A young recent Chinese immigrant can barely make ends meet and yet she's hounded by her younger sister back home about money to pay for a new car. A lonely, isolated musician takes comfort in the antics of his girlfriend's parakeet, a bird he later rescues to the surprise of everyone. Meanwhile in a contemporary Chinese-American family, young children decide to change their names so that they might sound more "American", largely ignorant to how their decision offsets generations of cultural heritage. At a small liberal arts college, an Asian professor of English, though of Chinese nationality, attempts to formally defect into the US with the reluctant aid of a student. And in the cramped quarters of an urban city dwelling, a young male sweatshop worker tries to get along with his three female roommates, all prostitutes.
Everyone struggles in Ha Jin's world. Some struggle with a desire to remain loyal to tradition and stave off the temptations to indulge in the more opportunistic freedom while others fight just to keep their newfound 'freedom' their own. Of course the ideas of tradition and liberty are themselves dubious constructs in Jin's world where freedom often implies abandonment and opportunity can just as easily mean hopelessness as it does aspiration. Jin's style is fairly minimalist, given to describing people and places with limited characterizations and without elaborative descriptions and his stories are sometimes more snapshot images or sparse vignettes of characters than scenarios with actual story-archs. His overarching premise is telling though. All his characters seem to exist in permanent disillusionment, not only from their difference in physical location but from their very sense of self and identity where their emotional universe has become as limited as their physical surroundings and their living conditions as disorienting as their inner conscious. (FIC JIN)