundamentally meant the equality between the individual and the country. Such a thought was something few Chinese would dare to entertain.

When I left home, it was understood between my wife, Lisha, and me that I would live abroad for four years without coming back to visit her, because I was unlikely to be able to afford the airfare. Our 2-year-old son had been staying with her parents, and, right before my departure, Lisha and I went to see him; he was too young to worry about my imminent absence from his life. Even when I said goodbye, he hardly paid me any mind. After my arrival in Boston, I noticed that some Chinese graduate students had their spouses with them, so I began to figure out how to bring Lisha over. I spoke to a woman at the graduate school admissions at Brandeis, saying: "I want my wife to join me here. I miss her terribly." She didn't respond, her face wooden and her eyes dropped, as if I had asked for something beyond reason. The prolonged silence made clear that no assistance would come from her office.

Gradually, I found out that everyone who came here was entitled to have a visa for his or her spouse, but there was another difficulty, namely money. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing would demand that my wife show that I had at least $4,000 in my bank account. To earn that amount, I began working on and off campus. I started in the periodical section of the main library and learned to operate the copiers and the microfilm and microfiche machines. My fellow graduate student Dan Morris used to be a custodian at Waltham Hospital, but now he was too busy with his studies to keep all the hours, so he split the job with me. We each worked 20 hours a week in the medical building, vacuuming floors, cleaning toilets, washing glass doors, picking up trash from the offices and keeping the parking lot clean. We wore beepers at work so that the doctors and nurses could page us if they needed help. The job was undemanding, but I often got confused. For instance, a patient once told me to keep an eye on his "burgundy station wagon" because its lock was broken. I had no idea what kind of car a station wagon was and had to ask several people about that. A physician who spoke English with a Greek accent often wiggled his forefinger to summon me over when he wanted me to change a light bulb or clean away a patch of vomit on his office floor. I hated that gesture, which at first seemed to mean that he could pull me around with just one finger. But gradually I became accustomed to it as I saw that many others used it without any condescension. Despite some twinge of discomfort, I liked the job, mainly because I could rest my mind while I worked. I had to be very careful about my time and energy. At the outset of the semester, the director of graduate studies had told me that the English department had admitted Asian PhD candidates before, but none of them had survived the intensity of the graduate work, so I had to prove that I could manage it.

For new arrivals in America, there was always the sinister attraction of money. Suddenly one could make $4 or $5 an hour, which was equal to a whole week's wages back home. If you were not careful, you could fall into the money-grubbing trap. Some Chinese students didn't continue with their graduate work because they couldn't stop making money. One fellow from Shanghai started working part time in a museum on campus but soon stopped showing up in his lab in the physics department, dropped out of graduate school within a semester, and began taking courses to learn how to sell real estate. Another in American studies, who loved teaching as a profession, could no longer write his dissertation after taking a clerical job in a bank -- sometimes he put in more than 60 hours a week, the overtime even harder to resist.

One evening, as I was cleaning the front entrance of the medical building, a slender Hispanic woman carrying a baby stopped to watch me work. She was under 30, with honey-colored hair, and might have been a single mother. A moment later, she stepped closer and handed her pacifier-sucking baby to me, saying, "You like kids?" Her round eyes were glowing while a hesitant smile cracked her face.

I was perplexed but managed to say, "Sorry, I am busy now." I kept spraying Windex on the glass door. After scraping the glass clean, I observed my face in the mirror inside the men's room. I looked a bit melancholy and frazzled. But how on earth, I wondered, had that woman sensed my yearning for family?

My coursework and two part-time jobs kept me so busy that I rarely ate dinner. I would cook twice a week -- a potful of rice or spaghetti mixed with vegetables and chicken generally lasted me a few days. Back home, I wouldn't eat chicken or beef, because, unlike pork, they had tasted strange to me. But now I just ate whatever I could get. Fortunately, in America, food was very affordable. But my eating habit soon gave me a stomachache. I went to the infirmary, and the doctor said I had developed a digestive disorder and must eat regularly, three meals a day. That was out of the question, thanks to my hectic schedule. But my stomach problem made Lisha eager to join me here.

Despite my effort to earn money for her visa, she was not sure if she would be able to come. With the help of a doctor's letter about my illness, she had obtained a three-month leave from the school where she taught, but the Chinese authorities wouldn't let her bring our child. She was having difficulty getting a passport even for herself. For two months, she went to various offices every day to ask for permission to visit me. Sometimes she swept floors and wiped desks in those places just to earn the officials' mercy so they might issue her the papers.

During my absence, she had been raising our child alone on her teacher's salary. I missed him and often looked at the photos she mailed me. I could not afford to call home, since it cost more than $3 a minute. Worse, very few families in China had a phone back then, and if I was going to call, Lisha would have to go to an office to wait for the call. When she spoke, there would be people around, listening. Once in a while, she would send me the imprints of our child's hands and feet to give me a better sense of how much he had grown. In the Boston area, I had encountered young couples from China who had their children with them, and I could see that eventually I might be able to bring my son over, too, but the first step was to get his mother out.

However, even after Lisha got her passport, she began having second thoughts about leaving our son behind and coming alone. In her letters, she even bragged teasingly about how orderly her life had become without me around and said that, as we had planned, she could manage without seeing me for four years. I assured her that our family would be reunited in time, but she should come over first. She was worried about her lack of English, as well, and I told her that she could easily learn it once she was here. I also wrote her about American amenities: She could take a hot shower at home every day; she could do laundry in a washer and a dryer, no need to hand-launder anything; and she needn't burn honeycomb briquettes to cook, as electric and gas stoves were commonplace in America. What's more, the air here was so fresh and clean that your collar didn't get black even after you wore a white shirt for days, and that you needn't wipe your shoes.

After a few more exchanges of letters, she finally decided to come once I had earned the $4,000.

At the end of the semester, I completed my four courses with decent grades, which convinced the department of my ability. Then, one evening, my friend Jia-yang, a first-year graduate student in the biology department, came by to ask if he could borrow $1,000 from me, saying that his wife was going to apply for a visa, and he needed enough money in his bank account. I was stupefied, as it had never crossed my mind that I could have borrowed cash from friends, perhaps because it was such a big sum. I lent Jia-yang the money, and he promised to lend me some when Lisha began her application. And, two months later, he did. Now Lisha and I wouldn't have to wait for long to be together again, for me to show her my new American life.

. . .

Ha Jin is the author of Waiting and A Free Life. He can be reached at

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