Friday, January 7, 2011

Waiting by Ha Jin

In many ways I experienced China during and after the Cultural Revolution through the eyes of Lin Kong. Lin is a doctor whose marriage was arranged. His wife remains in her rural village while Lin works at the Muji City army hospital. Shuyu, his wife, embarrasses him with by her simplicity and her bound feet.

A love affair begins for Lin when he and a third of the hospital staff make a 400 mile trek to practice treating the casualties of a battle that really hasn't happened. This march is compared to the Long March— "We must carry on the spirit of the Long March."

" The Long March: (1934–36), the 6,000-mile (10,000-km) historic trek of the Chinese communists, which resulted in the relocation of the communist revolutionary base from southeastern to northwestern China and in the emergence of Mao Zedong as the undisputed party leader. Fighting Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) throughout their journey, the communist troops crossed 18 mountain ranges and 24 rivers to reach the northwestern province of Shaanxi." Encyclopedia Britannica

Manna, one of the nurses on the walk, develops blisters that need attention and Lin Kong drains the blisters. His kindness ignites something within Manna and her response also ignites a response within Lin. They begin a love affair that is circumscribed by party rules. They may never leave the compound in each other's company and their affair must remain platonic. People talk, but their behavior and adherence to the party doctrine enables them to exist within the narrow confines of that society. To go against the dictates of party ideology could result in a forced separation and a loss of status.

As their love grows and their lives become intermingled Manna wants to be free to marry Lin. He has acknowledged that he doesn't love his wife. His daughter rarely recognizes his existence when he returns home —once a year. The story starts with a line indicating that "every summer" Lin returns to Goose Village to seek a divorce from his wife and every year her returns to the base—another unsuccessful attempt. Shuyu usually starts by acquiescing, but when they stand before the judge she changes her mind. Often the change is brought instigated by her brother. When the judge hears that she loves Lin is refuses to grant the divorce. This charade continues on for eighteen years.

During this time things have changed for Manna. She has been raped by someone who both she and Lin thought was a friend. Because woman are really listened to and she waited before reporting the rape she keeps quiet. She's also concerned with how people will judge her if they know. She does tell her friend who inadvertently told her husband who, also inadvertently , repeated the story.

Waiting has become tedious. Lin encourages Manna to find a suitable partner, someone who is not fettered by a wife who refuses to let go of a husband who is never around.

While Lin is careful to never break a party rule as far as his relationship is concerned, he does break party rules by reading books that would be considered pandering to capitalist degradations. He covers his books with dust jackets that hide the titles —if you don't see something it isn't there. So while Lin will take no risks with Manna, he is willing to risk his career and possibly his comforts for his books. Manna can't really understand why Lin takes a chance of being publicly denounced for disobedience to party objectives and rules. When she had practically begged him to make love to her he refused because of the party rules and regulations.

After eighteen years a man does not need his wife to agree to a divorce. The divorce is granted and Lin is free to marry Manna. He brings his ex-wife to the city and sets her up in one of the dormitories in the city and the army helps his daughter get a job in a match factory. He continues, as he's done for years, to give Shuyu a monthly stipend.

After waiting eighteen years Manna and Lin cannot settle into a comfortable life. Lin misses his privacy and Manna, who in time becomes pregnant and delivers twin boys, finds her life with Lin not what she anticipated.

Waiting is about more than two people delaying their happiness. It also touches upon life under a totalitarian government where private lives are not private and the slightest infraction may have dire consequences. Under those circumstances Lin and others take risks by owning and reading western books. Books are inherently dangerous and the ownership of some of the titles would not be acceptable to the Stalin regime—yet the loss of the books represents a greater loss.

Take a Chance Challenge
I spotted someone reading this book at our local coffee shop. Since I'm taking a course on China and hadn't read Waiting, it was a fortuitous case of spying.

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